Learn how to build a virtual laboratory and a strategy using Microsoft Virtual Server 2005

Microsoft released a couple of very interesting papers about Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 only available for Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCP).

Article 1: Build a virtual laboratory with Virtual Server 2005

As a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), you’re constantly faced with the need to have access to running technologies such as Active Directory, DNS, or Exchange, for all sorts of reasons. Whether it is for training, testing or development, it’s really handy to have a readily available working environment you can jump into within minutes. That’s why you need a Virtual Laboratory. Since Virtual Laboratories provide this kind of support to your everyday work, they need to be treated as official systems that have their own places in the production network. This is why you need a structured and standard approach for their creation.

That’s what this article series is all about: How to build a Virtual Laboratory, set it up, use and reuse it, and manage it for long term operation. The strategies outlined in these articles stem from real-world projects that cover all sorts of usage scenarios. These strategies will help you obtain value from your laboratory and ensure that you get a solid return on investment (ROI) for your efforts. One customer was able to build an entire collaboration testing environment in less than 32 hours. Think of it: less than four days to build three physical hosts with more than ten virtual machines playing roles as varied as Active Directory, Exchange, SharePoint Portal Server, Content Management Server, SQL Server, Live Communications Server, and more. In addition, they are able to reuse this environment for other testing purposes. There is no doubt that this level of ROI is simply not available with physical laboratory environments.

When you’re building a laboratory you need to focus on four different areas:

  • Laboratory Description-Here you will outline the strategy you will use to create and implement the environment.
  • Laboratory Deliverables-In this area you identify how the deliverables from the laboratory can be used to support other testing or development scenarios. With virtual laboratories in particular it’s really easy to include pre-constructed machines as deliverables to other projects. This is because virtual machines (VM) are really only constructed of a few files on a disk-large files admittedly, but files that can be transported, copied, or downloaded from remote locations.
  • Laboratory Management Practices-The third area focuses on the practices you’re going to use for the management and operation of the laboratory. Once again, file management will be a big part of this activity.
  • Future Plans and Projected Growth-The fourth area looks beyond the immediate, and covers both best practices and recommendations for future lab usage as well as the creation and management of a distributed virtual laboratory structure as more members of the organization require access to running technologies.

These four pillars will help you build and prepare a Virtual Laboratory that can be used to support any number of scenarios. The following are some examples:

  • Enterprise Development Environment-Developers need to have a certain amount of freedom on the machines they work with, but since these machines are enterprise systems, they must be controlled. Within a virtual environment, they can be granted the level of privilege they need without compromising production security.
  • Test Environment-New technologies, new products, new patches, and new hotfixes all need to be tested before they are introduced into the production environment. A Virtual Laboratory can be used to create a low-cost reproduction of the production environment in support of these tests. This is especially useful when you need to test applications which affect the structure of your Active Directory.
  • Support Environment-Help desk operators supporting levels 1, 2, or 3 can use the virtual environment to reproduce any problem. This avoids having to give them multiple systems, and lets them test out multiple scenarios without impacting the production environment.
  • Training Environment-A Virtual Laboratory is the ideal environment for MCP preparation. You can install any technology and simulate any situation, allowing you to gain practical experience in the technologies in which you want to be certified. The virtual lab will let you test out scenarios that you are unable to reproduce in your production network.

You might be already using technologies such as Virtual PC or Virtual Server (if you’re an MCT, you’re definitely using Virtual PC),but the practices outlined here will help you move from ad hoc usage of virtual machines to an officially supported implementation from which multiple members of your organization can profit.

Article 2: Working with a virtual laboratory

The first part of this series focused on the preparation of a permanent virtual laboratory. It also outlined the particular deliverables you can expect when building a production virtual laboratory, one that is controlled and can provide permanent services to your testing community. Now that your virtual laboratory is up and running, you’ll need to focus on maintenance and operation. In fact, you’ll need to make sure that you have developed processes for the following activities:

  • Reuse of the deliverables – these procedures will let you reuse the four deliverables created during the preparation of your laboratory.
  • Laboratory management – these procedures will ensure the continuing good health of the machines making up the virtual laboratory.
  • Best practices – as in all situations, you’ll want to derive best practices from your laboratory effort to ensure even better implementations in the future.

This is the gist of this article: to provide you with additional information on how you, as an MCP, can make the best of your virtual laboratory, letting you learn key features of the products you need to be certified on.

Both can be downloaded at http://go.microsoft.com/?linkid=3550069 (you need to login in Passport network and you need to have MCP credentials).