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What does Microsoft’s Front Runner program for SQL Server 2005 mean to channel partners, in concrete terms?

For the first time, Embarcadero Technologies is going to be big in Sao Paolo, big in Asia—big in places it could never reach before with its database management technologies.

For its part, Tenrox is on track to get the next release of its project governance and compliance technology to market a whopping six months sooner than the competition.

“That’s what we anticipate,” said Randy Urquhart, Tenrox director of alliances and director of product marketing.

“If everybody were to wait for release of 2005 to start analyzing and developing [database] conversions to go to 2005, it would take quite some time—we estimate six months—because of the many significant changes to the [SQL Server 2005] program.”

Giving ISVs a competitive edge—whether by getting applications to market faster or whether by helping to spread the word internationally with Microsoft’s extensive sales reach—is what the Front Runner program is all about.

Participants must be members of the Microsoft Partner Program to take part in the Front Runner program.

Front Runner participants receive 10 hours of BetaOne Services pre-launch technical support; a VeriTest voucher, worth $800, to take the SQL Server 2005 Platform Test; marketing offerings, including use of the Front Runner stamp and a PR kit; and 200 eligible Front Runner ISVs will receive $5,000 in marketing funds as the cherry on top of it all.

(Microsoft has had ISVs sign up for ISV Royalty Licensing, but since they are still in the process of filling out the required marketing templates, they will receive the $5,000 marketing funds at a later date.)

Embarcadero is the program’s first graduate. It announced on Jan. 30 that its ER/Studio 7.0 tool for enterprise modeling and data analysis had earned the Front Runner status, meaning that the application moved through development almost in lockstep with the launch of SQL Server 2005.

“Embarcadero is excited to support SQL Server 2005 because it’s a leading platform and a significant leap forward,” said Greg Keller, vice president of product management at Embarcadero Technologies, in a statement.

“Achieving Front Runner status enables us to deliver applications to customers within the same timeframe as the launch of SQL Server 2005. As a result of the solution we have developed, we are uniquely positioned to help our customers get the most from their technology investment.”

ISVs say that getting a head start on integration with Microsoft’s next-generation platform is particularly crucial, given the leaps in technology advancement made by the next-generation SQL Server DBMS.

“Just thinking of it from the reporting perspective,” said Randy Urquhart, Tenrox director of alliances and director of product marketing.

“[With SQL Server’s Business Intelligence], with all these reporting and OLAP reporting engines built into SQL Server, we can use those in the product we sell. Instead of having to spend time in research and development trying to build our own engine, the SQL program allows us to do that. … The benefits we get from joining [the Front Runner] program is it allows us to stay on top of the emerging technology.”

In essence, the Front Runner program allows Tenrox to get ahead of its competition by having a Microsoft-certified release that runs on the 2005 platform.

It got to the certification, of course, by having an early and profound peek into what makes SQL Server 2005 tick.

“What our competition doesn’t have, what we have, is advanced knowledge of how SQL Server 2005 works, how we can work with it in our next release, and how we can go to market in our next release, with support for SQL Server 2005,” Urquhart said.

Edwin Badalian, a software architect for Tenrox, said that from his point of view, one of the Front Runner program’s benefits is definitely the technical support.

“You can ask any kind of questions regarding [SQL Server] 2005,” he said. “I you have issues with porting the database, [for example].”

Thus far, Tenrox has only had minor issues with things such as stored procedures, Badalian said. But dealing with even small issues has been eased by the “very good technical support” afforded by the program, he said.

“If there are problems, you hit wasting your time for days trying to figure out what is wrong,” Badalian said.

“These people are professionals, they know about SQL architecture, and they have probably hit the same problems we’re hitting. That definitely helps.”

At this point, Tenrox has gone through with migration of all stored procedures, tables, triggers and so on. Its application now runs on SQL Server 2005. What’s left is to completely test the OLAP or Reporting Services capabilities—a task that it plans to finish up in the coming month.

This was the first time Tenrox participated in such a certification program, so Badalian had little point of reference to compare it to other vendors’ programs, although he said the experience has been “pretty good” for Tenrox.

Standing out.

Embarcadero, on the other hand, has participated in plenty of vendors’ programs, giving the company lots of basis for comparison.

Keller said that what makes Front Runner stand out from programs such as IBM’s or Oracle’s is Microsoft’s “very visible, forward-thinking marketing engine.”

Microsoft was just starting to plug Embarcadero into its marketing engine a few weeks back, but Embarcadero’s previous experience with the company has proved that when the company does its homework, Microsoft’s marketing staff steps up and does its as well.

“The sales force recognizes us, especially in places Microsoft can’t reach,” he said. “[They recognize Embarcadero’s] deep level of database design. We did our homework there, so now Microsoft is turning back to the partner ecosystem. We’ve done or homework, and now this marketing team will do its job to rub our back and say partner community, we recognize” the work partners have put in to SQL Server 2005-reliant products, he said.

Keller was also impressed by the fact that Microsoft used a third party to validate results—something he hasn’t experienced with Oracle or IBM programs.

“IBM and Oracle may be following that paradigm, but I’ve never experienced it,” he said. “This is first I’ve experienced where a third party is involved to keep it clean.”

The importance of certification in a program such as Front Runner is multifaceted to a channel player such as Embarcadero.

For one thing, the Front Runner status is of particular worth to Embarcadero when it comes to underscoring that the company can go deep into a given technology, on top of having breadth of coverage in multiple database platforms.

“We have this immensely wide coverage of database platforms, but one thing we’re also recognized for is not [offering] just a vanilla [technology expertise: one that covers] a lot of databases but doesn’t go very deep,” said Keller.

“It’s exercises in validation programs that show how deeply we get in a given platform. Width of coverage is cool, but the depth we go in these various programs is very compelling.”

Another interesting aspect of validation with SQL Server 2005 in particular relates to a recently finished survey of Embarcadero’s customer base.

Embarcadero surveyed a segment of its user base that amounted to just under 30,000 people.

(As an aside, it had a response rate that pushed 10 percent—an impressive return rate, given that typical survey response rates amount to only some 1 percent to 3 percent of people who don’t delete the survey e-mail, Keller said.)

What it learned from the survey responses Embarcadero found “staggering,” Keller said.

Of all customers surveyed, 60 percent said they had plans that will involve SQL Server 2005—that involves either new development or picking up the platform if they don’t already have it installed.

Of its customers that had SQL Server last year, Embarcadero asked if they planned to add more servers. An astonishing 96 percent responded that they would. Their top pick for the reason behind this was the feature set launched with SQL Server 2005.

The top draws when it came to new features of the combined Embarcadero/SQL Server 2005 technologies were partitioning, including both the restructured schema environment of the database itself, as well as the ability to have sophisticated levels of data portioning, similar to an Oracle or DB2 instance.

The second top feature drawing customers to install more SQL Server instances relates to BI, with Microsoft’s analytic engine.

This all matters deeply to Embarcadero because propagation of SQL Server 2005 instances makes the cash register ring.

“From a financial sense, what this means, if you do the basic math, propagation of more instances will require more and better infrastructure management, which is where Embarcadero comes in to manage the architecture, availability, [etc.],” Keller said.

Finally, one of the biggest pluses of participating in the Front Runner program for Embarcadero is access to Microsoft’s far-reaching marketing tentacles.

“Microsoft is going to expend money to make our product line more visible in places we would typically never get,” Keller said.

“The more work we do, the more work Microsoft does. To the credit of other vendors as well we support, they all have similar programs. But Microsoft in particular seems very aggressive in building this type of ecosystem, meaning their partners, ISVs, folks who can support that type of infrastructure.

“Their marketing engine will get their capabilities in places we couldn’t get. Some of which is international marketing.” That means just about anywhere: from Sao Paolo in Brazil to Asia, Keller said, “Microsoft owns those markets.”

That’s important for a company like Embarcadero, which is looking to grow its international footprint significantly in 2006.

“We have significantly underpenetrated international [reach], so that’s immensely exciting for us,” Keller said.