Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

Microsoft tries to be a more agile software developer.

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John Andrews, CEO of Evans Data, a market research firm focusing on development tools is also sceptical about Microsoft’s agility. Web-centric vendors such as Google and Salesforce.com are both more nimble software developers, he said. Even IBM tops Microsoft in agility.

"I believe Microsoft attempts to do agile programming where possible, but the reality of its situation is that the complexity and size of the code base prevents it from truly implementing that coding process," Andrews said. "Now it's a matter of making itself semi-agile wherever possible."

But Microsoft officials argue that being agile has less to do with shaving some time off a product release schedule than it does with being able to ship higher-quality software in the first release of a product.

Users who hear that kind of talk "may roll their eyes" because of the shipment delay on SQL Server 2008, acknowledged Ted Kummert, a Microsoft vice president who heads database development. "But we are driven by the end-quality we feel we have to deliver, which lives on far after the RTM party we have on campus," he said. The CTP release of SQL Server 2008 last week was the sixth by Kummert's team.

The SQL Server and Visual Studio development teams have switched over completely to CTPs. These interim software builds provide a faster opportunity for user feedback but aren't supported as extensively by Microsoft as full-fledged beta releases. The Windows Server group used a combination of betas and CTPs during the development of Windows Server 2008, according to Microsoft officials.

Banking on increased flexibility Another key element of Microsoft's development process for enterprise products is its Technology Adoption Programs (TAPs), which let companies get extensive hand-holding from the software vendor as they test and then go live with beta or CTP releases in production environments.

Microsoft's customer service and support team manage the TAPs, and the company gathers feedback from participants both in the form of informal comments and more quantitative survey-type data, said Rich Kaplan, a vice president in the customer service unit.

Some users who have worked with the pre-release versions of the latest new products said that they noticed an increase in responsiveness and flexibility from Microsoft.

"Almost everything that we asked for while testing SQL Server 2008 is now in the final product," said Umit Nazlica, database systems manager at Garanti Bank, a banking and financial services firm in Istanbul, that is taking part in the TAP for the new database. For instance, IT staffers at Garanti requested stronger resource management and governance capabilities, as well as data compression and encryption improvements, Nazlica said.

The bank, which runs 140 instances of Microsoft's database with 11TB of data, also participated in the TAP for the current SQL Server 2005 release. The testing process has been much better this time around, according to Nazlica. "We had a lot more time to evaluate the product," he said. "And we were more experienced about how to work directly with the people at Microsoft."

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