Evaluating and learning about complex server-side software can be quite a challenge for the busy IT pro. Often, you’re just trying to work with a feature or two for evaluation purposes, but you find yourself spending significant time just trying to setup the pre-requisites for the environment. Add in hassles related to licensing, and it can so much effort that many of us don’t end up taking the time.
While the widespread adoption of virtualization has made the process of provisioning a test environment and installing software simpler, free, online Microsoft Virtual Labs make the process even easier. Basically, all that’s required is a web browser on the client side. When you choose to launch a Virtual Lab, a server cloud will spin up a new VM, create a browser-based RDP connection, and will include all the necessary software. To make the process even simpler, you’ll see a sidebar that includes downloadable, step-by-step evaluation details and guides. The following screenshot shows an example of a SQL Server MSDN Virtual Lab that I spun up to learn more about configuring the new PowerView feature.
TechNet Virtual Labs
Microsoft TechNet Virtual Labs are focused on providing IT professionals (such as systems administrators and data center administrators) with pre-built evaluation environments that showcase various features and technology. At the time of this writing, there are numerous labs focused on Windows Server 2008 R2 features, the System Center suite of products, Forefront, and (my personal favorite) Private Cloud guides.
Architects and developers haven’t been left out either: MSDN Virtual Labs include a long list of software development-focused labs, including ones for Visual Studio, Office Applications, SQL Server 2012, SharePoint, Team Foundation Server, Windows Azure, and many more related technologies.
A Few Tips
Using an RDP session (especially, a browser-initiated) one isn’t exactly like having software installed on your own computer. However, it’s a reasonable trade-off for most of us that want to quickly try out or learn about some new feature. Here are some additional tips that can help make the experience more user-friendly:
- Limitations: While it might be tempting to cause havoc on the hosted VMs, most are locked down to prevent such shenanigans. Operations like changing IP addresses or machine names are restricted, so it’s best to “stick to the script”.
- RDP Window Resizing: In at least some Virtual Labs, you’ll need to connect to multiple VMs through a secondary RDP connection. The default resolution and size for this window is quite small. To get a bigger viewable area, first resize the Remote Desktop Connection Manager window, and then connect (or disconnect and reconnect to the VM). This way, you should be able to get close to the 1024 x 768 resolution that many applications require.
- Keyboard Shortcuts: Those of us that rely on keyboard shortcuts for simpler and quicker navigation and administration will often need to resort to the mouse to perform certain commands. Examples include the use of the Windows key (which will execute locally) and task switching.
- Screen and Input Lag: I have a solid, fast Internet connection, but I experienced a significant amount of screen lag when connecting to several Virtual Labs. Perhaps this is unavoidable, but to make the best of it, use the extra time to review the available documentation (or rejoice in the time you saved from having to setup the entire environment yourself). 🙂
- Time Limits: Virtual sessions have time limits (90 minutes for all of the labs I worked with), so it’s a good idea to set aside some uninterrupted time to finish the lab in one shot. Of course, you can always revisit the same lab later, though you’ll lose your “progress” and will likely need to repeat steps in the evaluation guides.
- Software Versions: I noticed that in some labs, earlier versions of server applications were installed (for example, SQL Server 2012 RC0 in the screenshot above). It takes significant effort to update software and the related lab instructions, so that’s definitely understandable. I didn’t find any major issues in the labs that I tried out, but it is something to keep in mind.
- Using RSS to keep up with new Virtual Labs: The list of Virtual Labs appears to be growing quickly. Both the MSDN and TechNet Virtual Lab sites have RSS feeds that can provide you with a quick and easy way to learn about new labs as they become available.