An alternative to instructor-led courses and third-party books

People frequently ask me, "What's a good way to learn about Windows NT?" Several approaches are available, some of which we discussed in the training and support focus in July 1996. One method is the Microsoft self-paced training kits. I reviewed the NT 3.51 training kit in "Too Busy for Class? Learn at Home," December 1995. This month I reveal how the new NT 4.0 training kits measure up.

Q: What Is in the Self-Paced Kits?

With NT 4.0, Microsoft offers two kits. Each contains a training manual and a CD-ROM with the course labs and support materials. The courses offered at Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs) do not divide neatly into Workstation and Server courses, which makes sense because so much overlap exists with no clear dividing line between the two versions of NT. The two self-paced courses follow this same pattern.

Microsoft offers a "Windows NT Technical Support Training" course and a "Windows NT Network Administration Training" course. The technical support course includes a 773-page training manual; a CD-ROM with the labs, videos, and other supporting materials; and 120-day evaluation copies of NT Workstation and NT Server. The network administration course includes a 519-page training manual, a CD-ROM that contains the course materials, and a 120-day evaluation copy of NT Server.

The courses include simulations of certain activities, such as configuring fault tolerance disk arrays, that let you perform the steps without having the resources available on your computer. Although Microsoft intended the simulations to be run from Internet Explorer (IE), as Screen 1 shows, you can run the labs and examples from the NT Explorer interface if you prefer.

Q: Which One Should I Buy?

If your primary responsibility is installing, configuring, and maintaining NT and the applications that users run on their computers, Microsoft designed the technical support course for you. If you are more concerned with your network's people aspects such as user accounts, groups, permissions, access rights, and auditing, the network administration package is the one to buy.

Q: What Do I Need to Run the Courses?

For the network administration course, you need one computer capable of running NT Server 4.0. For a few exercises, you'll need a second computer, but you have the option of skipping these exercises. The technical support course requires two computers: one conFigured to run NT Server 4.0 and the other to dual-boot NT Server 4.0 and NT Workstation 4.0. Each computer will need about 450MB of disk space, and you must partition the disk on the workstation computer into drives C and D plus some free space. Obviously, you must network the two computers and ideally keep them separate from the rest of your network to ensure that nothing you do affects other users. You need a sound card and speakers if you want to run the videos that come with the course. If your NT systems do not support multimedia, you can run the videos and simulations on a Windows 95 computer. In case you cannot use two dedicated computers and have to use existing computers on the corporate network, you can remove the course materials, shortcuts, and so forth from the computers when you finish the course.

Q: How Are the Courses Presented?

Unlike the classroom courses, which have a presentation followed by a lab, the self-paced courses are more hands-on, with practice exercises and labs interwoven into the text. Each chapter includes review questions, and Microsoft provides the answers at the end of each chapter.

Q: What Does the Technical Support Course Cover?

First, let's look at the technical support course. After a brief overview of NT, the course covers installation in detail. It provides simulations of both Workstation and Server installation, and the simulations are realistic enough to make you wonder whether you're installing NT again, as Screen 2 shows. If you cannot install NT on the computer you use for the course, the simulations make a good substitute, and they run a lot faster than the real thing.

The training manual explains unattended NT installation from a central server and the use of answer files and uniqueness database files (UDFs) to automate the network installation process. The manual fails to mention the sysdiff utility for unattended software installation. Yet this tool is on the list of topics that Microsoft can include on the Workstation exam. Continuing the systems administrator theme, the course covers how to conFigure NT from the Control Panel and through the Registry and shows how to use System Policies to control the configuration for end users.

The training course covers managing file systems, partitions, disks, and disk arrays, including stripe and volume sets and fault tolerance. The course also illustrates these concepts with simulations that are useful if you do not have three or four hard disks in your computer. The course even demonstrates supporting both 16-bit and 32-bit applications, with some interesting applets that cause general protection faults or system hangs in the 16-bit window but not in NT.

Networking configuration and troubleshooting take a significant amount of time and resources from any technical support organization. After introducing the NT networking architecture, the training manual discusses NetBEUI, NWLink, and TCP/IP in depth. Under Networking Services, the training manual groups the TCP/IP components such as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), Windows Internet Name Service (WINS), and Domain Name System (DNS). The course includes the Browser Service, but only briefly, even though the service contributes a substantial share of network traffic. The course demonstrates Remote Access Service (RAS) services, including the configuration of the various dial-in protocols, using a null modem cable between the two computers.

The section on the Internet, including the installation of Internet Information Server (IIS) and IE, underlines Microsoft's commitment to pushing the Internet technology into everything we do, like it or not. Indeed, the introduction to NT Server at the start of the book states, "The integration of IIS with Windows NT Server 4.0 means that Web Server installation and management is simply another part of the operating system." The fact that IIS will run only on NT does not make IIS integrated, in my opinion, and I see the program as another application, not as part of the operating system. Before you connect your corporate network to the Internet, you'll probably want more information than the course provides.

Many NT installations occur in existing networks, so the section on interoperating with Novell NetWare will interest many systems administrators. Screen 3 shows the simulation that lets you perform the installation and configuration steps for Client Services for NetWare without having administrative access to a NetWare server.

The section on network clients includes a discussion of licensing and licensing replication that I have not seen anywhere else. It includes license groups and how to use the license manager utility to keep track of licensing across multiple servers. And when you get to file synchronization and directory replication, the course has an introduction to Briefcase, another topic not often mentioned. (For more information on Briefcase, see "Windows NT Briefcase," August 1997.) Replication requires two computers. I suggest you work through this clear explanation and the exercises, because the replication process works for some people but not for others, even when they apparently follow the same directions.

Any technical support course would be incomplete without a discussion of troubleshooting, and this course allocates space in several chapters to the topic, beginning with a detailed discussion of the NT boot process. The boot process can be the most difficult part of NT to diagnose because if you cannot boot the system, you cannot use the NT diagnostic tools. However, a good understanding of the boot process will make most problems easy to identify.

Q: What Does the Network Administration Course Cover?

The focus of the network administration course is different from the technical support course. Network administration does not go into technical details, but rather concentrates on the tasks the system administrator faces. Beginning with the logon process, the emphasis is on setting up user accounts and group accounts. By the end of this section, you'll know the difference between local and global groups, where to use each one, and how to use the built-in groups that NT installs by default. This course thoroughly covers setting up account policies but has only a cursory discussion of domains that refers only to administering domain controllers.

The course covers setting and administering permissions, with both NTFS permissions and share permissions discussed in detail, and explains their interaction. Network printing gets two chapters, although one is probably sufficient. The course continues with a discussion of auditing the users and monitoring resource use from a system perspective. This course rounds out the administrator's tasks with the Backup and Restore programs. Again, assuming that you might not have a tape drive available, the course provides a useful simulation, as Screen 4 shows.

Q: Will I Be Able to Pass the Exams After Studying with These Courses? Will They Help Me Do My Job?

As far as passing the exam is concerned, the self-paced course will help. But to be sure, I recommend that you supplement these courses with further reading and hands-on experience. The packaging for these courses states that they'll help you pass the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) exams--not enable you to pass the exams, just help. And the exams mentioned are the Workstation and Server exams, not the NT Enterprise exam.

In particular, the network administration course falls far short of providing the information that you need to administer a network and that Microsoft bases exam questions on. The most glaring omission is that the course hardly mentions domains and fails to mention trust relationships, which are crucial to a complete understanding of the domain model. This omission, which also occurs in the 803 Windows NT Administration course the ATECs give, seems to reflect an attitude at Microsoft that domains and trusts are too complex for the average person to understand. This assumption is certainly not true. Whatever the reason for this omission, I cannot recommend this course until Microsoft revises it to include the information that a systems administrator needs to complete network setup and configuration.

Both the Server exam and, to a greater extent, the Enterprise exam contain questions on domains and trust relationships that you will not be able to answer unless you have supplemented your studies with other materials. If Microsoft omits domains and trust relationships from the courseware, why are these topics on the exam?

As for helping you do your job, yes, these courses will help you. The technical support course meets expectations fairly well and covers most of the topics a support person needs to get started with an NT installation. The network administration course is adequate as far as it goes, but only for day-to-day systems administration. This course does not go far enough for anyone planning a multidomain network.

The Bottom Line
The technical support course is a good value; the network administration course is less so. Will these courses work for you? If you do not have time to take a class or if you study better at your own pace, these courses can work for you. They fall short of a classroom setting because you have no interaction with other students or additional insights from an instructor. With self-study, you can repeat modules as often as you like, whenever you want. Are these courses better than just reading third-party books? In some ways, the answer is yes, because the courses provide a lot of hands-on experience, which is the best way for most people to learn. Perhaps the best approach is to learn from these self-paced kits and then supplement that knowledge with some of the more advanced third-party books.

Contact: Microsoft Press * 800-677-7377
Web: http://www.mspress.microsoft.com
Microsoft Windows NT Network Administration Training
Publisher: Microsoft Press Redmond, Washington, 1997
ISBN:1-57231-439-7
Price: $79.99
Microsoft Windows NT Technical Support Training
Publisher: Microsoft Press Redmond, Washington, 1997
ISBN: 1-57231-373-0
Price: $99.99