High-Tech Test Beds
Microsoft's sophisticated demonstration labs can be ideal settings for testing solutions -- and closing deals. Getting in isn't easy, though. Here's what you need to know.
- By Rich Freeman
- January 01, 2006
When it comes to mission-critical applications, seeing is believing.
So before committing to a new Microsoft-based integration solution,
Health Alliance Medical Plans Inc., an Urbana, Ill.-based health
insurer covering more than 225,000 people, sent five members of
its IT department to the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) in downtown
Chicago for a two-week proof-of-concept study.
Two days later, the group had built and successfully tested a fully
functional reference implementation of the proposed solution. Before
they could even get acquainted with Chicago's legendary blues clubs,
the Health Alliance staffers were back home at company headquarters
readying a production deployment.
The Chicago MTC is one of many Microsoft facilities around the
world designed to help customers -- and partners -- envision, architect
and test complex solutions. Think of them as the world's coolest
sandboxes. Need to turn an interesting proposal into a concrete
design, or bring an impressive-looking diagram to three-dimensional
life and see if it actually works? For the right customer with the
right needs, these are the places to do it.
If you're unfamiliar with these centers, don't worry. You're not
alone. Their existence is no secret, but Microsoft doesn't publicize
them much either. All told, the facilities handle about 1,250 engagements
a year, and even without promotion, demand for access tends to exceed
supply. Getting your customer through the door is possible though,
provided you know how to go about it and when it makes sense to
Beyond Cool Stuff
According to Tom Morrill, practice lead for sales and channel
effectiveness at management consultant PRTM, many tech firms show
off their capabilities at a "center of excellence," but
facilities as sophisticated as Microsoft's are rare.
Partners should take advantage, Morrill advises, though only when
they have a thoroughly qualified customer with a specific concern.
If "you're just paying people to go down and do some cool stuff,
you're wasting your time," he says. "If you're serious
and the customer is serious, then it's well worth it."
Analyst Paul DeGroot, of research firm Directions on Microsoft,
concurs. Testing an application on an ad hoc basis can entail bigger
investments in personnel and equipment than many firms are willing
to make. Leveraging Microsoft's resources "basically takes
a lot of the risk out of this from both the partner and the customer
point of view," he says.
DeGroot cautions customers and partners to remember that a solution
developed or validated at a Microsoft lab "is probably going
to contain a very high proportion of Microsoft software. Maybe that
isn't always the best solution for you ."
Acceleration and Mitigation
Each of the 13 MTCs feature an Envisioning Center that offers
demos of Microsoft and partner solutions. The MTCs (five of which
are in the United States) also contain private, secure development
suites linked to as many as 150 servers, up to 40TB of storage,
a complete collection of Microsoft products and a library of third-party
applications. Microsoft consultants are on hand as well.
"We have deep Microsoft expertise, but we also have access
to partners that complement what Microsoft has to offer or possibly
have expertise in a vertical," says Adam Hecktman, director
of the Chicago MTC.
MTCs offer three types of engagements: one-day Strategy Briefings,
in which customers view demos tailored to their business needs;
three- to five-day Architecture Design Sessions, in which Microsoft
consultants help customers turn a solution proposal into a detailed
system architecture; and multi-week, Proof-of-Concept Workshops,
in which Microsoft experts and a customer's technical staff build
and test a solution prototype.
"The whole idea is to help customers accelerate their time
to market and mitigate risk," says Hecktman. By the time a
customer leaves an MTC, "we've saved them money by reducing
the amount of development they have to do and mitigated risk."
Mike Gilley, a solutions sales and alliance manager at Hewlett-Packard
Co., says that using an MTC "can make a very significant positive
impact" on an opportunity. Timing is important though.
"My experience is that the most effective time to use it is
up front in credentializing a solution with a customer," says
Collectively, the U.S. MTCs conduct 1,000 engagements each year.
Determining which customers get one of those coveted slots is a
collaborative process involving MTC staff, Microsoft account teams
and Partner Account Managers (PAMs). Hecktman counsels partners
interested in bringing a customer to an MTC to contact their PAM.
But be forewarned: not every opportunity qualifies.
"We focus on where we think we can make a significant impact
on a customer's business," says Hecktman. "Those typically
tend to be enterprise customers."
Another factor to consider is that, with rare exceptions, every
MTC engagement must align with a supported Microsoft Go-to-Market
(GTM). The list changes annually, but it currently includes the
connected systems, integration, portals and business intelligence
GTMs, along with a segment of the operational efficiency GTM and
several Microsoft Dynamics GTMs.
Still, when used correctly, an MTC visit can be a powerful sales
tool, which is undoubtedly why the facilities are so popular.
No Vaporware Here
MTCs have their limits. Say, for example, you want to test
an application on 200 servers and 300 clients, as one Microsoft
customer recently did. For projects that big, you need the Microsoft
Partner Solutions Center (MPSC), a sort of MTC on steroids located
at Microsoft's corporate headquarters. Opened in 1998 and moved
to its present, expanded facility in 2000, the MPSC is bigger than
an MTC in every way, from its 21,000 square feet of floor space
to its more than 800 servers and 150TB of raw storage.
Much like the MTCs, the MPSC has an Envisioning Center and space
for up to eight simultaneous lab engagements. It also houses Microsoft's
Global ISV Solution Showcase and Communications Sector Solution
Showcase, demonstration rooms running a variety of giant messaging,
collaboration and infrastructure systems. Every exhibited solution
is fully operational and can be "sold to a customer and deployed
to customers today," says Jon Schmitz, the group partner manager
in charge of the MPSC. "None of it is vaporware."
In addition, the MPSC contains three state-of-the-art training
rooms, as well as the only Pearson VUE certification-testing center
on the Microsoft campus.
More than 40 sponsoring partners -- nominated by Microsoft's Developer
and Platform Evangelism group and including names like HP, Electronic
Data Systems Corp. and SAP AG -- maintain offices in the MPSC. In
exchange for an annual fee, sponsoring partners get full use of
the facilities, among other benefits. According to Maxime Albi,
director of Microsoft lines for sponsoring partner Citrix Systems
Inc., it's a good deal. The MPSC is "a great venue for us to
bring executives and just show them the possibilities," he
Mike Ritz, business development manager for sponsoring partner
Quest Software Inc., agrees. "When I say [to a customer], 'I've
got 600 servers. How many do you think we would need to approximate
your environment,' that's a pretty impressive statement." Simply
having a full-time presence at Microsoft's HQ is equally impressive,
Ritz adds. "We're able to demonstrate to our customers a more
meaningful relationship with Microsoft than they might otherwise
Still, Ritz acknowledges that issues can arise when using the MPSC.
"One of the requirements we have is that it's typically going
to take two weeks to schedule the hardware, and although we would
love to say that that's a reasonable amount of time, it isn't always,"
he notes. Additionally, says Ritz, "it is more of a challenge
to get a customer here the farther they are from Redmond."
Just the same, Ritz says Quest is "pretty happy with what we've
been able to accomplish."
The MPSC runs between 60 and 100 in-depth engagements a year, most
of them initiated by Microsoft's sales force or a sponsoring partner.
But while space is limited and access far from guaranteed, Schmitz
encourages interested partners to e-mail the MPSC (firstname.lastname@example.org).
"We'll figure out how to service them," he says.
In addition, anyone can rent the three training rooms and their
top-flight equipment, subject to availability, for $1,000 a day.
Most customers and partners who have been to the MTCs or the MPSC,
though, will tell you that it's worth the wait.
"We're always looking for places to put the next MTC,"
notes Hecktman of the Chicago MTC, who predicts that no matter how
many Microsoft builds, it will never be too many. "It's like
a gas," he says. "The demand will expand to fit the container.
Sure Those Visios Work
The Microsoft Technology
Centers and Microsoft Partner Solutions Center
are pre-sale resources, meant to help Microsoft
and its partners land new customers.
The Enterprise Engineering Center (EEC), however,
is where customers already committed to the Microsoft
platform go to validate their newest and biggest
For example, before the Kentucky Office of Education
Technology kicked off an epic transfer of 700,000
users from 4,000 servers running Windows NT to
approximately 400 servers running Windows Server
2003, it spent a week at the EEC searching for
flaws in its 11-page, 48-step migration plan.
“You don’t want to come here to develop
your solution,” says Group Program Manager
Bryce Milton, who manages the EEC. “You
want to come here to test that solution before
you deploy it. This is where we make sure those
Visios actually work before you start messing
with your production environment.”
A typical engagement in one of the EEC’s
five labs draws heavily on pre-release Windows
Server System software and lasts about two weeks.
Feedback from customers indicates that it’s
time well spent. In exit surveys, Milton says,
“customers reported that, on average, two
weeks at the EEC saved them 7.4 months in the
deployment cycle. When I actually talked with
them about it, the response was generally along
the lines that getting all of the players into
one facility and not letting them out until they
got a solution was a huge way of moving things
Located one floor above the MPSC, with which
it shares some hardware, the EEC is similarly
massive, featuring 500 servers, roughly as many
clients and 200TB of storage.
All of that IT firepower makes the EEC an ideal
setting for testing the outer limits of what Microsoft
products can do.
“Earlier this year, we helped a government
agency simulate [Systems Management Server] at
the half-million client level,” says Milton.
“That was something that hadn’t even
been achieved in testing by the SMS group.”
Many of the 150 customers who use the EEC every
year are enrolled in one of Microsoft’s
early adopter programs. Not surprisingly, most
are large organizations too.
“The vast majority of our customers are
Global 2000-, Fortune 100-type customers,”
reports Milton. “We also do some small and
medium business engagements,” he continues,
but in those “we’re looking for some
element of scale that goes beyond one particular
customer account,” such as the need to test
a hosted application that will serve many thousands
Milton advises partners who wish to use the EEC
to work through their customer’s Microsoft
account team, but they can also send e-mail requests
Just be sure to think well ahead. “The
more lead time you have, the better shot you’ll
have of getting onto the calendar,” says
Milton, who warns that “you’re going
to have a difficult time getting onto the calendar
in less than six months.” -- Rick Freeman