Imagine walking into a car dealership to test-drive a new vehicle. Instead of a shiny, sleek machine, you see a box of parts in the middle of the showroom. That's how Tech-Net Virtual Labs program manager Anthony Tsim humorously describes how challenging it used to be to try out Microsoft's new products before his new Virtual Labs program began: "The analogy I always give is that in the old days, it was like: Dear Customer, thank you for coming to Microsoft's showroom. Here's a box with the car kit. Here's a screwdriver, and we'll give you some gloves just to show you our love. Go ahead and put it all together. By the way, there are no instructions. Do it by intuition. You're the expert at driving the car, so you should know how to put a car together. We believe you have the ability."

To improve on that test-drive experience, Microsoft now offers hundreds of free virtual labs that let you cruise through the features of Exchange 2003, SQL Server 2005, Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003, and many more products—and new labs are becoming available regularly. Windows Vista, Office 12, and Exchange 12 labs will be available over the next few months. You can access these free labs at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/traincert/virtuallab/default.mspx.

"In the new world, we say: Here's the key and here's the car," Anthony told me with a smile. "It might not be the right color or have the number of cup holders you want, but at least you can drive the car and see how it handles, feel how comfortable the seats are, and hear whether the radio works. Then, when you're ready, we can talk about how to customize the car for you."

Get Your Motor Running
A major software purchase is a huge decision, and it makes sense to let customers see what they're getting before they buy. As the creator of the Virtual Labs concept, Anthony recognizes the opportunity that virtual environments offer: "The Virtual Labs program is designed to work around the software evaluation problem. Companies are reluctant to roll out new versions of products. It's not that they don't like the new features and functionality. They're worried about unforeseen consequences. We needed to find a way to let our customers try our products with a very low barrier to entry. Think of it as a technology playground—a sandbox environment—so you don't have to worry about messing up your production environment."

It's good to know that you no longer have to be born to be wild if you just want to learn about a new release. All you have to do is go to TechNet and click on the lab you want to try. You'll have to fill out a registration form, download the lab manual, and install an ActiveX control.

Most of the labs take 90 minutes, but you can now try the new 30-minute "Express" labs for a quick hands-on tour. And through June, Microsoft is offering an incentive to get you into Virtual Labs: Registering for, participating in, and submitting an evaluation of a Virtual Lab qualifies you for a chance to win a Pocket PC.

Looking for Adventure
If you've tried these labs in the past and had a less-than-perfect experience, you're not alone. In fact, Blake Eno, one of Windows IT Pro's product editors, can attest to some non-standard lab behavior. In one funny and colleague-annoying incident, Blake kept trying to work with one of the labs in his office. Every time he reached a certain point in the exercise, his computer would make a deafening screeching noise, forcing him to shut it down. Other technical glitches weren't as entertaining. But Anthony tells me that the labs' early problems have been solved, and the current user experience is smooth. Anthony is proud that all the labs' infrastructure is built with Microsoft technology and follows the Microsoft mandate of "eating your own dog food," or using you own products as a way to experience what your customers experience.

Head Out on the Highway
What lies ahead? When I was chatting with Anthony, it occurred to me that, besides being a way to try out new products, Virtual Labs could be a vehicle for training IT staff. I asked whether the labs were rated for level of difficulty—for example, could I organize a curriculum with Virtual Labs ordered from 101-level to 400-level? Anthony told me that his team had just decided to do that very type of ranking. By the time you read this article, the ranking levels might be in place.

If you've used the Virtual Labs, let me know whether you find them useful. I'm also curious to hear whether you've thought of alternative ways to use them in your business.