I am currently an IT employee who works primarily with hardware/software desktop support, as well as various projects.

I feel like I need to learn more about server/network administration and my current role does not really offer that. I want/need to gain experience w/ active directory, group policy, etc.

I am comfortable working/troubleshooting windows desktops and basic network issues/configurations. I just need to further my experience and knowledge.

I could set up a physical home network, however I think to get started I would like to try it using a virtual machine. Is this feasible and worthwhile? Does anyone have any tips or good book recommendations? Also- should I focus on ms server 2008 or 2003?


5 Answers 5


It's perfectly possible to setup and learn Windows Server via virtual machine. You can use either Microsoft's Virtual PC, which is free for Windows 7 or Vista/XP or VMWare Player with a virtual machine created from EasyVMX.com. This setup will allow you to install, tweak and change a Windows Server PC. In addition to the server products, you can install products like Exchange 2007 or SQL Server in time-limited (120-180 day) trial versions on VMs.

However, you should keep in mind that your Server instance(s) is going to need a bare minimum of 1 GB each to work. If you're going the VM route, you really should be running a 64-bit client operating system to take advantage of 4 GB or more of RAM. You could get by with a 32-bit OS and around 3GB of RAM, but it'll be tough running even 2 VMs at the same time.

To have the best learning experience, I would advise that you setup a Windows 2008 AD domain controller and connect your client PC(s) as a domain member(s). Use your server as your everyday Domain Controller, file server, DHCP, DNS and print server. You can still setup VMs for things like SQL, Exchange and IIS that you don't necessarily use every day and just want to experiment with. Here's the issue - you'll have trouble with setting this up as a live environment if you're running it as a VM on top of your client OS.

You can buy fairly powerful, small PCs for not much money. You can buy a dual-core desktop PC on eBay for around $200. Dell Outlet has the tiny Dell Studio PC for about $400. If you want to go even smaller, Dell Auction has dual core laptops (which will work fine as a "server") that sell for around $300.

One more thing - Microsoft has a subscription service for IT people like you. For $350 per year, you get full, non-time limited versions of Windows Server (2003 and 2008), Office, Exchange, SQL, Windows Vista, XP, 7 and pretty much any other Microsoft desktop and server products. The only caveat is that these can't be used in a production environment. It's a great deal, and eliminates the headache of reinstalling evaluation versions every few months.

In summary, you can absolutely work with VMs, and it doesn't have to cost you anything. Spend some money on a second PC and a TechNet subscription and you'll have a more realistic learning experience. Maybe start with VMs and move on to the others when you feel comfortable.

  • Thanks! I have several dell PCs sitting. I will use one to set up as the main server. As for the TechNet subscription- I'll have to save up for that, but it sounds like a good route to go. I can use these on multiple machines at my home?
    – Neil
    Jul 20, 2009 at 20:55

I've taught Microsoft certification classes from Microsoft "Official" curriculum, and I've seen a lot of third-party books. Too often their exercises are grounded in walking you through installing or configuring a feature, and they never give you any real-world grounding in why you might use a given feature. I've met a lot of people who, as a result, walk around looking for applications for esoteric features but don't know why they'd use the features.

Identify real-world scenarios that you'd like to mock-up. If you want to learn about Group Policy for example, setup a goal scenario based on ways that you see Group Policy used at work (or, if your workplace is one of the countless shops that doesn't use Group Policy, a way that you'd like to see Group Policy used) and have at it.

Virtual machines are great, but be careful not to get mired down in dealing with the virtual and forgetting about "the real". When it comes to more esoteric things like configuring Ethernet VLANs, WAN routers, firewall devices, etc, there's a lot to be gained with the hands-on plugging-in and unplugging cables. There's something to be said for having at least one physically dedicated client computer for testing, too. You can get a real feel for how much it "costs" (in time) to move data across network pipes in a way that virtual switches don't show you.

A home network is great, and I think you should definitely do it. Beware, though, that a home network teaches you very little about how business uses computer networks. Frankly, Windows server admins are a dime a dozen. A sysadmin who has an understanding of the ROI model of technology in a business is a different animal entirely. You certainly should learn about technology, but you should also learn about business and the management / application of technology in a business.

I'm at a loss as to where to point you in the way of books / training materials because I've been almost universally disappointed with such items. I'd encourage you to see out mentors. You might find that in your workplace, at a local user's group meeting, or on the 'net. If you have the capability to pull a few extra unpaid hours working with the network administration staff at your job, give it a go. If not, perhaps you can find an internship gig on the side by way of local volunteer organizations or by enrolling in a community college. There are a lot of possibilities if you're willing to go out and look for them.

re: Windows Server 2003 versus Windows Server 2008 - It pays to be conversant with both. They're not that different (W2K8 feels like a slick service pack to W2K3, to me) and you shouldn't be intimidated to move freely between them. Learn where the differences are by way of "what's new" guides and docs, and learn what those differences mean with respect to real-world applications.

  • Just want to agree with Evan's take on Microsoft's training classes, books/training materials and mentors. All very good advice. I think the ROI model is more a matter of perspective and the ability to step back from a narrow focus on technology. I've known people who have worked in IT for years that don't know or care about ROI and people in college who got it completely.
    – Carl C
    Jul 20, 2009 at 21:04
  • ROI means Return on Investment right?
    – Neil
    Jul 20, 2009 at 21:10
  • Correct. The whole "business doesn't do technology for technology's sake" thing, taken to a dollars-and-cents perspective. (Even being able to articulate the idea of "business doesn't do technology for technology's sake" puts one head and shoulders above a lot of "IT people" that I've met... >smile<) Jul 20, 2009 at 21:45

I would do 3 things. Get a good book, setup a home lab and play with it. Reload several times. Setup different services; like DNS, DHCP, IIS, ETC. Try to pick a book that has practice exercises and do them. As a bonus use a book at gears towards a certification exam and take the test when you are done. as a second bonus pick a book at comes with a sever evaluation license.

I like MS press, sybex, and que for my books.

  • Do think it's possible to do the setting up/testing via virtual machine instead of setting up a physical machine- I have limited space in my apartment
    – Neil
    Jul 20, 2009 at 20:16
  • of course! I wouldnt do it any other way!
    – Alan
    Jul 20, 2009 at 20:20

I'd highly recommend looking at the study materials for taking the 70-290 and 70-291 MCSE/MCSA exams, specifically ones with practice tests (it's been a while since I'd taken them, but a quick google found this: http://www.freedownloadscenter.com/Programming/Registration_Tools/Whizlabs_MCSE_Exam__70_291__Simulator.html - no clue if it's any good at all)

The exams themselves give "real world" scenarios that ask you to use the tools you know (assuming you're actually taking the exam) to solve the problems - taking a practice exam and then researching the areas where you don't follow what's going on is a good way to go about it.


As for learning the technology itself, I agree - set up a quick VM or take an old PC/notebook you may have access to and install 2003/2008. There is no substitute for having the real deal in front of you to mess around with. I would also grab a book or two to provide the background info to guide you in learning those OSs. I highly recommend these two books:

Mastering Windows Server 2003

Windows Server 2008 Unleashed

Both books are huge, I know. And it sounds crazy, but reading them cover to cover (even the chapters you already think you know), while "playing along at home" with a VM as you go over topics, will not only teach you the basics, but the details and gotchas as well. That is what (I feel) sets these books apart from others; they don't just tell you how to click through a wizard, they tell you what you are actually doing, and give background on why things are the way they are, and how they work under the hood. These provide a lot of depth, not just walk-throughs and screen-shots. These will give you the ability to think and troubleshoot when something goes wrong, which is the most important thing. Maintaining something that is working properly isn't hard. You really earn your stripes when something breaks.

Again, it will take time to actually read through the books while walking through stuff on a VM or PC, but its well worth it. Treat it like a class you are taking. Study the textbook and complete the labs.

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