Since I've become a Release Manager at Microsoft, I've learned a lot about what it actually takes to "ship" software. From the development team's point of view, the big celebration is when our software is "released" (often abbrievated as RTM or RTW). RTM = Release to Manufacturing, or the process of making CDs, putting them in a box, and then getting them out to customers. RTW = Release to Web, which is making something available for download.

SBS SP1 was a little unique in that we did both an RTM and RTW. But I thought it might be fun to explain what happens after the team signs off on the software (besides partying, getting drunk, making a mess, and forcing the carpet to get replaced in the hallway...) Part of this is because a lot of people on the development team couldn't tell you what happens after RTM, but it's pretty interesting and also helps explain why CDs aren't just magically available the day after we ship.

For physical media (like CDs or DVDs) the shipping process has to start about 6-9 months ahead of time. I sit down with our operations team, who coordinates with our manufacturing team and guide techy folks like me through all the steps of manufacturing something. I'll tell you right now - I have a lot more respect for anyone involved in manufacturing than I ever imagined. It's the most incredibly detailed, minute, and honestly, anal process I've had to walk through, but considering the number of parts and steps they have to walk through in order to manufacture a box, it has to be.

So, we sit down with our operations folks and walk through what we want to do. For SBS SP1, this was fairly simple in that we weren't doing something entirely new, just modifying the existing SBS 2003 kits, so we had a pretty good baseline to start with. None of the artwork on the box changed, really all we were doing was changing the CDs and the book inside, and then putting a sticker on the front that says "Includes Service Pack 1". You'd think that would be pretty simple. :-)

Well first, you have to determine which CDs are changing. Are any staying the same? You wouldn't want to re-create a CD if you didn't have to. Each new CD then gets a part number, which is a unique identifier of that software CD that can be re-used in different kits or boxes (something like X09-12345). If you look closely at anything shipped from Microsoft, in fine print you'll probably find the part number.

For a single CD offering, like MS Money, that's not too big a deal - you have maybe 4-5 CDs for all of your different offerings. But if you think through something like SBS, the numbers start to get really big. Think of it this way:

SBS Standard Edition = 5 CDs
SBS Premium Edition = Standard + 2 = 7 CDs
Then multiple that by the number of different offerings we have: Evaluation Kit, OEM, Retail (7*3 = 21)
Now add in Windows for Small Business Server (1), the Transition Pack (Std and Pre - 2), the OEM PreInstallation Kit CD (1) and you're up to 25 CDs just to re-create what we shipped in SBS 2003. Notice we haven't created any CDs for the Service Pack itself.

So, add in 3 CDs for SP1, and you're up to 28 CDs. Oops, forgot the DVD, didn't you? 30 (2 parts for the DVD, one for the DVD itself and the other for the DLT that is used to make the DVD).

So we have 30 different piece of software that we need to make sure our accounted for, and this is just for English! Now multiple this number by 18 languages, and you have (30*18 = 540) different software pieces to release!

Fortunately, it gets a little better from here. SBS doesn't ship the Outlook or Frontpage CDs, we simply re-use the ones from Office, so subtract 2. Also, DVD is only provided in 6 languages, so for the other 12 we don't have to worry about that either.

Then, you start to optimize - for example, CDs 3 and 4 are identical between our retail and evaluation edition. So rather then re-create the wheel, you just use the same CD. All told, you get it down to between 17-20 parts, depending on language.

OK, so now we have CDs. But all that covers is the actual software (or ISO) image of the CD. What about that fancy artwork on the CD that tells you what it is (with the hologram and etching and everything?).

Ah ha! Yet another part required! This time, you have to have a different one for each CD. If you look closely at the hologram on your SBS CDs, you'll find a part number on the right hand side, underneath the Disc #. That's the artwork part #. The actual software part # is etched on the inner ring of the CD. This is because some channels (like volume licensing) get different CD artwork than what comes in a retail box, for example. And eval kits and DVDs are also different.

So now we have software parts, artwork parts, doc kit parts (for the new Getting Started Guide), sticker parts, etc. What's next?

Much to our chagrin, we realized that we needed to add a CD to our slipstreamed kits because of the size of new components such as Exchange Server SP1 and XP SP2 (which was way bigger than XP SP1). You'd think that adding a CD would be as simple as just adding a new CD part, right?

Except what happens when the CD container can't hold anymore CDs? We spent about 6 weeks trying to figure out how to shuffle CDs around in the box so we could maintain the best customer experience (where you open up the box and the CDs go in order 1.2.3.4.5) but still protect them during shipping from breaking or cracking. This required us to create some custom manufacturing instructions for how CDs should be placed (which is why the Frontpage CD is now in the same clip as the Getting Started Poster in Premium retail boxes).

OK, so now you have all your parts, languages, and manufacturing instructions? You've got tons of spreadsheets and artwork printouts. How do you make sure you're actually putting this stuff all together right (so you're not putting the artwork for CD4 on CD3 software, or the product key sticker on the right CD sleeve?)

That's right, you get everyone together in a room, with a stack of printouts about 3 inches high, and you have a "BOM review". BOM = Bill of Materials, or the set of instructions for how to assemble something. If you thought dealing with just the CD parts was painful, a BOM review will make you want to consider hari kari.

This is an incredibly tedious exercise of going through a BOM (which may include 40+ parts) and making sure that the parts that our team was responsible for was correct, and in the right order. Caffeeine is a definite requirement for making it out these alive, as is a morbid sense of humor.

OK, so you've got your BOM, you've got your parts, you've got everything ready to go. Now all you need is your software - but we're just getting started.

When we continue, what happens after the ship party.....