Although the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) is perhaps best known as the website for people writing Windows applications, it is actually the name of Microsoft’s complete developer programme. Although the site is an invaluable and free tool for those who write their .NET applications and their ASP websites in text editors such as Notepad, for a relatively modest cost you can join the MSDN subscriber scheme and get developer versions of pretty much everything in the Microsoft world.

With each MSDN subscription you get two main elements. First is the CD or DVD pack that you get when you first sign up, which is updated periodically by Microsoft to keep the various bits up to date. Second is a subscribers-only website from which you can download everything that’s on the CDs/DVDs along with extra stuff that doesn’t get shipped out to you. The main use I put it to, though, is to download software when it’s first released – so there’s no waiting for the jiffy bag through the post.

Service packing
There are various subscriptions to MSDN, catering for different types of developer. At the very bottom of the cost scale is the Library subscription, at around £70, which gives you the documentation library and discs full of patches and service packs. Next is the Operating Systems subscription, costing around £490, which gives you development-only versions of all the Microsoft operating systems ever made – including beta releases of future ones – so you can test your Notepad-originated software on all the relevant platforms before you try to roll them out to the users. Next on the list is Professional, which adds the ‘Pro’ versions of Visual FoxPro, Visual Studio .NET and Visual Studio 6.0 to the mix for an extra £320.

Then comes Enterprise, with a price tag of £1,570, which includes some of the core business applications such as Exchange Server and Commerce Server, and finally the Universal subscription, at £1,990, into which Microsoft simply chucks everything including all of the server applications such as SharePoint and the Content Management Server along with Visio Pro 2002, Office XP Developer, Project 2002 and MapPoint.

The top-end Universal subscription has a couple of extra features. First of all, Universal subscribers are allowed to use one instance of Microsoft Office for general business use (the general terms of the MSDN licence is that all the toys you get are for use in development environments only). Secondly, by spending the extra cash you’re gaining the right to use MS Project and Visio for development purposes, though not for general use (i.e. you can use them for planning software but not for designing your new office layout). In addition to the things you either do or don’t get with each of the subscriptions, you occasionally get different versions of things with different MSDN variants. For instance, MSDN Professional gives you Visual Studio Professional 2003, which is the entry-level commercial release of Microsoft’s core VB/C#/J# IDE. If you go for MSDN Enterprise you get VS Enterprise Developer, which has everything in VS Pro plus Visual Sourcesafe (for revision control) and some analysis tools.

At the top end, MSDN Universal includes VS Enterprise Architect, which adds Visio-based data modelling and some additional BizTalk server components to the feature list of VS Enterprise Developer. If you’re a serious Microsoft developer, it’s almost a no-brainer to join the MSDN scheme. For instance, Visual Studio Enterprise Architect retails at around £1,550, so by the time you add a copy of Microsoft Office XP (around £310 for the basic version) you’re getting close to the price tag of MSDN Universal. Similarly, if you’re going for VS Enterprise Developer, it retails around £1,250 – only £300 quid short of the MSDN Enterprise subscription but without update CDs and whatnot dropping through the door. Admittedly the savings only happen in the first year because MSDN is an annual subscription, but the year 2+ costs are lower than the initial purchase and you get all the upgrades without having to worry about whether you’ll have to pay for them.

MSDN is a worthwhile subscription that is, in my mind, a no-brainer for serious Windows developers. That’s not because Microsoft gave me a journo freebie – I went out and paid real, hard cash for my Universal subscription a few months ago. What you get is the ability to develop your code with an IDE that’s among the best we’ve ever seen and then test it on development-only versions of all of the server OSes and Microsoft server apps that you want. No more hoping it works – you can test it and find out.

OUR VERDICT

Check the features list at http://msdn.microsoft.com/subscriptions/prodinfo/levels.asp and see which bits you need, and then compare the price with buying the retail versions of the key bits separately.