The importance of a strong community

The importance of a strong community

In 1996 I attended some basic training and did my first firewall installation. During the following year I did a few more and every time I had a question I called other people in my company or the distributor. In 1998 I discovered that this product had a mailing list. I joined it and it opened a new world for me regarding known problems and solutions. There were a few very knowledgeable people on the list who seemed to know most of the common questions. These users where consultants or end users of the product who out of their own curiosity by the product learned the ins and outs of the product, offering free support for other peer users. There were also members of the list working for the vendor itself, but they would normally post from their personal accounts. Sometimes we would however see official postings or responses from the vendor.

After joining this mailing list and being there for a while I understood the product much better and the quality of my work also became much better. I could also more easily discuss different questions with my customers as the questions they had was often related to something I had discussed before on the list.

This was my first involvement in a mailing list, but I had used news groups (nntp) for years, and before that I had used similar discussion groups on different BBS networks (over modem/pots). Even though comp.sys.firewalls was nice, it’s user mass wasn’t product specific enough to give you the “little extra” of info that the vendors mailing list provided.

Having a mailing list where anyone can post their questions is something I regard as a very good thing, but it has a few limitations:

  • Threads are not implemented equally across all email clients

  • Searchability – Searching emails will return single postings, not the full thread

  • History – Hard to refer to a previous thread with a link

  • Formatting – Each email program will display emails differently so text only is often the only common denominator

  • No user profiles or stats per user

  • Spam

  • RSS feed?

I was introduced to VMware ESX Server 1.5 in 2002, but the project that I was part of waited for version 2.0 that was shipped in September 2003 before it was implemented. Installation was done by the HW vendor and I was thrilled by this new technology. First of all, the Console OS was based on RedHat 7.2 which was something I knew from before. Secondly, there were active news groups for this product that were fairly active. I think I posted my first posting on the VMware news groups in mid-September 2003.

A bit later, VMware announced on the news groups that they had started a web based forum. At first I didn’t really see the point why they had done that since the news groups were working so perfectly. I thought it was something that would just go away so I refused to try it. Why use a web browser when you could use your favorite news reader (tin)? A web based forum was likely to be much slower and you couldn’t use your own preferences of threading/searching etc that you were used to in your news reader.

News is quite similar to mailing lists and has the same limitations except that threads are working well across different clients.

After a few months I noticed that the traffic on the news groups was decreasing. In March 2004 I decided to check out what the entire buzz was about so I created a bogus account. I didn’t think I would log in to this system twice so why bother using real info? After seeing the quality of the content of these forums I logged out and created a real account that I could use in the future. I didn’t give up on the news groups right away, but I was more and more often using the web forums after that. Why? First of all, there were a few VMware employees on the forum that would have answers to questions nobody else could know. Things that wasn’t documented. Things that would require digging in the source to figure out. Documentation back then wasn’t nearly as good as today and a knowledgebase didn’t exist. Having access to discuss topics directly with those who can figure out such things, just make you want to hang around more to find out what else you have missed lately. It turned out to be highly addictive. And quite a few got addicted.

Another thing that didn’t hurt the forum activity was the Forum rewards-program. They announced that points were now to be awarded by the question posters and that VMware would send gifts to those who got enough points based on that. VMware also sponsored trip+hotel+access to VMworld 2005 for the top 5 forum users where they would be a panel for an “Ask the community experts”-session. Having good products is one thing, but when you add things like this you risk that people start loving the whole concept. It attracted many smart users who in turn helped keep the quality of the forums at a very high level. When people start loving a company’s concepts they will help the company build a good reputation. We have during the past couple of years seen the blogosphere around VMware grow quite substantially and it wouldn’t do that if people didn’t feel good about VMware and the products. A large part of the bloggers has also a background as active users on the VMware community forums.

If I’m questioned about products/technology I don’t know well I usually check if the product has an active community. If it does, it’s often an indication that the products are good or that the products have great potential. You will also be able to get non-marketing answers to questions about the product line even if you’re not an existing customer. An active community does certainly not replace an official support line, but it can offload it quite a bit for the commonly known issues. An official support line is still needed for resolving the more serious issues.

support table.png

A community is also normally something that potential customers can join and not only existing customers/partners. I’m still amazed that not all vendors understand the value of such a community and also charge their users extra for being able to join or post to such a community. By limiting their forums like that they are probably loosing potential customers and potential active users. If their product is interesting enough it can attract technical people who are willing to spend their free time on their forums. This is a win-win situation for all parts. Potential customers and existing customers are being helped with their basic questions on the forums and the official support center can concentrate about the more serious issues. Users and consultants are getting to know the most common challenges that people are having and special solutions to things in a way that is often more trustworthy than a marketing brochure.

A while ago I was introduced to a product that looked very interesting. It had a very nice design, some smart solutions and they could refer to a handful of major customers. Googling the product did however not give too many results and a user community didn’t exist. I evaluated the product and had a quite close contact with the distributor during this process. If the vendor had community forums I suspect I may have gotten answers to some of my questions quicker and saved myself some time during my testing.

While this product wasn’t bad, I still prefer using a competing product even though it’s a more expensive one. Not because the competing product is so much better for the end user, but because it has good community forums, a larger user base, and less complex installation procedures.

Personally I find the VMware forums an excellent resource, but I’m still waiting for the next version of the forums to be released as the current version is too slow for my patience and the rich text editor is useless. The current version was introduced in late September 2007 and had major problems shortly after being put into production. The stability problems were resolved, but the performance and formatting issues still isn’t perfect. As I’m not currently as active on the forums as I once was, I’m now blogging using the same system, just to be reminded of how bad or good the situation is. I could have used Wordpress or another known working blog platform, but then I wouldn’t get reminded of the status of the VMware forums.

There are still lots of activity on the VMware community forums, so it seems all are not as impatient or formatting oriented as me. I have tried joining back at some occasions, but found myself switching to another tab while waiting for a response from the community. Having the forums available is still something I value highly even if I’m not active there on a daily basis.

By subscribing to RSS feeds on Planet v12n (“planet virtualization”) I’ve been able to get a great deal of info without using the forums. The weekly VMTN Roundtable podcast on Talkshoe is also good. It also has chat during the show so it’s much more valuable in a live session than a recording.

There is also an irc channel on freenode, #VMware that I’ve been part of for a few years now and that’s also a place where it’s possible to discuss VMware related topics with other peer users.

In addition to these arenas I’m now also following the progress in the virtualization field via Twitter. It’s amazing how Twitter has attracted the right users who will point you to blog posts and good community postings on a regular basis while there’s also some direct discussion going on right there.

To sum things up, the bottom line is: VMware have some very good products that people like. VMware have supported their users by giving them an arena to discuss their product and share their experiences in an unmoderated fashion. This has lead to users spending a lot of their spare time writing about the products on both the community forums and in other arenas. The users now know more about the products than they would by only reading the documentation. This means that the users are now better at what they do, certified or not certified. Several books have been written by community members. The importance of such a community can never be underrated.

Comments

Must say really sums it up Smiley Happy great post. Blogging for a while with some friends and collegues on www.vmguru.nl and feels good to blog about VMware products and stuff.

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