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On the New Microsoft Virtual Lab Certification Items

By  Sep 20, 2009

Topics: Certification

For several years now, Microsoft has included simulation items in some of their IT certification exams. Simulation items are intended to test the candidate’s hands-on expertise with the Microsoft product/technology under consideration. Much has happened in the virtualization space in ensuing years; the latest innovation is what is known as the Virtual Lab-based exam item.

What’s the Difference Between a Simulation and a Virtual Lab?

A simulation exam item, we must remember, is a mock-up of an operating system and, optionally, other enterprise software. The simulation item developer includes additional functionality into the mockup in an effort to throw off candidates who are unsure precisely how to accomplish the given task.

However, because the simulation is a completely ‘canned’ object, the user interface contains many, many ‘dead’ components and is, at best, a mediocre method for assessing a candidate’s practical proficiency with a vendor’s technology.

To get a feel for how Microsoft simulation items work, please check out the following online technology demo from Microsoft (requires Internet Explorer):

Microsoft Simulation Item Online Demo

Here is a downloadable version of the same:

Microsoft.com: Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) Exam Demos

On the other hand, a Virtual Lab places the candidate in a live, Terminal Services session with one or more Windows-based virtual machines. Yes, that’s correct: the certification candidate has free reign over an entire operating system. What this means, practically speaking, is that if the candidate does not know how to perform the stated task, then he or she is, to use the IT parlance, “hosed,” as far as that item is concerned.

Check out the following link that demonstrates how Microsoft is implementing the Virtual Lab format in its current generation of IT certification exams:

Amila Online: Microsoft’s Virtual Lab Exams: Going Inside the Black Box

This is another cool link directly from the Microsoft Learning folks that also showcases the previously linked demo, but also does a better job than me at describing the Microsoft Virtual Lab technology:

Microsoft Born to Learn Blog: Microsoft Virtual Lab Exams: Going Inside the Black Box

Which Microsoft Exams Are Going Virtual?

As of this writing (September 2009), only one exam has crossed over from traditional simulation to Virtual Lab format:

Exam 083-640: TS: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring

Those of you who have been actively preparing for your Windows Server 2008 MCITP credentials might know that the 083-640 exam is the replacement for Exam 70-640 TS: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring. The bad news is that the 70-640 exam was a walk in the part compared to the 083-640 exam. The good news is that those who pass the new 083-640 exam can hold their heads high, having successfully demonstrated not only their proficiency with theoretical Windows Server 2008 concepts, but also their competency with practical application of those principles.

This text comes from the above-referenced prep page for 083-640:

This Technology Specialist (TS) exam, Exam 83-640: TS: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring, became available in November 2008. This exam maps to the same objectives as 70-640, but this version (where available) contains a Performance Based component in addition to the standard exam item types. This exam is available in English only.

Other Avenues for Virtual Lab Experimentation

I’ve always told my students that the Microsoft TechNet and MSDN Virtual Labs are one of Microsoft’s best-kept secrets for IT certification candidates. Sure, Microsoft probably intends these virtual labs primarily for enterprise customers to get a feel for new Microsoft products and technologies without having to exert the necessary blood, sweat, and tears of deploying the software on one or more test boxes.

Nevertheless, I humbly submit that IT cert candidates can gain valuable hands-on experience with their MS technology of choice by spending time in these free (!), rich, and robust Virtual Lab environments. The labs provide 90-minute time blocks in which you are free to work through a structured lab (you even get to download the fully formatted lab guide).

What’s more, is all Microsoft skill sets are covered: IT Pro, Database, and Developer. Check ‘em out:

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