In-Depth

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.

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 try.

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 Gilley.

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 says.

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 think."

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 (mpscoi@microsoft.com). "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.

More Information

Making 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 solutions.

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 forward.”

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 of users.

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 to askeec@microsoft.com.

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

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