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Build an affordable practice lab at home

install a test network at home and practice everything you can on that network

Everybody who knows anything about the current crop of Microsoft certification exams knows that hands-on practice, "interface driving" skills and experience are more important than ever before. This raises the question of how to get that kind of experience. One way is to install a test network at home and practice everything you can on that network.

But wait! "Does this mean I need one machine for every server I must use?" many of you are probably wondering. Because modeling some exam situations might require as many as three or more individual servers, obtaining a computer and software for multiple machines is onerous at best, and very likely to be an expensive proposition.

"Not so!" says reader John Quirk, who uses VMWare, a nifty software package that permits users to run multiple Windows virtual machines on a single computer. At list prices of $189 (download) or $199 (shrink-wrapped) for a workstation-based version, VMWare isn't cheap, but it quickly pays for itself for each server it creates purely in software on the same machine.

Quirk set up a virtual server using VMWare with 128 MB of RAM, a single 4 GB virtual drive and network configuration set to NAT in order to download the latest patches and service packs from the Internet. "Once I had everything downloaded, I configured this server very vanilla with a generic name, as a standalone server and with a private IP address and subnet," he explained. Then, once he had the basic configuration, he shut down the virtual server, set the VMWare 3.x network configuration to host-only and restarted the machine. The reason he used host-only is because it is the only configuration that allowed him to set the IP Address manually (which you do in the real world with servers) and isolate it from the corporate network.

After Quirk logged into the virtual machine, he sysprepped that server then shut it down. This now became his template machine. (Remember, this is just a directory of files on the host machine--or laptop in his case.)

To create a new server, simply copy the template directory to a new directory. Within the VMWare 3.X window, add the new server and turn it on. Quirk used a Microsoft 120 day [eval] license and configured the server to his specifications. Every time he needs another server for testing, he simply copies the template directory to a new directory, adds another server and configures it on the same virtual network as his other servers. (Note: though Quirk worked with VMWare 3.x, his techniques should also work with VMWare 4.x.)

Quirk reports that this technique works well for up to five different virtual servers on a 1 GHz Pentium III laptop with 1 GB of RAM. He also reports that this was enough to get him through all the hands-on stuff he needed to prep for his Windows 2000 MCSE. Being familiar with those requirements myself (and those for Windows Server 2003, too) this sounds pretty workable. Plus, it's a great way to build a home lab without spending too much on hardware or software.

If you have questions or concerns about Microsoft certification, or more cool ideas for home test labs, please e-mail me at [email protected].

Ed Tittel is the creator of the Exam Cram series of IT certification books. Ed edits this series as Exam Cram 2 for Que Publishing, along with their Training Guide series of certification study guides. He's also a contributing editor for Certification magazine, and writes regularly on certification topics for various TechTarget Web sites, too.

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