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Field Notes Staying Sharp
Joshua Hoffman

Download the code for this article: Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 (1946KB)
Download the code for this article: Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 SP1 (18637KB)

Ah, the field. I knew it well. Prior to taking on my cur­rent role (as technical editor of this fine publication) almost two years ago, I was an active IT pro in the field. I spent five years with Microsoft Consulting Services and several years in the IT departments of various Fortune 100 companies. Then I was lured away to this gig. Not that I’m complaining—we have a great group of people here, plus I get to know and work with all of you readers! And if I never have to take a plane to work at 6:00 on a Monday morning again, that would be OK too.
But there is a downside to my new job. Many IT professionals would argue that the best way to learn something new in our line of work (and stay up-to-date) is by actually doing it. Practical, hands-on application is a powerful educational tool. But careers advance, responsibilities change, and suddenly you find that you’re an IT pro without a system to administer or an infrastructure to manage. And things change very quickly. Since I took on this new role, there’s a new version of Windows® with a new deployment framework, new security infrastructure, new network stack, and a few other features. Oh, and there’s new version of Office, too. And Ex­change Server. And SQL Server™. And Mi­cro­soft® Operations Manager. Plus, there are a few new tools out there: Win­dows PowerShell™, MMC 3.0, the Win­dows Automated Installation Kit. I hope I didn’t leave anything out.
It turns out that in two years, a lot can change. So if the best way to learn is to do, and your job no longer includes the "doing" part, how can you possibly keep up?
Well, I certainly hope this magazine helps. I know it helps me. We have a lot of great authors who really know their stuff, and I am constantly benefiting from their expertise. But just the same, sometimes you really do need to get hands-on. I usually start with Virtual PC (or Virtual Server), both of which are free downloads from the Microsoft Web site (you’ll find links in the downloads section of our Web site. With virtualization technology, I can quickly build my own Active Directory® or customize a deployment of Windows Vista™ right on my laptop. No extra hardware required. Going through the process myself makes a big difference when I’m trying to understand how something works.
The only catch with Virtual PC is that you need to actually build the virtual environment (install the OS, configure everything properly, and so on), which is great if that’s what you’re looking to learn about. But what if you just want to explore a specific feature or function of a product? For example, what if you want to learn about new compliance features in Ex­change Server 2007? Installing and configuring Windows Server®, Active Directory, and Exchange Server from scratch seems like a lot of work. Enter Tech­Net Virtual Labs. In my humble opinion, Virtual Labs is one of the best training resources to come along in a very long time. The Virtual Lab team has already done the hard part—they have over 180 preinstalled, preconfigured virtual machines that cover various combinations of over 20 products. Each one comes with a set of training exercises to help walk you through common tasks and new features. And the best part is that the entire process runs in a browser environment, hosted on Microsoft-managed servers, so you don’t need to dedicate your own hardware resources.
So, yes, it does get harder to stay current if you’re not on the front lines anymore, but it can be done! I’ve pointed you towards some of my favorite resources. And as my good friend Edward Dake pointed out in this column several months back, among the best resources we have is each other. You can always ask for help.

Joshua Hoffman is the Technical and Acquisitions Editor for TechNet Magazine.
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