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Recipe for Building a Home Networking Practice Lab

By  Aug 18, 2008

Topics: Certification

To establish your home networking testing lab, you will require the following items: (a) a decent host computer; (b) virtualization software; and (c) demo or full-versions of the relevant server/client software.

A decent host computer

A 'decent host computer' in this context refers to a desktop or laptop computer that will host your virtual machine sessions. I'm not going to provide discrete hardware specifications in this space. Instead, just try to get the fastest computer you can with as much CPU, RAM and available hard disk space as is possible given your budget.

Specifically, if you can get your hands on a PC that supports hardware virtualization technology, then you will have a much more comfortable experience with your virtual machines. It is important to remember that each virtual machine "borrows" hardware resources from the host computer, so the more CPU and RAM you have at your disposal, the better.

Virtualization software

What is virtualization, anyway? Well, Wikipedia defines a virtual machine (VM) as "a software implementation of a machine (computer) that executes programs like a real machine."

As far as the virtualization software is concerned, there are two major vendors and four major products in this arena at the moment:

Because Microsoft Virtual PC and Virtual Server 2005 are free and most of the VMWare products are retail-priced, I would recommend that you obtain a Microsoft virtualization solution unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise.

And yes, to answer a question I receive from students all the time, you can indeed create non-Microsoft OS-based virtual machines by using Microsoft Virtual PC. For instance, I run an Ubuntu Linux VM on my Windows Vista-based laptop on a near-daily basis.

Once you have your virtualization software up and running, your next task is to build yourself some virtual machines and get to practicing!

Obtaining the necessary software

Let us suppose, for instance, that you need to sharpen your practical skills with Active Directory Group Policy before you sit for your first MCSE exam. What software do you require, and how in the world can you afford it?

  • Windows Server 2003 (for the domain controller and member server VMs)
  • Windows XP SP2 (to join interact with the testing domain)

Not all of us are 'made of money,' so the relevant question is: How do I lay my hands on this expensive enterprise software legally?

The answer to this question is actually rather simple: Evaluation software.

With practically no exception, you can download evaluation versions (also called trial versions) of any enterprise OS or application product in the IT marketplace. Simply visit the appropriate vendors' Web sites and click their respective 'Download evaluation version' links.

Alternatively, many first- and third-party training books are packaged with evaluation versions of the relevant enterprise client/server software. For instance, many of the SQL Server 2005 books in my personal library contain a Microsoft SQL Server 2005 evaluation version CD.

The latest trend that some technology vendors employ is offering their prospective customers free, downloadable, pre-configured virtual hard drive (VHD) files. Check out these cool links from Microsoft:

What is the 'catch' with using demonstration software? Well, evaluation software typically ceases functioning after 60, 90, or 120 days. Therefore, if you have any irreplaceable work stored in a demo VM...you shouldn't.

No problem: with the software expiry, though—simply recreate your virtual machine, and you are good to go for another few months!

After all, repetition is a core principle of adult education, wouldn't you agree?

Because virtual machines can interact with one another on a private virtual network hosted by your physical PC, you can create robust and complicated network environments for your testing and studying pleasure. Check out this four-virtual PC (VPC) scenario:

  • Windows Server 2003 domain controller VPC
  • Windows Server 2003 member server
  • Windows XP Professional SP2 member workstation
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux server

Think of all the fun! The possibilities are almost endless!

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