As most of you know, book learning is important, but solid hands-on training is essential to becoming a better-than-average technician. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of working in an environment that has all the latest technologies. In fact, many members of the CertTutor.net Live! discussion forum still administer Windows NT 4.0 servers and Windows 95 clients in the workplace. In such circumstances, a home lab is especially valuable.

I often hear questions about what to include in a home lab. The answer, of course, depends on what technologies you're studying, but I can provide several core recommendations that can help you prepare for MCSE or Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certifications.

At a minimum, you should have one system to use as a server, a second that can you can dual boot between server and workstation OSs, and a third that can support Windows XP Professional Edition (which you might also want to dual- or triple-boot among various client configurations). If you plan to study Microsoft Exchange Server or Microsoft SQL Server, make sure your two server systems have enough memory (256MB of memory should be fine). If you have a spare system (e.g., a Linux or NT 4.0 machine), you can set it up as a router between your servers. A router ensures that your servers aren't "cheating" by using a nonroutable system protocol to communicate with each other.

As CertTutor.net Live! tutor David Watts recently pointed out, performing study guide lab exercises is the bare minimum of what you must do to pass an exam, but these exercises won't help you in a production network. Study guide labs focus on one application, service, or utility at a time. For skills that will serve you in the real world, you must go the extra mile and design your own lab exercises.

When you're in the right mindset, designing lab exercises is easy. Think of scenarios and users that you might encounter in the real business world and implement them in your home lab. For example, create an end-user account with Microsoft Office applications, a Microsoft Outlook mail client, and files and favorites. Add some common extra features, such as a Yahoo! email account. Then challenge yourself to migrate that user account from one system to another while maintaining all the settings and files. You can also set up a similar user account on a standalone system and have that account join a domain. In fact, you can pretend that you're upgrading a small business from sneakernet to a full Windows 2000 Server LAN.

The hard part about performing your own lab exercises is the time-consuming nature of setting up the scenarios. Installing an OS and setting up a new user account takes a lot of time. One solution is to create the basic system and use an imaging application such as Symantec's Norton Ghost to make an image of the system that you can restore again and again. Another (and much faster) solution is to use a "virtual-computer" utility such as VMware or Connectix's Connectix Virtual PC. (Each utility has advantages and disadvantages; evaluate the demo versions of each before you commit to one.)

Virtual-computer utilities let you network one or more "computers" within one workstation. A virtual computer acts just like a real computer, letting you install various OSs and applications and implement various networking scenarios. Virtual-computer utilities save you money (because you don't have to buy additional hardware) and let you quickly restore a system to a specific configuration. If you're practicing with a migration scenario and you mess something up, you can reset the virtual computer and start over without having to restore a ghosted image or reinstall an OS. These utilities offer many other advantages—in fact, far too many to list here, so be sure to check them out for yourself!