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How to set up a virtual training lab that IT staff will use

The investment in a virtual training lab means additional cost, but there can be payoffs for your staff.

Well-trained IT staff can mean the difference between success and failure for all users. Having a hands-on training...

lab with access to tools and technologies prepares IT pros for upcoming technology adoptions and deployments. Properly setting up a virtual training lab can help companies turn a modest investment in hardware and software into a powerful learning tool.

Stay away from production environments

The biggest benefit of a virtual training environment is that it's isolated by design and deliberate implementation from production environments. A virtual training lab creates a safe sandbox where IT professionals who are learning or playing with new tools, toys and technologies can make mistakes -- even break things -- without causing problems for those working in production. Work in a training lab poses no risks to productivity or profitability.

The first rule with setting up a training lab is to always dedicate isolated networks and resources to them, especially for servers, networks and infrastructures. A single server rack or blade, some virtual networking elements, and a variety of virtualized infrastructure tools can emulate nearly any planned or present production environment.

Make the training lab easy to access

Modern virtual private networks and remote access tools make it possible for IT pros to access the virtual test lab remotely for about 90% of all the tasks and activities they need to do. Some IT staff will need to visit the lab in the person, but a great deal of the hands-on tasks, and nearly all the training materials and practice tests, can be accessed remotely. This is not only convenient, but also necessary for IT pros who use their off-work hours to obtain further training.

It's important to set up sufficient VPN connections and a separate remote access infrastructure to support remote learning and lab attendance. Staff the training and lab environments with two shifts, six days a week, if not 24/7 (three shifts, seven days a week) to ensure those who want to access outside of normal work hours can.

Promoting and supporting a test lab

For the best lab use and return on investment, IT staff should promote (if not require) use of the training and test lab. It's also critical to make the work within the training and test lab transparent, well-documented and straightforward.

Managers should promote the use of the lab during the hire-on process for new employees, and remind all employees of its availability and benefits in quarterly information blasts. They should also announce any new content or offerings within the lab as they become available.

Where to get help

There are countless online guides, how-tos and videos available that explain how to design, construct and manage virtual labs. Here's where to look:

Virtualization: Build an IT lab for virtual machines

Build your server lab in the cloud

How to build a virtual test lab

Top tricks and tips for setting up a virtual lab

Using a virtual router for your lab and test environment

Information on the training and test lab should be available on a website or wiki that provides a bill of fare (what types of training and labs are available, how to sign up, how to use the training and virtual lab environments, where to go for help and support, and more). Online how-to's, FAQs or even video tutorials showing how to best use the lab can go a long way toward drawing staff in.

Don't invest in a training and test lab unless you're willing to take the extra steps needed to inform IT staff of its benefits and contents and how to access it. Be deliberate and consistent in promoting the lab and its assets.

With a little research, a small amount of space, and some investment in hardware and software, managers can build a valuable virtual training lab to help IT pros further their learning and hopefully keep mistakes in the production environment under control.

About the author:
Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year veteran of the IT biz who's been writing for TechTarget since the late 1990s. He currently blogs for
Windows Enterprise Desktop at the IT Knowledge Exchange; writes for numerous other TechTarget sites; and blogs on IT certification for, Tom's IT Pro and Ed has also contributed to many computing books, and is perhaps best-known for creating the Exam Cram series of IT cert prep books back in the heyday of Windows NT.

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