Microsoft

Build Your Skills: The perfect test lab for MCSE studying

Offers suggestions on hardware required to build a test lab and shows how you can work on network challenges to gain experience as well as certification


Gone are the days of paper MCSEs. Say what you will, but book smarts alone won’t get you through Windows 2000 MCSE exams. Thus, you must have experience working with the new OS. One of the best ways to get the experience you need is to build your own personal testing lab. In this article, I will take you through the basics of building the kind of lab you will need for getting Windows 2000 experience.

TechMail
IT Certification Corner Paperchase Digest is now Erik Eckel's IT Certification Corner. As always, you'll find certification tips and news in your inbox each Friday. Just go to the TechMails page and sign up to ensure that you keep up-to-date on the latest certification tips, shortcuts, news, and more!

TechMail
IT Certification Corner Paperchase Digest is now Erik Eckel's IT Certification Corner. As always, you'll find certification tips and news in your inbox each Friday. Just go to the TechMails page and sign up to ensure that you keep up-to-date on the latest certification tips, shortcuts, news, and more!

You need real-world experience
The Windows 2000 MCSE includes new exam formats and questions that are aimed at testing practical, hands-on expertise. However, if your company isn’t planning on deploying Windows 2000 any time soon, you’ll be at a distinct disadvantage when you attempt to take any Windows 2000 exams.

You need the perfect test lab. I’m talking about lowest-cost, does-what-you-need perfect. You don’t need “dream machines” to earn Windows 2000 certification.

Once you have your test network in place, you can use it to test, study, learn, and master all the topics certification exams test. Those topics include:
  • Managing group permissions
  • Configuring Active Directory
  • Installing Windows 2000 over a network
  • Configuring performance monitoring and optimization
  • Experimenting with executable switches
  • Securing files and resources
  • Configuring protocols and network connections
  • Deploying service packs

In building your test network, PCs are the first building blocks to consider when creating your test network. Let’s take a look at the kind of PCs you will need.

PCs: What you need
System prices have plummeted recently, and you can look for them to go even lower with vendors trying to unload inventory. You should be able to purchase two systems for between $1,400 to $1,800.

Don’t buy laptops. Buy desktop machines. They cost less and are much easier to upgrade.

The following are minimum hardware requirements for a viable testing system:
  • 4-GB hard disk
  • 128-MB RAM
  • AMD K6-2 or Intel Pentium II 350-MHz CPU
  • 40X CD-ROM
  • Floppy drive
  • Network adapter

When selecting network adapters, keep in mind you may want an adapter that supports remote boot capabilities. This functionality is required for testing certain software features, such as Remote Installation Service (RIS).

Of course, you’ll want to ensure that all systems components are Windows 2000 compatible. There’s nothing worse than buying a cut-rate system only to learn that you have to upgrade a device to run the software that you want.

How many should you purchase? I recommend at least two machines dedicated to testing only. Using a pair of systems, you can test client-server authentication, group permissions, auditing functions, remote administration, network installation, and more. Having two machines also helps you learn Active Directory replication, server-to-server communications, trust relationships, and Exchange configuration.

How to get four PCs for the price of two
You can enable client-client, client-server, and server-server communications using just two machines. And you don’t even have to set up dual-boot options on each machine to do it, although that’s one option.

Instead, I would suggest purchasing removable hard drive bays. These bays include cartridges that slip into one of the 5 1/5-inch bays on your PC and make swapping hard disks very convenient. I recommend purchasing two hard disks in addition to the two you already have with each of your testing machines. Pull the hard disks out of the machines you purchased and use them in the removable drive bays.

Load two disks with Windows 2000 Professional and two with Windows 2000 Server. Now you can replicate a multitude of scenarios, and you need only two machines instead of four.
Be sure to read the licensing agreements when installing test software. Some evaluation software can be installed on multiple machines; production software cannot. If you had a Microsoft TechNet Plus subscription in February 2000, you should have evaluation copies of Windows 2000 Professional, Windows 2000 Server, and Windows 2000 Advanced Server.
Peripherals: The last building block
There’s no need to purchase multiple monitors, keyboards, and mice. Just pick up a Keyboard/Video/Monitor (KVM) switch. Be sure the KVM you purchase is Windows 2000 compatible and that it works with your mouse. Don’t skimp when buying KVM cables, either. Be sure they boast coaxial shielding. I paid $20 a set for mine, and they work very well. There’s no need to pay more than that.

If you haven’t worked with a KVM before, there’s nothing to it. You purchase extra sets of cables, which connect everything. The peripherals plug into the KVM, and then you connect the extra cables from the KVM to each system.

The last peripheral to consider is an Ethernet hub and cables to network the two computers. You can also use a bridge, switch, or router. I recommend using a combination switch/router/gateway/firewall.
For more information on combination firewall/switch/router/gateways, check out these articles. (Note: The last is a TechProGuild article and requires a subscription, although you can sign up for a free 30-day trial, too.):
Eckel’s take
Remember when purchasing test-network equipment that the boxes don’t need to be top-of-the-line equipment. They don’t need gigahertz processors, 40-GB hard drives, or 512 MB of RAM. You can easily get away with discontinued models, floor samples, closeouts, refurbished machines, or used PCs.

Test-network machines simply need to be capable of running the operating systems you’re studying in an attempt to earn certification. But think ahead. Buy as much processor speed, hard disk storage, and RAM as you can afford. The more power, storage, and memory you buy now, the longer you can wait to replace your systems.

Although the equipment I’ve recommended here will cost around $2,000, you should compare that to some other MCSE training options. If you already have a Windows NT 4.0 MCSE or considerable IT experience, you might be better off setting up a test network and buying $300 to $500 worth of good self-study training materials. It will still cost you less than most training classes—and you’ll have a test network to show for it once you have completed your MCSE courses.
We look forward to getting your input and hearing your experiences setting up a testing environment. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.

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