Skip the classroom and build your own lab

Instructor-led training is often a waste. Use that time and money to create a lab and teach yourself

The technology that underpins our infrastructures changes at a dizzying rate. What was bleeding edge a year ago is old hat today. This churn leads to an endless cycle of learning just enough about new tech to jam it into production, then moving onto the next thing. This frantic pace leaves little time for training, but when deadlines are looming and work is piling up, who has the time to learn?

Even if you had endless time and resources for classroom training, it only takes you so far. Apart from generally being an extravagant waste of time, classes often teach to a certification test -- or deal heavily in one-size-fits-all generalizations. Few students walk away completely competent in the subject matter.

So instead of sitting in classes for a few weeks a year, spend that time building a lab and conducting your own tests. With the widespread availability of easy-to-use server virtualization and simulators of every kind, there's really no excuse not to. Just the process of setting up and making it work will teach you a ton. Better yet, once you're done building out your lab, you'll have a test bed that's ready to accept just about any other new item that pops out of the woodwork.

The sacrificial system

The first piece of equipment you'll need is a decent server or high-end workstation. It doesn't have to be terribly special -- a recently retired multiprocessor server beefed up with memory and disk from its brethren should do nicely. If your goal is to emulate an entire multisite enterprise network -- don't laugh, that's a completely reasonable goal -- you'll obviously need some heavier iron to get the job done. After you've cobbled together some decent hardware, toss in a reputable free hypervisor such as VMware vSphere ESXi or Citrix XenServer and you're ready to go.

The storage setup

As I've written previously, you can find a number of different storage simulators kicking around. Some vendors demand that you be a paying customer before they'll let you play with a simulator, but there are software-only simulators that can run in a virtual machine for SANs from EMC, HP, NetApp, and many others. Some are simply management interface simulators; others such as NetApp's Data ONTAP emulator are fully functional and can serve real data over the network (with the exception of hardware-dependent Fibre Channel functionality).

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