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As the daily debate over whether to spin another build goes on in the shiproom, other teams spend their days putting the latest builds through their paces.
Until recently, Microsoft has issued a new internal release of Vista every day. That's a grueling process. Typically, its servers start cranking away at the raw code around 7 p.m., compiling it through the night, with the goal of releasing the new build by early afternoon the next day.
Down the hall from shiproom, Windows unit employees can pick up the latest builds. About 500 people pick up a DVD with new code in person each day, with many more getting the code over the network, and some even bringing their home machines into the office.
That list includes rank-and-file Windows employees, as well as some of the company's top brass. Allchin and his technical assistant, for example, are still trying to find bugs that the servers and development teams have missed.
"I'm doing video calls with my mom in Boston," Allchin said. "I'm doing remote assistance to jump into a machine, and then I 'remote desktop' from that machine to another machine."
Elsewhere, Allchin is testing a multimonitor set-up with four displays, including some in portrait mode. Paul Donnelly, who manages part of Microsoft's Vista test operation, has been doing the same thing for some time. As the finalization deadline has neared, he has added more systems to his office. As of last week, he had nine machines crammed into his office. He is among those who nearly always picks up the daily build.
"Pretty much every day since at least May 2005, I think I have installed on some machine," he said.
Donnelly, who tinkers with old cars and classic pinball machines in his spare time, said that he tries to do the opposite of what an IT manager would recommend.
He changes all the default settings, for instance. And instead of testing a clean installation on a new machine, he'll try to upgrade an older model.
"You find bugs," he said, "You absolutely find bugs that way." Luckily, he said, it is getting harder and harder to find issues that aren't already on the radar screen and being addressed.
"We're on watch right now...keeping an eye on things to make sure that we haven't missed anything," he said. "I haven't had any 'heart attack' issues arrive in the last few months."
But Vista's fortitude does not depend solely on the watchful eyes of Windows veterans like Allchin and Donnelly.
With each day's build, Microsoft is running a battery of automated tests against around 1,000 of the leading software programs. It has written 750,000 lines of code just to create the test patterns, which take 355 servers the better part of the day to run.
"Our job is to try and break the apps and find the bugs," said Mike Kirby, who runs the automated test lab. These days, though, the team is just hoping that each day's build doesn't bring up any new bugs.
In another building, individual software and device makers have their own private offices, where they can work on their own Vista-related issues. One of the key areas for Microsoft, beyond finishing its code, is getting hardware and software makers to get their products ready for the new operating system. To make that as attractive as possible, it has created a building on its campus just for them: the Platform Adoption Center, better known inside the company as the "high-touch" lab. The building, one of the hippest on Microsoft's largely bland campus, offers an inviting atmosphere with private offices, a lounge with a Xbox 360 game console and plenty of munchies.
"We try to keep them well-fed and well-caffeinated," said Dave Wascha, who helps lead Microsoft's effort to make sure other software makers have their products ready to go when Vista ships.
The companies that come also get their own rooms that lock with a code combination that only they know. They can use PCs from Microsoft, or bring their own machines. Either way, the computers can connect directly to the Internet without going through Microsoft's network.
"Essentially, this is their office," Wascha said.
The center has been home to 16,000 people since 2004, and is booked solid every week. It has been home to Microsoft's traditional partners as well as some of its fiercest rivals, many of whom did not want to be named.
One rival that has been public about the hand it received from Microsoft is the Mozilla Foundation, creator of the Firefox browser. In August, the open-source software maker accepted an offer of help from Microsoft.
Another rival that credits Microsoft for helping it get Vista-ready is AOL. The Internet services provider went through the Redmond lab in July, while Microsoft engineers traveled to AOL's campus in Dulles, Va., in August and September.
"We worked through a ton of issues," said Julie McCool, the AOL vice president who manages the team that handled the Vista work. One of the many efforts the two companies worked together on was coming up with a way to let customers get a Vista-friendly version of AOL's software when they stick an older CD into a new PC. In the end, the companies figured out a way to alert people that the CD they pulled off a two-year-old magazine doesn't have the Vista version and to get that software from the Web instead.
McCool said that AOL has continued to meet weekly with Microsoft. Initially, the company had plenty of bugs it was working through, but in recent weeks it has been smooth sailing. "I don't think we had any big surprises in the past week," McCool said.
Eating their own dogfood
Microsoft's own work force is a key arbiter of whether a release is ready to go out the door. About 60,000 machines inside Microsoft are running Vista as part of the company's "dogfooding" process.
CIO Ron Markezich signed off last week, saying that Vista had met his goals--a step that has to happen before a product can leave Redmond.
"It's totally ready to go," Markezich said.
Microsoft is trying to do a better job with the final testing of Vista than it has in past versions of Windows. "We have to learn from ourselves," Donnelly said. "We don't have the ability to go to somebody bigger than us and go, 'What were the problems with your last release?'"
Donnelly, who has been at the company since Windows NT 3.5, said he remembers an early NT release over a Labor Day that was particularly hairy. "I just remember the pizza boxes stacking up in the kitchenettes," he said.
There's urgency, but no panic this time, he said: "You just don't see people running around like crazy."
Microsoft has long touted the power management features in Windows Vista. Apparently, the development team for the operating system also works pretty well on battery power.
Last Friday, as Microsoft was scrambling to ensure there were no problems with the latest Vista build, the power went out in Buildings 26 and 27, home to a good chunk of the Windows development team.
In an e-mail to the team, Windows boss Jim Allchin made it clear that no power was "no excuse" for not getting the final testing work done. "If you're in an area that has no power, find some place to continue to work until power is restored," Allchin wrote. "We're almost there. Nothing has stopped us before, and this isn't going to stop us either!"
The outage did knock several labs in the building offline, including the one that cranks out new builds of Windows. Luckily, the company didn't need to spin a new build that day.
"The burn lab is continuing to hand out DVDs, so come get one if you need to get work done," Allchin said.
Behind the scenes for Vista
Photos from Redmond, where Microsoft is working hard to get the Windows update out of the door. November 8, 2006
Vista gets the shutter bug
The photo-importing wizard in Windows Vista has raised concerns. October 24, 2006
Security tweaks in Vista
Release Candidate 2 version lets people turn off feature. October 13, 2006
Power plans in Vista
Managing the drain on your laptop battery.June 2, 2006
Vista's got game
Taking advantage of 3D graphics and other features.March 21, 2006
Looking inside Vista
A peek at the Windows Vista Sidebar feature.February 2, 2006
CNET Reviews: Vista slide show
Get a look at Vista features and screenshots. January 5, 2006
Editor: Karen Said
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Kristina Wood
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