Sunday, August 06, 2006

Microsoft Virtual Labs; a review

I've had some free time the past few weeks, and always looking to find ways to expand and sharpen my technical skills, I've been working with the Microsoft Virtual Labs. Actually, I promised a young lady at the Microsoft booth at Tech Ed that I would, so this was also a way for me to stay good to my word. Oh, the things I'll do for a free T-shirt!

For those of you who haven't tried them, Virtual Labs are basically remote controlled Virtual PC's that Microsoft hosts with pre-built components and software installations geared toward teaching you a specific task. Each lab comes with a PDF lab manual, which gives you very specific instructions to complete the lab.

The Good
Everything you need to complete the lab, including starter projects and server installations are already setup for you in the virtual environment, which is no small thing when you are interested in learning something like BizTalk. The lab directions are (for the most part) very clear about the steps and the expected outcomes. The labs are designed to be "bite size" meaning you should not require more than 90 minutes to complete one, which is good because...

The Bad
...you have a 90 minute time limit for each lab. Then, you are unceremoniously kicked out, and you environment resets for the next go around. I understand that Microsoft does not want people sitting in these all day as I'm sure they tie up a lot of resources. But the rigid nature of the experience and the time limit does not give you much opportunity to experiment beyond the lab directions. I don't know how feasible this is, but I would prefer having Virtual PC images available to run locally. Microsoft would not have to worry about creating a time limit, and users would have more freedom to go off the script and explore on their own. The only drawback I could see from Microsoft’s point of view is people attempting to use the images to cheat on getting a "real" license somehow, but there are ways around that. Another "ding" is that the lab manuals are a bit inconsistent, which is a given since they are developed by different people in different groups. My biggest gripe with them is that a lot of them just have the "Do this. Now do this. Now do this." style of instruction, without explaining to you why you are doing this. This is big reason why these labs in no way compare to good solid work experience. Don't do all the BizTalk labs and expect to be an expert, you will find you are still very much a novice.

The Ugly
These are virtual PC's. Over the internet. Guess how fast they are? That’s right, they are S L O W. At times, almost painfully so. There were a couple of times where I was really worried about finishing in the allotted 90 minutes. Some of this may depend on your bandwidth. I for one only have the medium diameter tubes coming into my home, so if you have access to something faster, you may have better luck. The other really ugly aspect is that for several of the labs I found, the manuals were just plain wrong. Pre-made solutions, projects and files were not where they were supposed to be. Code was wrong (in some cases, it didn't even compile) and properties were not where the manuals said they would be. I don't know if some of these weren't QA'ed really well, or if the image was changed after the manual was produced, but it does make for a very frustrating experience.

Overall
So, after doing these labs I can say that I am more familiar with several .NET technologies... in the same way the watching the "Star Wars" saga has made me familiar with using the force, or watching "Top Gun" has prepared me to climb into an F-14 and engage a couple of MiG's in a dogfight. I feel comfortable discussing and speaking to the power, limitations and abilities of these products and technologies, and can suggest to a client when and where it would be appropriate to use them in a solution, but I might not be able to implement all the details myself.

I mentioned BizTalk a lot here, but they have several other products that have virtual labs available. However, I feel the selection is a little thin. I was disappointed by the utter lack of Team Foundation Server labs, especially considering the “push” Microsoft was giving this at Tech Ed (not to mention the hefty price tag), I would think a “try before you buy” approach would get more development and IT staff on the band wagon. But, I imagine (hope) that as more people take interest and start using these labs, Microsoft will see that the development community is interested, and devote more resources to them.

Code on...

5 comments:

VL Guy said...

The time issue is something the VL guys are working on. The ability to extend the time is one of the most requested features. Unfortunately, bandwidth is a limitation that we don't have too much control over and it affects the speed of the labs. Some labs are faster than others. The feedback is helpful and keep an eye out for new labs.

VL Guy

James Bender said...

Thanks VL Guy!

All in all I think the labs are a great resource and would love to see them expanded and presented as place to experience technologies some of us might otherwise not get to play with.

VL Guy said...

Also, the VL team is trying a new format - part Webcast/part Virtual Lab - on Architecting with Team Foundation Server. It's a one shot deal on Wed, Aug 30th, 12:00pm PST. Check it out: http://msdn.microsoft.com/virtuallabs/default.aspx

If the 1st run is successful, they may run more of these and make them viewable on-demand.

VL Guy said...

Also, check out the new format the team is piloting on Architecting with Team Foundation Server http://msdn.microsoft.com/virtuallabs/default.aspx. It's part Webcast and part Virtual Lab but it's a one shot deal on Wednesday, Aug 30th, 12:00PM PST.

If it goes well they may run more down the road.

VL Guy

VL Guy said...

Also, check out the new format the team is piloting on Architecting with Team Foundation Server http://msdn.microsoft.com/virtuallabs/default.aspx. It's part Webcast and part Virtual Lab but it's a one shot deal on Wednesday, Aug 30th, 12:00PM PST.

If it goes well they may run more down the road.

VL Guy