For companies eager to upgrade to Windows 7, testing for application compatibility is crucial for a smooth deployment. But OS testing is a well-known IT time and resource drain that requires additional hardware and significant IT staff attention.\n\nBut for this Windows upgrade cycle, IT staffs have new choices at their disposal to save time and money.Using virtualization software to test Windows 7 certainly can speed up the process and save on cost. Many IT groups do this using an in-house test and dev lab and using virtualized servers and VMware's Lab Manager software. Though this still requires some physical servers and IT staff, it's far more efficient than testing on unvirtualized servers. But mortgage software company Ellie Mae is taking a different tack, becoming an early adopter of a cloud-based lab for testing Windows 7 from Seattle-based company Skytap.Windows 7 Bible: Your Complete Guide to the Next Version of WindowsEllie Mae, based in Pleasanton, Calif., is not rolling out Windows 7 internally, but is nevertheless testing the OS to make sure that Ellie Mae's loan origination software, called Encompass, is compatible with Windows 7 for the company's clients, who are mostly mortgage brokers."It's pretty certain that some of our clients will be using Windows 7 quickly after Oct. 22.," says Ron Yun, Ellie Mae's Director of Quality Assurance.Ellie Mae chose Skytap's cloud-based Virtual Lab SaaS (software as a service) application to deploy Windows 7 to its QA teams in Pleasanton and Beijing, China. Yun says that he runs a physical lab at Ellie Mae with 20 or so machines, but to test Windows 7 in a physical lab would have been too labor-intensive and expensive.With Skytap's cloud-based lab, Yun can deploy as many Windows 7 virtual machines as he wants under a monthly subscription ($250 a month for 1,000 hours of testing). "It's a big black box and I don't know what's going inside, but I do know that they make it very easy through the user interface to deploy virtual machines and modify the configurations," he says.The Need for a Cloud Testing LabSkytap touts its cloud-based IT lab \u2014 which is built on enterprise-grade VMware infrastructure \u2014 as the only option that can run and test Windows 7 in the cloud. Skytap hopes to appeal to companies both small and large.Skytap CEO Scott Roza says the company's cloud service is focused on lab testing because at many companies, labs are underserved by the IT department, yet they often take up 20 or 30 percent of a company's IT budget."Labs are very dynamic," Roza says. "So you can be in a test cycle where you don't have enough resources or you're not in a test cycle and you have too many resources. For that reason we thought it was a good area to build a specialty cloud for IT lab testing."Roza refers to Skytap's service as a "hybrid" cloud platform, where the cloud is not an island but an extension of the in-house physical lab. Users have the flexibility to import VMWare images into the cloud via a secure VPN tunnel and export them back to their physical in-house lab.As for Skytap's competition, other well-known cloud platforms such as Amazon's EC2 service and Microsoft's upcoming cloud OS Windows Azure, to be launched commercially in November, have disadvantages for Windows 7 testing compared to the Skytap arrangement, Roza says."EC 2 is powerful, but it's a platform for small Web businesses; it's not used in the enterprise," says Roza. "It's not compatible with VMware, which is in 85 percent of enterprises. If you want to import and export virtual machines, Amazon is not a great fit for you."As for Microsoft's Windows Azure, that would only fit into the plans of companies that are running Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization software, Roza says. \n\n"But, again, most companies are using VMware," he says.Windows 7 in Minutes, Not DaysThe bottom line for Ellie Mae's Yun: Skytap's cloud-based lab makes his QA lab almost a maintenance-free environment. The only downside for testing in the cloud is the lack of control over what hardware is being used, Yun says. "I make the assumption that Skytap keeps their data center hardware current, but I don't know things such as CPU speed or a disk's RPMs."But, Yun says, he'll take that marginal risk over testing Windows 7 on the machines in his physical lab at Ellie Mae's headquarters, something for which he just doesn't have the time and resources.Having access to Skytap VM machines has allowed Yun's QA team to create, configure and deploy a Windows 7 system in minutes rather than days or weeks. \n\n"The productivity gained can be measured in the thousands of dollars," he says.\n\n\nAre you a Tweeter? Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com\/smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter at twitter.com\/CIOonline.