Microsoft is looking for a few thousand good people to participate in the SQL Server 2000 Service Pack 2 (SP2) technical beta program. Last week, I talked with Microsoft's James Morris about the upcoming release of SQL Server 2000 SP2. Morris, a program manager on the SQL Server development team, is responsible for managing SQL Server product releases. According to Morris, the release process for SP2 is interesting for two reasons. First and foremost, Microsoft is launching several initiatives with this release to help unite the global SQL Server community. Second, actively participating in the SQL Server 2000 SP2 beta will put you on the fast track for acceptance into the first technical beta program for Yukon, the next major SQL Server release.

SQL Server 2000 SP2 will be publicly available in mid-October, but the technical beta is available now. Like most service packs, SQL Server 2000 SP2 won't add new features; it will incorporate bug fixes.

You can register to participate in the technical beta until shortly before the commercial version of SP2 ships. Microsoft hopes to recruit at least 5000 active beta participants who will work with the beta, provide feedback, and report bugs. The company hopes that at least 15 to 20 percent of these participants will come from outside the United States. In the past, Microsoft recruited beta testers from known channels such as large Independent Software Vendors (ISVs), consulting partners, and the company's largest managed customers. Microsoft will continue to work with those channels, but Morris said that the company is making a concerted effort to create a sense of community by letting users from smaller companies participate in this and all future SQL Server betas. "With SP2, we are trying to do everything we can to pull our SQL Server community together," he explained. "It's my job to get the right people involved, which includes people who are interested in testing and are excited about what we're doing with SQL Server."

Microsoft experimented with a wide enrollment beta when it shipped SQL Server 2000 SP1. For that beta, the company solicited feedback from previously untapped resources and made it easier for individuals from both small and large companies to enroll in the program. To spice things up, the company offered prizes for users who reported the most bugs in certain categories. Morris said the prize inducements produced richer and more accurate feedback, which helped Microsoft develop a more stable product. Because the first experiment went so well, the company plans to make even more prizes available for this round of beta testing. The prizes aren't fancy or expensive (think along the lines of an "I stomped a SQL Server bug" T-shirt). But the prizes make the beta process a little more fun for the people involved.

Morris noted that the SQL Server development team will follow up with each participant who submits a bug. The team will notify beta testers when it has addressed the bug they submitted so that the testers don't feel like they're shouting into a black hole.

According the Morris, Microsoft hopes to cultivate a stable base of beta testers who have shown their commitment to the product. What does that mean for you? Testers who make valid contributions to the SQL Server SP2 beta will be on a fast track for entry in the SQL Server Yukon technical beta, which will ship sometime next year. The SP2 beta will give you early access to the next release of SQL Server—a strong incentive for SQL Server professionals.

Not interested in a T-shirt or preferred access to the Yukon beta? Then perhaps you're interested in official recognition from Microsoft. Morris said that the company will write letters of thanks to star performers' employers.

Still not interested? Microsoft will also invite SQL Server 2000 SP2 beta testers to participate in several private support Webcasts that will explore interesting SQL Server topics not directly related to the service pack release. Morris said that Microsoft treated past service pack beta participants to in-depth presentations about query processing, merge replication, and data mining.

Getting involved with the technical beta program is a great way to learn more about SQL Server and help make it a better product. You can apply for the program on the Microsoft BetaPlace Web site. Enter sql2000SP2 for the user name and SIGNMEUP (case sensitive) for the password. The site will prompt you to fill out a brief questionnaire about your plans for the beta program, and Microsoft will contact you directly if you qualify.