Virtualization for Exchange Server Training

First, I'd like to give you a reminder: There's still a little time to get your entries in for the Worst Software in the Exchange World contest. The IRS is giving us until April 17 to file our taxes, so the least I can do is extend the deadline here, too -- email me your suggestions by April 17.

There's a big debate going on in the world of personal aviation: What's the best way to learn to fly? The traditional method involves a combination of ground instruction and flight training in an actual airplane. However, a powerful argument is being made that scenario-based training using a simulator produces better-trained students, faster, than the traditional method. In the scenario-based method, the student works through a predefined syllabus made up of scenarios (such as "take off, perform three steep turns, return to the airport, and land").

Software linked to the flight simulator guides the student through the process, providing instruction and correction as needed. When the software thinks the student has done acceptably well, a human instructor gets in the real airplane with the student and they repeat the process. This type of training seems to be much more effective than the traditional method, so it's beginning to catch on; anything that reduces the expense of learning to fly is bound to be popular.

What about training in the Microsoft Exchange Server world? If you don't have an automated tutor (and someday you will; building those tutors is my day job), how can you maximize the return you get for the time you put in? It turns out that the answer is the same as in aviation: Simulation.

We live in a time where virtualization is common, cheap, and simple. If you're not using virtualized Exchange systems as part of your personal training, you're missing out on a great opportunity. You can set up a simple, single-machine test bed, or you can build a full or partial replica of your production system-then you can do anything you want to it! Want to practice disaster recovery? Or see what happens when you put a firewall between a Client Access server and a Mailbox server? Or find out how the Unified Messaging server works? You can do all those things and more in virtual environments without the risk or hassle of experimenting on your production systems.

You can't depend on virtualized environments for gathering performance or latency data (unless your production environment is virtualized too!). However, given Microsoft's current support policies for virtualized Exchange, you can be confident that you'll see identical behavior when you make identical changes on virtualized or physical systems.

You don't have to have a huge system to run virtualized Exchange environments, either. Exchange MVP Jeff Guillet put together a very nice system, which you can read about on his blog, that can host up to a dozen or so Exchange 2010 servers for just under $1,000. Although $1,000 is a lot of money to many of us, when you consider the fact that a system like that lets you set up a complete Exchange 2010 infrastructure-including Mailbox, Hub Transport, and Client Access server roles, and even including two or three separate Exchange organizations-it can be money well spent.

The kicker, of course, is that Windows 8 and Exchange 15 (or whatever Microsoft decides to name them at release) are right around the corner. Microsoft hasn't said when they'll release a beta version of Exchange 15, but of course they will, and the Windows 8 beta is available now. Experimenting with these releases during their beta cycles is perhaps the best investment you can make in your career. Even if you don't plan to move to these versions immediately, knowing how they work and being proficient with them is a great help if you're looking for a new position, and even if you're not, the more you learn about where Microsoft's going, the better positioned you are to anticipate and react to trends, such as the ongoing move toward cloud-based services.

Of course, training all by yourself isn't much fun, so in an upcoming UPDATE I'm going to talk about Exchange Server user groups. Let me give you a quick homework assignment to do before then: Find out if there are any local Exchange user groups near where you live. It will help to have that fact in mind next time I revisit training. Until then . . .

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