I abuse Microsoft Virtual Labs, and that’s a good thing

I’ve got a confession to make: On too many occasions to count, I have seriously abused Microsoft’s Virtual Labs. There, I said it.

Now before you rush to judgment, I think I should clarify my little confession. As is the case with most of my online activities, there is a method to the madness. I’m not using the Microsoft Virtual Labs as a platform for launching denial of service attacks, nor am I using the labs as a point of entry in an effort to hack Microsoft (or anyone else, for that matter). Although I definitely use the virtual labs for purposes that they were not intended, my use of the labs is entirely positive in its scope.

Before I explain how I like to use the Microsoft Virtual Labs, I want to take a moment to introduce them to anyone who might not be familiar with them.

Microsoft makes virtual labs available for use as a training resource. Anyone who has ever been responsible for managing Microsoft server products knows that those products can be complicated. There are plenty of education centers that offer Microsoft authorized training classes, but those classes tend to cost thousands of dollars. Besides, as IT pros know all too well, it can be really tough to take a week off from work to attend a training class.

Since it isn’t always practical for IT pros to get trained using traditional methods, Microsoft has created a series of online training resources that IT pros can use for free. One of the best examples of such a resource is the Microsoft Virtual Academy. The Microsoft Virtual Academy contains free online training classes for developers, IT pros, data pros, and even students. Microsoft adds new classes every week. The format of these classes can vary from one class to the next, but very often the classes consist of video lectures, with an option to download trial software so that you can experiment with the techniques on your own.

Free training options

As previously explained, the Microsoft Virtual Academy is only one of several free training options that Microsoft makes available. Some of the other learning resources are available at Microsoft’s TechNet Learning Resources site. Among these resources are Microsoft Virtual Labs.

Microsoft Virtual Labs is similar to the Microsoft Virtual Academy in that they are designed to function as online training courses. The biggest difference between the Microsoft Virtual Academy and the Microsoft Virtual Labs is that while much of the academy content is video based, the virtual lab courses are entirely hands on. Microsoft provides a large number of labs, and the home page even contains a filtering mechanism that you can use to find exactly the lab that you are looking for.

Keep in mind that the labs are completely free to use. IT pros can use the labs to work through a wide variety of common tasks. If you look at the figure below for example, you will see a virtual lab on Deploying and Managing Exchange Mailbox High Availability.

You can interact with the virtual labs from within your browser. Each virtual lab consists of an RDP session to a virtual machine, and a series of tabs like the one shown in the figure below. The Content tab contains all of the instructions for completing the lab exercise. The Machines tab allows you to switch between the virtual machines that are used within the lab environment, and of course you can use the Support tab to get help.

Follow instructions -- or not

I have to admit that a lab on Deploying and Managing Exchange Mailbox High Availability sounds really interesting. But remember way back at the beginning of this article when I said that I often use virtual labs for purposes for which they were not intended? Well, it’s time to spill the beans.

There are two things that you need to understand about Microsoft Virtual Labs. First, although Microsoft provides you with a set of instructions for the virtual lab, they don’t force you to follow the instructions. Once you are in the lab environment, you are on your own and can do anything that you want.

The other thing that you have to understand is that no matter what you do inside of a virtual lab, you can’t hurt anything. Each lab has a timer. When the timer runs out (or when you finish using the lab environment and click the Exit icon), the underlying hypervisor will use a checkpoint to reset all of the virtual machines back to a pristine state. It doesn’t matter what you do inside of the lab. You cannot cause any harm.

So how do I use the virtual labs? Well, admittedly, I do sometimes work through the lab instructions and use the labs in exactly the way that Microsoft intended. More often though, I use the labs as a way of trying out things that are either too risky or too time consuming to try in my own lab. Let me give you an example.

Suppose for a moment that an editor asked me to write an article about Exchange Server database availability groups. Depending on the scope of the article, I would probably need to set up a database availability group in a lab environment so that I could document procedures, take screen captures, and that sort of thing.

I have the ability to do all of this in my own lab. In fact, I use my lab to work with VMs on a daily basis. Even so, some lab environments are a lot more time consuming to set up than others. If I wanted to create an Exchange database availability group for example, I would have to deploy at least one domain controller, a DNS server, and multiple Exchange mailbox servers. It would probably take most of the day to set up all of those VMs in my lab. It’s much faster to borrow Microsoft’s lab. Check out the figure below. The lab already contains two mailbox servers, an edge server, and a domain controller that has already been provisioned with lots of mailboxes, security groups, room mailboxes, and equipment mailboxes. In other words, Microsoft has given me a huge head start. I can skip the tedious process of setting up a lab environment and move on to the task at hand.

I also like to use the virtual labs as a platform for trying out procedures that I have never done before. For instance, I recently used a virtual lab to try out an experimental technique for recovering orphaned Active Directory objects.

By now you may be wondering why I haven’t thrown out my own lab in favor of using the Microsoft labs for everything that I do. Unfortunately, the Microsoft Virtual Labs do have their limits. There are a few things that you can’t do. For instance, the Internet connection is usually disabled within the virtual labs, so that rules out any possibility of downloading and installing software or experimenting with ransomware. The labs are also limiting in that you can’t create additional virtual machines or gain direct access to the hypervisor. Of course this may change now that Hyper-V supports nested virtualization.

Become a mad scientist

I like to think of the Microsoft virtual labs as a playground for the curious. The labs are a consequence-free environment, which means I can try any bizarre experimental technique I like without fear of what might happen to my servers. I’m honestly not sure what Microsoft’s policy is on going rogue inside of virtual labs, but I can’t imagine that they would have a problem with me using the lab environment to educate myself and my readers, even if my methods are a bit unorthodox.

Photo credit: Tom Woodward

Brien Posey

Brien Posey is a freelance technology author and speaker with over two decades of IT experience. Prior to going freelance, Brien was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network engineer for the United States Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition, Brien has worked as a network administrator for some of the largest insurance companies in America. To date, Brien has received Microsoft’s MVP award numerous times in categories including Windows Server, IIS, Exchange Server, and File Systems / Storage. You can visit Brien’s Website at: www.brienposey.com.

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