Too Busy for Class? Learn at Home.

Most people who have used either Microsoft Windows or Windows NT are familiar with the excellent Resource Kits that are available from Microsoft Press. The Windows NT Training Kit is less well known, perhaps because it looks so much like the Resource Kit, and is overlooked on the bookseller's shelves. Its purpose is quite different, and it has a place in the library of anyone who wishes to learn more about Windows NT.

The Microsoft Windows NT Training Kit
Publisher: Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 1995, ISBN 1-55615-864-5
Price: $195.00, 1226 pages

The kit contains two books, four floppy disks, and a videotape. The first book, Support Fundamentals for Microsoft Windows NT, is a study guide for the first of the two Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 3.5 and Windows NT Server 3.5 exams for Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) hopefuls. The second volume is Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server, a study guide for the second exam. Microsoft will tell you that the MCP exams are based largely on the contents of the Resource Kit and product manuals. This is reasonably accurate, but the manuals and the Resource Kit are really reference materials and make dry reading if you wish to spend some time studying the subject. The Training Kit takes a different approach and is intended as a step-by-step tutorial. It parallels the classes given by Microsoft's Authorized Technical Education Centers.

Even if you don't plan to pursue the MCP qualification, this kit is worth considering as a means of jump-starting your career as an NT specialist. For the IS department faced with converting network specialists to NT, this kit may be a good option, provided the technicians are given the time and resources necessary to complete it.

Before you purchase the kit for home study, think about the hardware requirements. In order to complete all the lessons--and there is a lot of hands-on work--you'll need two (yes, two!) computers, each with 16MB of memory and 100MB of free disk space. To complete the Server section, you'll need 180MB free on one of the computers. And, if you wish to run the disk-striping exercises, you'll need three hard disks on one of the computers. Actually, two of these disks could be small, "surplus" hard disks, but you'll need either a SCSI controller and SCSI disks, or an enhanced IDE controller capable of supporting more than two hard disks. The computers must be networked, even if it's just a two-computer link via Ethernet cards. Knowing that you'll be installing a new operating system, you won't want to use production systems for these exercises.

Although it's not mentioned on the box, as the above requirements are, you'll also need the Windows NT Workstation and Server software.

If you decide that you're willing to devote the time and resources to learning about Windows NT, what's in these books? As with the classes, the self-study courses assume a good working knowledge of Windows, PC concepts such as ports, interrupts, and buses, and some networking experience. Given that starting point, your first item of business is to review the Microsoft family of products and how Windows NT fits in. You may be tempted to skip this, thinking it is more Microsoft propaganda. But, if you're planning to take the MCP exam, I strongly recommend that you skip nothing. Microsoft expects MCPs to explain the features and benefits of the entire family of products and to justify the installation of the appropriate software. Remember, Microsoft uses the word "professional," not "technician." Not only do you have to know what you're doing, you have to know why and be able to communicate your reasons.

Once you know what Windows NT will do for you, you can begin. You actually install the software, using the default installation the first time through. Once the software is in place, you can begin to assign user accounts, build group accounts, and add security policies. You continue by configuring the system, using the Registry (which, at this stage, is something you look at but don't mess with) and the Control Panel applet. At each step, there's an explanation, an exercise (usually on the computer), and a summary of what you have learned. Each chapter or lesson includes some questions for review. In case you are wondering: Yes, the answers are in the back of the book, and the writers repeated the questions as well, so you don't have to try to keep the book open in two places at once.

The course moves on to choosing a file system, with a discussion of the File Allocation Table (FAT), High-Performance File System (HPFS), and NT File System (NTFS) systems. You use the Disk Administrator to create and delete partitions, volume sets, and stripe sets. By this time, you understand why you're not working through the course on a production system. You continue with NTFS security, assigning permissions, and sharing resources. The NT security model is analyzed before proceeding to networking, including Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/ IP) and Internet Packet eXchange (IPX). Unfortunately, if you don't have access to a NetWare server, you'll have to skip the hands-on parts of these lessons.

The sections on domains, workgroups, and network browsing will require two computers, although you may be able to connect into an established domain. The lesson on the Remote Access Server suggests using a null modem cable between the two computers, which is good news for students who don't have two telephone lines.

Microsoft uses some different terminology when talking about printers on NT systems, and the MCP tests expect you to follow Microsoft usage, whether you like it or not. Fortunately, after completing the lessons on printing from NT, it should be clear why the NT team chose the words they did.

Operating systems are installed with the idea that someone will do some productive work on the computer. Therefore, lessons are devoted to optimizing performance, to get the most out of the system, and to installing and supporting applications, so you or your network users can get some work done. The first volume concludes with a description of the boot sequence for NT and then discusses troubleshooting, diagnostics, and the emergency repair disk.

If you want to go further into Windows NT Server, you can do it in the second volume. At least, you can as long as you have 210MB free on your hard disk to install the software, which you do in the second lesson. The first lesson looks at planning domains, something that should always precede an installation. Other lessons cover topics such as using groups to manage user accounts, configuring the user and the server environments, and establishing trust relationships. NT Server adds fault tolerance to NT, a topic covered in volume two.

TCP/IP is revisited, with the emphasis on the differences in the NT Server version. Various clients are supported, including Windows for Workgroups and DOS clients. Some of these clients can be managed directly from the server, and the student can practice doing this. The section on optimizing for performance is quite different from the Workstation section in volume one because the two products are intended to fill roles as either a workstation or a server, but not both at the same time. The final lessons include more on interoperability with Novell NetWare, assuming that the NT Server machine is part of a larger network with a mix of operating systems.

The videotape, which ideally should be watched before beginning the second volume, focuses on the domain model and how to implement it.

The books and tape are sold only as a complete package. Are they worth the not insignificant price? Probably, depending on your needs. If you wish to pass the MCP tests for both products, the tests alone will cost $100 each. Being able to pass the first time could save the cost of the kit. However, Microsoft says only that the kit "will help prepare you for the MCP exams." There is no promise that you can complete the course and then pass the test. Some people will find that a combination of the kit and actual hands-on experience will be enough to qualify; others will decide to take the formal classes. The key may be finding the time and resources to complete the lessons in the thorough manner of the classroom, instead of giving in to the temptation to skim through the book. The books do a good job of simulating a classroom experience, which means that you have to do the exercises, not just read the book. If all you want is a reference manual, go for the Resource Kit instead, or buy one of the many books on Windows NT.

If you are part of a user group or a large company, you may find resellers who will cut the price of the kits substantially if you order in bulk.