Simulations, Virtual Labs and Certification

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I’ve covered the increasing use of simulators in certification on numerous occasions. Simulation is playing an ever-increasing role in certification learning, practice and testing. In fact, simulators are used in more certification programs today than in the past, and such usage shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.


During Testing, It’s Often Hard to Separate Simulation From Reality


During certification testing, the line between a simulator and the “real thing” sometimes gets a little blurry. For example, take the practicum exams that Novell used for its now-closed Certified Directory Engineer (CDE) program and continues to employ in its up-and-coming Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) program. The company’s practicum technology uses a client-side piece that can run in any suitably equipped testing center (like those associated with Thomson Prometric or Pearson VUE) that uses the Internet to access Novell server farms remotely. Individual test-takers interact with virtual machine-based networking environments where they must install, configure, troubleshoot and manage Novell networking components, services, users, accounts and so forth. Is this “real,” or is it a simulation? The real answer is: “It doesn’t matter.”


Because the networks and systems that practicum test-takers manipulate aren’t real, stand-alone production elements, one could say they were simulations. But because these environments look and react to test-taker behavior just like their real counterparts would (and, in fact, run the same software), they’re so close as to be indistinguishable.


Dan Veitkus, Novell’s vice president of worldwide training services, has this to say about what drives his company’s use of simulators and practicum technology: It “…represents a much-needed, much-appreciated effort to blow right past shortcomings of today’s forms-based testing and to re-engineer the way IT professionals prove their skill sets. We will test for competency and problem-solving skills versus the content memorization typically supported by multiple-choice exams.” Novell is even considering licensing its practicum technology to other industry players (which includes evaluator tools to assess what test-takers have done to their virtual environments, as well as the pieces and parts necessary to create, deliver and maintain virtual networks for test-taking purposes) to promote this testing approach.
Although Novell may be further up the development curve with its practicum technology, this notion is by no means unique to that company. Most certification players, major and minor, are looking to put more teeth into their exams (and add value to their credentials). All are nearly unanimous in recognizing that asking test-takers to do something is far more indicative of skills and ability than asking them to remember and parrot something.


In fact, Cisco has been doing this kind of thing for more than four years in its Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) lab exams, which put candidates through a grueling, day-long encounter building complex networks to meet specifications, then troubleshooting those networks after they’ve been deliberately messed with by real experts. Cisco is starting to use simulations throughout the rest of its certification programs nowadays, where you’ll find simulation elements in the latest exams for everything from the entry-level Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA) to most of the company’s professional-level exams.


Microsoft has also been steadily increasing its investment in interactive questions, where test-takers interact with command lines, consoles or graphical management utilities to show what they know by doing what’s necessary to install or configure services, solve problems, manage users and so forth.


Where Cert Exams Go, Preparation Goes Too


Because of the obvious value of hands-on practice and experience as part of the learning process—the U.S. military, for example, is cited as one of the world’s biggest users of simulation-based training because it helps to accelerate the rates at which personnel acquire the experience so necessary to do well “on the job”—certification prep materials have made use of simulation technology for some time now. Liaisons between publishers or learning companies and simulation builders have become routine. Well-known certification prep authors, like Todd Lammle and Craig Chellis, known for groundbreaking series in the Cisco and Microsoft areas, respectively, routinely find themselves building or adding to simulations so they can better integrate practice and experience components with their other learning materials.


In the late 1990s, access to virtual labs or simulators was a profound value-add and helped to differentiate premium products from more average ones. Today, access to some kind of hands-on encounter with systems and software has become an essential part of the learning experience so that the presence or absence of simulators or virtual labs is no longer as huge a differentiating factor as it once was. Be it in the context of a practice exam or simply while preparing to tackle topics, tools, technologies or exam objectives where test-takers must go interactive, use of simulation or virtual system and software encounters is now both expected and routine.


Benefits of Simulations and Virtual Labs


For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define a simulation as a piece of software that looks and acts just like the real software and systems it’s built to imitate. Simulations have the advantage of running entirely locally (that is, on the candidate’s own computer) and usually offer decent performance and provide a reasonable enough facsimile of their target environments to learn from both correct usage and mistakes.


Virtual labs, on the other hand, come in various forms, but all depend on using some kind of virtual machine software (such as EMC’s VMWare or Microsoft’s Virtual PC or Virtual Server products) to create the illusion that multiple machines, servers, services or other components are present and active, when only a single machine (or a cluster of machines) may truly be active, but using the software to present whatever collection of virtual servers, services and so forth may be necessary for training or testing purposes.


Furthermore, virtual labs can be either local or remote. On the local side of this equation, certification candidates will often use a product like VMWare or Virtual PC to build their own test networks or systems. Then they don’t need to buy a PC for every server they need to manage, service they must run and so forth. In fact, it’s possible to use a Pentium III or IV class PC with 512 MB to 1 GB of RAM and 40-plus GB of hard disk space to host anywhere from three to five virtual servers. This is usually enough to provide the necessary number and variety of systems and servers for certification candidates to get the hands-on practice and experience they need to get ready for an exam. It’s also usually the lowest-cost approach that certification candidates can take to prepare for an exam.


On the other hand, remote virtual labs require Internet access and the right client software to tie a candidate’s machine together with a virtual lab provider’s equipment so that practice is possible. This approach has the benefits of belonging to somebody else who presumably knows what’s on the exam(s) being prepped for, knows how to deliver the right components, configurations and other elements necessary for practice, and is able to offer help and support to those who might get stuck or in trouble. Also, a virtual lab can acquire and offer access to systems and equipment (high-end routers, switches, network management tools and consoles and so forth) that individual test-takers may otherwise be unable to interact with. While there can be considerable expense involved in wo

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