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Microsoft's dog-food dietitian

Rick Devenuti, Microsoft's chief information officer, explains to CNET News.com why his department has become a live testing ground for all the company's beta products.

Microsoft's technology dietitians offer employees only one item on the menu: dog food. That's because the software maker has a philosophy known internally as "eating our own dog food," referring to the common practice of running beta, or test, software throughout the organization.

The whole dog food concept has never been more important to Microsoft or potentially difficult. The Redmond, Wash.-based company now has more enterprise software testing at one time than perhaps any other time in its history. Testing products include: Exchange Server 2003, Office 2003 and Real-Time Communications Server, SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and Windows Messenger 5, among others.

CNET News.com spoke with Rick Devenuti, Microsoft's chief information officer, about the practice and how it affects the company.

Q: Where does this dog food concept come from?
A: That really goes back to the desire that we know how our products are going to work before we ship them and really test them in a way that can't be done in a lab.

Microsoft certainly has a lot of software testing right now.
This is a pretty interesting time. We just finished rolling out Windows Server 2003, which for us as an IT organization is the accumulation of about two years of work from the first bit of code we played with. And we're rolling out Titanium--the next version of Exchange--and the next version of Office. Today, all but one of our Exchange servers is running Titanium, and we have about 40,000 clients running the next version of Office.

OK, so what would be the cost-savings from moving to these newer products?
We haven't finished the costing, but let me give you a scenario. We have Exchange servers worldwide...The cost-savings will be hundreds of thousands of dollars around reducing servers that would have been upgraded, reducing bandwidth, and we're going to be able to reduce the maintenance and backup of those servers. Once you get Exchange Server out, you can look at all the other servers at those remote sites, which opens the door for further consolidation down the road.

Certainly there are advantages to running programs like Office 2003 ahead of their release. But what about the disadvantages?
I think it's a core competency of my group to understand when to roll (the product) out and where to roll it out. We didn't embark on this charter without lots of discussions at the executive level, about why it's the right thing to do. Essentially, should we give up trying to get the next line of availability by bringing beta software into the day-to-day work environment? We have great support from the executive staff, but I wouldn't say that support goes all the way down to every individual in the company when they're trying to get their job done and things don't work. We still have a $30 billion company to run.

I assume you don't distribute beta software companywide all at once. What's your strategy?
We roll out (beta software) in a pretty disciplined way. We have a small dog food environment of about 400 users where we roll out code

We will be eliminating from our standards list all thin notebooks in favor of tablet.
on a very regular basis. It's sort of undisciplined, rolling out new code as soon as it's ready to see what happens. The only clients on there are the product groups that write that (code). So there's self-inflicted pain, if you will.

Once we get to a (testing) build that meets a certain quality, we move it into an environment we call WinDeploy. WinDeploy has about 3,000 users in it. We test it before we put it in, and then we run it against that user base...Once we get through WinDeploy with adequate stability, we'll roll it into the (work) environment. Where we roll it in depends on the product. Taking Office as an example, we have to understand how that's going to interact with all line of business apps before it goes out...It wasn't until beta 2 of Office (2003) that we went very broad and moved the population up from about 10,000 to 40,000.

What do you see as some of the biggest technology changes you are making at Microsoft?
There are two things. Everything we do today is scenario-based instead of technology-based. When we first started the dog food (program), we rolled the technology out there to see if the technology worked. Today, we roll out the product against defined scenarios with the product group that have to work before the product can ship.

So what are the key ones under test?
In terms of technologies, tablet (PC) is a big one for us. We've already rolled out wireless networks across our LAN (local area network). We're looking for a new type of user productivity through paperless meetings and using STS (SharePoint Team Services) as sites to hold documents to increase our collaboration and increase the effectiveness of meetings. We have an initiative within the IT organization around employee productivity--not IT employees but Microsoft employees. We think the tablet plays a big role in that. In fact, we will be eliminating from our standards list all thin notebooks in favor of tablet. We'll still have the big, multimedia notebooks. But in terms of thin notebooks, we want tablet (PCs) in their hands.

During the Windows Server 2003 launch, (Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer touted the benefits of SharePoint Services and about 12,000 team sites. That's not a management problem for you?
In terms of cost, when SharePoint was first introduced about three years ago, manageability was a problem for us...Now things are different. One of the things we asked the product group was to make saving to SharePoint as easy as saving to your hard drive. It's as cheap on a per-gigabyte basis as file-sharing.