On Monday, Microsoft announced the availability of Visual Studio 2005 Beta 2, .NET Framework 2.0 Beta 2, and SQL Server 2005 April Community Technology Preview (CTP). The company also announced the new Microsoft GoLive! License program, which will let customers deploy Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005 Express Edition applications into production now, even though the products haven't been released. Microsoft opened a public Web site where customers can apply to be part of the Technical Adoption Program (TAP) that gives select customers the right to put SQL Server 2005 Standard and Enterprise Edition CTPs into production.

An open letter from Microsoft Senior Vice President Paul Flessner to the SQL Server community says, "Because the SQL Server 2005 April CTP is feature complete, we encourage partners, especially ISVs, to start testing against this version to tune their applications for SQL Server 2005." The letter goes on to describe the programs and SQL Server 2005's current state in more detail. You'll find the full letter and a link to the TAP nomination program at http://lists.sqlmag.com/t?ctl=8306:7B3DB.

Let's explore what this means. Microsoft is giving us the right to use beta software. "Pre-release software" sounds nicer, but a rose by any other name is still beta software. Microsoft says that the April CTP is "feature complete." That means all the features are there, but realistically, if they were all working correctly then this would be a release to manufacturing (RTM) rather than a CTP. Even RTM software doesn't always work; if it did we wouldn't need service packs.

The GoLive! license for SQL Server 2005 Express doesn't provide any guaranteed support. Microsoft has set up newsgroups that will be monitored by Microsoft engineers and there's bound to be plenty of community support, but you can't call Product Support Services (PSS) if you get stuck. Yes, anyone can electronically accept the terms of the GoLive! license and use the Express Edition in production. And yes, the GoLive! license for Standard and Enterprise Editions offered in conjunction with the TAP program will provide PSS support, and anyone can apply to be part of the TAP program. However, note that Microsoft will engage only a select group of early adopters to work with the SQL Server Development Team on testing and deploying SQL Server 2005.

Clearly, most customers shouldn't be using beta software in a production environment, but in some cases it could make great sense. For example, I'm working with one customer who wants to use the new data-mining features in SQL Server 2005 because SQL Server 2000's data-mining capabilities are inferior to SQL Server 2005's. The customer's data would be read-only, the mining interfaces would be exposed to internal analysts but not visible to customers, and the business wouldn't suffer catastrophic problems if the data-mining box simply stopped working for a period of time. It might not be too bad to use the beta software under these circumstances. I say might because part of me shudders at the idea of using beta software in this capacity. It remains to be seen whether the rewards will outweigh the risks.

Why is Microsoft doing this? Honestly, I'm not sure. The GoLive! license says:

"The pre-release software contains time sensitive and pre-release code that is not at the level of performance and compatibility of a final, generally available, product offering and may not operate correctly. Recipient's exercise of any rights under this supplemental license is at recipient's sole discretion and recipient assumes all responsibility for and risk of any and all damages that may result from or in connection with the exercise of such rights, including without limitation the loss of any data or other content."

The license includes plenty of other legalese that lets Microsoft off the hook if you experience a problem, but Microsoft seems to be playing with fire by granting the right to use beta software in production to anyone who knows how to click "Yes, I accept." I can see the value in having a wider TAP program that's controlled by Microsoft and comes with PSS support, and I'm sure many customers will benefit from this option. But Microsoft will still face the wrath of customers who make poor decisions and get burned. What do you think?