Beta testing can provide good training for service and support staff, familiarizing them with new software and thus making adoption of the final release easier. Beta testing can give you an early hint whether new software complies with existing hardware. Testing can prepare you for migrating from one network operating system to another by giving you practice with administration and installation. Finally, beta testers can often request features that are not currently supported or highlight operations that are particularly vexing.
Beta releases, however, can be unpredictable and potentially harm existing networks. One of my Netware servers crashed frequently after I installed a beta tape backup program. While the core operating system was not changed, support files were modified. The installation replaced a critical Netware Loadable Module (NLM) with a buggy version. Carefully record the state of your system's files prior to any installations. Novell's free Netware configuration utility, Config.NLM, is an ideal tool for this task.
Workstations are equally susceptible to damage. One reader shared his story of problems with a test of a popular application suite. "There were problems with certain drivers and I wanted to get rid of the beta application. However, there was no uninstall capability for the product!" He needed to rebuild his system from scratch to rid it of the offending code. Dedicate some systems to avoid these problems.
If you're going to test pre-release software, take some sensible precautions. Isolate the systems you use for beta testing from your production network to guard against unintended effects of running beta products. You can transform a small office or unused cubicle into a complete testing laboratory. Equip it with a hub and a few systems and invite actual users to try the new products. IT professionals are rarely as deeply involved with applications as the ones they support. Never simply drop a new product on a user desktop and assume that the IT staff caught all the potential issues during testing.
Never include beta products in critical production systems that demand stability. One company I supported attempted to use a beta release of a version control system to manage its programming efforts. Although the product's features were compelling, crashes and other problems made it unreliable. The serious loss of productivity made for an expensive lesson.
If you're interested in deploying beta products within your organization, it's easy to get started. If your company relies on a particular product, contact the vendor and offer to participate in a testing program. Windows shops can investigate getting a Microsoft Technet Plus subscription, which ships subscribers monthly CD-ROMs of Microsoft beta products and evaluation tools for $449 for a single-user license.
Vendors find beta testing valuable only when they get quality input from those performing tests. If you take on the responsibility of testing beta products, be faithful in giving feedback to the vendor.
Remember that not all features available with beta software may actually be included in shipping products. Faced with stability concerns and other issues, vendors may delete features, postpone them for future service updates, or sell them as separate option packages.
Nevertheless, beta testing can help you anticipate support, installation, and training requirements, saving you time and expense later on. Early familiarity with new product releases can be a big help in the adoption of critical new technologies.
Neil Plotnick is the author of the IT Professional's Guide to Managing Systems, Vendors and End-Users. He welcomes your questions and comments at Neil@NeilPlotnick.com.