Proving ground

Microsoft partners test products, showcase offerings at new center.

MicroLink officials used to count on finding customers brave enough to take a risk and buy the company's products without being sure they would work. With little money to test products, finding risk-takers was the only way they could create a track record for the software.

The small firm specializes in add-ons for Microsoft products and usually could not afford to have a third party test them to vouch for their usability.

"We would go untested, and then find a customer that would be the guinea pig," said James Justice, senior vice president of the Microsoft Group at MicroLink. "Or we'd do our own internal testing, which doesn't have the credibility of a third-party endorsement."

Either way, it could take time to get new products out into the market, he said. "Larger companies can do more of that on their own," Justice said. "For smaller companies, to even think about launching a new product may be unfeasible."

Microsoft officials have changed the landscape for MicroLink and similar companies by opening the Microsoft Technology Center at the company's Reston, Va., office. The center's main purpose is to enable customers to test combinations of technologies and find solutions to their problems.

Microsoft has five similar technology centers in other cities nationwide and six in other countries, said Joe Bennett, director of the center. The Reston center will serve the federal government market.

"Where it makes sense, we're trying to build vertical expertise," he said. The Reston facility will serve public-sector customers and the businesses that market to them. Microsoft products, particularly the company's e-mail, operating systems and the Office software suite, are widely used in the government.

Agency officials will use the center as they make technology choices. Microsoft offers three broad uses for the center, Bennett said. Strategy briefings typically take one day and come early in the customer'sdecision-making cycle. Architecture design sessions take two to three days, including analysis and identification of a customer's needs. Finally, a company's proof-of-concept workshops can last several weeks.

What's good for Microsoft is also good for small businesses that work with the computer giant, and the center can give customers confidence before signing a contract that the proposed solutions will work.

As a Microsoft-certified partner, MicroLink uses the facility at no charge, Justice said. That allows developers to perform large-scale software tests on a variety of hardware platforms provided by the hardware partners.

For example, one new MicroLink product is a set of plug-ins for Microsoft e-mail — one for Outlook on the user side and one for the back-end Exchange server — that enhances users' ability to manage e-mail attachments.

Using hardware at the technology center, employees were able to simulate an environment of many users, showing that the tools continue to work properly even on a much larger scale, Justice said.

The Microsoft center is similar in some respects to the Sun Microsystems iForce Center that Sun opened in Northern Virginia last year. Manager Kathy Sebuck said the center is usually at about 80 percent capacity, and company officials may consider expanding it when the new fiscal year begins this summer.

"We've hosted over 80 engagements since Oct. 1," 2004, she said. "We've seen the majority of our engagements lean toward the federal side, but we've seen some commercial activity as well."

The iForce Center has gained popularity through word of mouth, and Sebuck said she is satisfied with the awareness that has been generated. Some of the enterprise's aspects have surprised her, she added.

"We're seeing our engagements are more on the order of one to two weeks, when we had thought it might be more like four to six," she said.

Such centers are a relatively unusual offering for the federal market, said John Ortego, president of Ortego and Associates. However, as more come on line, customers and industry partners are likely to find them valuable, he said.

"I can see it adding value and benefit" for the company that offers it, he said. The more flexibility the centers allow with regard to the technology brands that users can bring to the equation, the more useful they will be, he said.

Heavy metal

The new Microsoft Technology Center in Reston, Va., managed by Joe Bennett, left, offers the company's partners and customers a wide array of hardware to test or demonstrate software. The hardware roster includes:

  • 54 Dell and Hewlett-Packard servers.
  • Two mainframe-class Unisys systems.
  • Storage systems from EMC, Dell, HP and Xiotech.
  • Cisco Systems switches.
  • APC Silicon power management.
  • Tablet PCs and Windows Mobile-based handheld devices.
  • Source: Microsoft

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