Make the Most of Virtual Certification Labs

Make the Most of Virtual Certification Labs
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Make the Most of Virtual Certification LabsMake the Most of Virtual Certification LabsToday’s increasingly online world also means that just as lots of training has become virtualized, so have many IT cert prep labs as well.

An increasing number of IT certifications call for ongoing and active hands-on access to all kinds of hardware and software as part of the exam preparation process. And while it’s possible for some of the better-heeled certification candidates to assemble home-based test and training labs of their own – take, for example, this discussion on building a “CCNP home lab” – not everybody has the money or initiative to put together their own labs at home. For these folks, buying time in a virtual lab environment may be just the thing.

Understanding Virtual (and Other) Cert Labs

If assembling a home lab is beyond your budget or your scope, the first challenge is to understand what’s out there for your potential investment and use, to help you gain hands-on exposure, experience, and skills. To begin with, IT cert labs come in many flavors and forms. For a long time, one big draw for high-dollar, instructor-led classroom training (aka ILT) has been the access such training usually provides for hands-on learning and practice. But with most of these classes going for upwards of $400 per seat per day, the same financial hurdles that apply to building home-based test labs often apply to these kinds of offerings as well. That said, it may be easier to get an employer to pay for ILT classes than to try to expense even a small portion of the cost of a home practice lab for your IT certifications. In that case, hands-on lab access is just another bonus that comes along with employer support for cert training and career development.

But not all lab classes are necessarily expensive. Your local community college remains one of the best deals in IT education around, and because most of these institutions have a legislative mandate to perform workforce development, the kinds of certs for which they provide lab support are often the ones you’re most likely to want to pursue. But most of the community college coverage will occur at the lower end of typical certification ladders, so that you’re much more likely to get hands-on access to equipment and software relevant to a CCNA or CCNP, for example, than to whatever follow-on CCIE may be the logical next step from there. Even so, such labs represent great opportunities for learning and experience, especially those where you can sign up for extra hours above and beyond those required to complete course assignments.

Today’s increasingly online world also means that just as lots of training has become virtualized, so have many IT cert prep labs as well. And while it may be appealing or perhaps even more satisfying to sit down in front of physical hardware and actually manipulate switches, cables, settings, and so forth, much of what IT cert candidates must do to prep for their exams is equally able to be handled and learning online in a virtual lab, rather than a tangible one. It often requires some extra effort – and learning – to master the tools and skills needed to operate virtually but because that’s also very often the way that real IT professionals interact with systems and gear on the job, it may be less of a stretch to take this approach than it might appear upon first consideration.

Ed TittelEd TittelEd Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

Check out Ed's Tom's IT Pro  Making It in IT - Certification & Training blog here.

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