Mainframe beta testers may be different from ordinary IT users. They're willing to put up with conference calls that last hours and the extra work of fixing problems that are inevitable in an early release. But even though there are hassles, some users who test new releases say the experience is worth it.

"You get a chance to play with the toys before anyone else does," said Martha McConaghy, an IT manager at Marist College, who said beta testing lets her return to her IT roots.

Instead of sitting in meetings and shuffling paperwork, McConaghy said becoming a beta tester for IBM has allowed her to dive into the guts of a system to fix bugs. "That's the roots of why you got involved [in] computers in the first place," she said.

McConaghy was a beta tester for IBM's z/VM 5.2 release, a virtualisation software upgrade that early adopters started running about a year ago -- about six months before it was generally available. McConaghy was at the Share conference for IBM users in the US to talk about what she learned from her implementation.

Before IBM puts a product into general release, it works with beta testers in its Early Support Program (ESP). The programme is "very important -- we use the programme to not only discover bugs and fix them before general availability, but we use it to understand the performance and usability characteristics of the operating system in real customer environments," said Chuck Morse, an IBMer who works with the ESP programme.

One of the programme's goals is to put the software in a range of IT user environments to see how it will behave with different applications and users. For those users who agree to try the beta code, there's an increased chance that something could go wrong.

"There is always a risk running new code," said Jim Vincent, a systems engineer at Nationwide Mutual Insurance. But he believes the trade-off is more than worth it. "There is a possibility that something our users require may not work the same, or work incorrectly," he said.

Vincent said Nationwide received the virtualisation software in July 2005 and within days had it loaded and running. It was put into production last December. The z/VM 5.2 improves its 64-bit bit performance and memory management, said Vincent. And by jumping on it quickly, his company was able to upgrade before other users. "There's a little business advantage," he said.

A second plus is having direct contact with IBM developers and key people working on the software, said Vincent. That gives him, and other beta testers, the ability to influence future product development.

There are also some altruistic reasons for getting involved, said Vincent. Occasionally someone from the Share user group will find out about his work and tell him, "Thanks, you fixed it before we had to," he said.

Some 2,000 IBM users are expected at this week's Share conference, with the main topic of user interest expected to be service-oriented architectures.

"I would say it's the early adopters who are jumping on board," said Robert Rosen, president of Chicago-based Share and a CIO at the National Institutes of Health. "The mainstream is dipping its toes in the water."