Certification, MCSA, Private Cloud, Windows Server 2012

Building a Lab to Get Your Geek On!

Greetings True Believers,

So I wanted to take some time and talk about building a lab environment for learning Windows Server 2012 and preparing for MCSA: Windows Server 2012 certification. As an IT Pro, I know that book knowledge is great, but it is the hands-on skills that get the job done. Getting time in a lab environment to learn new technology is critical to your success in “The Real World” as well as passing your certification exams.

For my lab environment, I want full control of the hardware I can see in the OS plus the flexibility to run multiple scenarios with ease. For that, I choose to do all of my studying in virtual environments. For that I built a custom system based recommendations from Jeff Guillet at Expta.com. Affectionately known as the Death Star by Squidulor, It has a Core i5 and 32GB of RAM. It is a low-cost (Under $1k) system that is fast and quiet. Jeff did a phenomenal job of determining the specs for this system. If you are looking for a lab system, this is the way to go. I built this last April so you may be able build it for less or increase the resources for the same amount of money. After the original build, I did upgrade the storage. I now have 2 SSDs and 2 SATA HDs in the rig. Performance is top notch and you can’t hear it at all. I had a full private cloud scenario running on the system and no noise. It’s great for a home office. Another set of specs to check out is from Jared Shockley from his blog at JaredOnTech.com.

The Death Star in Action

If you do not have TechNet or MSDN, you’ll need a copy of Windows Server 2012. Click here download an evaluation of Windows Server 2012. Note: it will prompt you to login with a Microsoft account.

While I am a Microsoft guy, I always want to use the best tool for the job. In that case, I use VMwareWorkstation 9.0.2 for my desktop virtualization platform. It allows me to virtualize Hyper-V servers on a single physical machine. Note, this is an unsupported scenario, but I’ve never had any issues with it. This cannot be done on Client Hyper-V in Windows 8 or Hyper-V on Server 2012. Also, I am a VCP-DV so I do a lot with vSphere. It can be virtualized as well in this environment. What I envision when I get to Private Cloud studies is being able to run ESXi hosts and Hyper-V hosts along with System Center 2012 to play with the integration of all the pieces. So what is the catch? VMware Workstation 9.0.2 is not free. Another option may be to use Virtual Boxbut you will need to test that on your own. I have no love for Oracle or the Java Malware Environment so I refuse to use the product even though it may be a great free option.

For the 70-410 exam, I simply have a small lab environment with two VMs running Windows Server 2012 Standard in each flavor: Server Core and Server with a GUI. This has allowed me to work through all of the hands-on activities in books, TechNet articles, and general goofing around. Since VMware Workstation allows you to add in lots of different hardware such as multiple virtual hard disks or network adapters, you can work with Storage Spaces, NIC Teaming and other features requiring additional hardware components. For the 411 and 412 exams, you will get into more complex scenarios requiring a number of VMs and virtual networks. I’d a little ways out from that scenario, but I’ll let everyone know what I’m doing when I get there. This is one of the reasons I put together the rig above.

So what are your options is you can’t put together the system above and/or have limited resources? Here’s a list of some options for you to check out. Some have limitations but all of them will give you hands-on experience that is helpful for exam prep.

·         Windows Azure: You can sign up for a free trial of Windows Azure and build out some VMs there. Microsoft Evangelist Keith Mayer wrote a great blog post on building a lab environment on Azure. He also has a ton of other great posts. Check out his blog here.

·         TechNet Virtual Labs: While limited in lab areas for Windows Server 2012, it is an option to run through the labs at TechNet.

·         Keith Mayer’s Lab Hours:  Keith Mayer host virtual lab hours every Friday afternoon. Check them out here.

·         Windows Server 2012 Early Experts Challenge:  I mentioned this challenge in my last blog post on born to learn. The resources can be found here.

·         Step-By-Step Guides: The step by step guides offer some more complex scenarios and are great for adding on after you have built your foundation of knowledge. Check the resources out here.

My biggest recommendation for lab environments is just build it and play. Whether you are using a white paper, some book, or just the integrated help screens, just start building stuff. Use your imagination and learn what Windows Server 2012 has to offer.

Do you have any other lab suggestions? Leave them in the comments below or on the Windows Server Study Group Forums.

Till next time…Mike

Note: I have created an addition blog post that goes along with this so make sure you read “More on Building Your Lab…”

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