Help Yourself: Building Home Practice Labs

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The old saying “practice makes perfect” is as true for those preparing for certification exams as it is for anyone who seeks to learn, develop and apply skills and knowledge to their tasks and activities. There’s also an increasing impetus in certification exams from sponsors galore, starting with Apple (which offers numerous hardware- and software-related credentials) all the way to Zend (which sponsors certifications on the popular PHP Web development environment and toolset) to require individuals not just to know what they’re doing, but to demonstrate their ability to perform specific tasks, solve problems and apply their knowledge to specific situations and scenarios. And while not all certification exams use hands-on labs with real equipment or ask test-takers to operate simulations that look and feel like the real thing, that kind of content is increasingly popular on a wide selection of certification exams.

All of this adds up to a pressing need for practice in an environment where candidates can tear things apart and blow them up when necessary—or by accident—as they learn how to set up, install, configure, maintain and use the tools and technologies they’ll be tested on. This explains why a home certification lab is a good idea (and why so many successful certification candidates have already built their own). There are many options that candidates and certificants have found helpful in pulling home practice labs together. There are many kinds of equipment and software that will be beneficial in a practice lab. Also, there are some shopping and other acquisition techniques that can be of help.

What’s In a Home Lab?
The most effective and useful home labs obviously include both equipment and software, but of course, the devil is always in the details. Certainly, a minimal home lab setup needs at least two computers, a network and an Internet connection. Although it’s always nice to lay your hands on fast, powerful computers, machines that meet minimum operating system and application support requirements will do the trick, so one- to two-year-old used machines can be a good value.

Right now, for example, Fry’s Electronics is selling new bare-bones systems with 2.66 GHz Celerons, 128 MB of RAM, a combo DVD/CD drive and 40 MB of hard disk right now for a mere $280. Similar prices are available for systems that use the AMD Sempron. You can put enough memory into one of these machines to meet Windows requirements for another $60 or so. That means you should be able to buy slower (but probably better equipped) one- to two-year-old used systems for about the same price, if not slightly less.

Internet appliances offer extremely good value to home users (and their labs) these days as well. From companies like Belkin, D-Link, Linksys and others, you can buy a device for less than $75 that hooks up to the Internet via broadband (cable modem or DSL; some models support both types of links, others support one or the other). These boxes also have four or more switched 10/100 Ethernet ports, NAT, DHCP, a firewall and more. (Extra features like VPN support, print services, USB attachments or hubs, and so forth vary from product to product.)

The software needed for a home lab varies depending on which certification you’re chasing. Certainly, a desktop operating system is absolutely essential for each machine. Because lab equipment often plays multiple roles when candidates need different kinds of platforms to practice on, you’ll also want to acquire two essential types of lab support software in addition to whatever operating systems, applications and so forth you actually need to practice on:

 

 

  • Virtual machine (VM) software: This allows a single PC to run multiple VMs, including servers and workstations, each in its own separate process space. These tools usually simulate network links, so that individual virtual machines on a single PC can still communicate with one another as if they were using a network, rather than process-to-process communication. Top products in this space include Microsoft’s Virtual PC and Virtual Server, and EMC’s VMware. Two caveats come with this suggestion. First, to be effective and perform with any speed at all, PCs that run VM software should be loaded up with at least 1 GB of RAM (more is clearly better in this situation). And second, though you can occasionally get free beta access to Microsoft VM software (last year, for example, when Virtual Server 2005 was in beta test, it could be downloaded at no charge from the Microsoft Web site), this software costs money to buy. Discounts for these products are available, but you’ll pay at least $100 for Virtual PC, $350 for Virtual Server and at least $120 for VMWare.
  • Disk imaging software: A program like Symantec Ghost or Acronis True Image lets you quickly snapshot and store complete copies of what’s on a system disk. It also lets you switch between snapshots quickly and with relative ease. This sort of setup is an absolute must in any kind of lab situation. It also can make it possible to “take over” other PCs in the house for temporary lab use without disrupting other users in any way. Both of these packages are available for around $50 and are sometimes heavily discounted. Many certification candidates have explained that because they usually also have a laptop and one or more other PCs in the household for family use, this permits them to use as many as four or five machines in their labs if and when they’re needed. Apparently, “Mom is studying for an exam, and needs to use the PC for a while” actually can carry some weight with other PC users in the family.

 

Other things that work well in home labs include a miscellany of odds and ends. These include the following:

 

 

  • A small tool kit: Preferably, this includes quality hand tools suitable for working on computers. You’ll also need a small soldering iron, and a small digital volt-ohm-meter (VOM), in addition to a set of Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, small wrenches, a wire cutter/stripper and a grabbing tool to fish screws out of tight places. I’ve had a Jensen field computer technician tool kit since 1988 that does the job nicely. Its successor is the JTK 50 Compact Technician Kit, which costs $165. If that’s too rich for your blood, order a catalog from Jensen, peruse the detailed tool kit contents, and buy the same tools yourself along with a cheap plastic tool caddy from Home Depot or some other home or building supply store. That should cut costs down to $80 or so.
  • One or two folding tables: Four- and five-foot long tables are especially helpful because they fit almost anywhere and are easy to store out of the way when not in use. They work for everything from storing project materials and equipment to providing temporary work tables or space for equipment setup and repair, or for you and your study group to sit around while you’re cramming for your next exam. If you shop at garage sales, you can find these for less than $20 each. Even new, they don’t cost more than $80 each.
  • Power protection for your equipment: You should protect your gear with at least a quality power strip with a built-in surge suppressor and lightning arrestor. Better still, look for a good deal on a used uninterruptible power supply (and remember, batteries in those devices need to be replaced every two to three years, and usually cost $140 each). If you’re lucky, you’ll find one or two for less than $100 each. (There are many on eBay, but remember, a big battery makes a package heavy, so shipping can be expensive.)
  • Specialized equipment: This is a must for some certifications, such as Cisco switches or routers for various Cisco certifications, a protocol analyzer for Etherpeek or Network General certs, and so forth. You may benefit more from practice if you can afford to buy the right equipment.
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