Rent-A-Server

E-Labs is a good idea, but has significant weaknesses that should make a prospective buyer beware.

One of the challenges you face when pursuing MCSE certification is getting enough hands-on experience with Windows 2000. Many of you will get this experience from your workplace, but some of you are career changers and don't have the luxury of playing with Win2K on the job. To remedy this, you could set up a home network with two or more computers or even network with a buddy across the Internet, or you could rent time on someone else's servers. E-Labs from Productivity Point uses the server time-sharing model.

Getting on Schedule
E-Labs is a subscription or pay-per-use service that allows you to connect over the Internet to live Win2K servers, and use and abuse them as you see fit. If you break the operating system, no problem; simply click Reload Server and a fresh OS image is downloaded so you can begin anew. E-Labs also presents basic walk-through scenarios which require you to perform a series of Win2K configuration tasks.

E-Labs relies on Microsoft's Terminal Services (TS) running in Remote Administration Mode (allowing a maximum of 2 concurrent TS sessions per server) for its back-end servers. You connect using your browser as a TS client. At the main Web page, you can pick the labs to which you want to subscribe, or order tokens that are used for lab time. After deciding what lab you want, you have to schedule it for a specific time slot. I found the time scheduling rather annoying, because I don't like being tied to another calendar. One of the big selling points for most Internet-based training is that it's on-demand, but E-Labs doesn't follow this model. You're connecting to your own dedicated server, so I assume that the time slotting is a byproduct of the limited number of servers available for concurrent connections. This makes sense from a resource allocation point of view, but still detracts from the nature of this training.

Product Information
Productivity Point
WIN2K E-Labs

Productivity Point International, Inc,
e-labs.propoint.com
3-12 month unlimited access subscription $475.00 - $995.00
Also priced at $15.00 a token; 1 token is equivalent to roughly 30 minutes of lab time.

Class is in Session
Once your lab time arrives you begin by clicking the Enter Current Lab button. This action connects you to your TS session within the right-hand pane of your browser, while the left pane of your browser shows the objectives for the lab. You log on to TS using a pre-assigned username and password; soon a familiar Win2K desktop is presented. At this point, you're in complete administrative control of the server. Online instructions warn you not to modify the network card settings or the TS configuration, as this would result in losing network connectivity and require an OS reload. An OS reload takes up to 15 minutes to do, and is deducted from your lab time. If you buy an unlimited subscription, this isn't an issue, but if you're paying with tokens, you're wasting valuable time.

Each lab has four basic objectives that involve either configuring or analyzing the Win2K server. For example, the Domain Controller (DC) Promotion lab has you run DCPromo.exe to make a standalone server into a DC and verify that the promotion was successful. At the end of the lab you can take an end-of-lab review consisting of two to six multiple-choice questions. I found the objectives to be simple and somewhat unchallenging. The review questions don't offer any explanations for why an answer is correct or incorrect, but do refer you to Microsoft Official Curriculum reading material. Since the lab itself isn't graded, you'll have to click on the How To button to verify that you performed each objective correctly.

Although I always had plenty of time to get through each lab, watch the time carefully, because your session will be terminated at the end of your time slot. There is no on-screen timer, but warning messages pop up 10 minutes and one minute prior to disconnect.

Network latency on the Internet is a problem. I found that even with my two-way satellite connection that occasionally the session would experience delays and I'd have to wait for a mouse click to take effect. Worse, my session periodically would abruptly disconnect and I had to reconnect to the TS, although I was able to pick up where I left off. I also experienced a strange problem where when I finished one lab and tried to start another, it kept trying to load the previous lab. I had to delete all offline content from Internet Explorer in order to continue with the next lab.

E-Lab Web page
Figure 1. On the My E-Lab page you can see and enter the labs you're scheduled for. (Click image to view larger version.)

Is Time-Sharing a Good Deal?
Renting time on someone else's server would be a good deal if you can't afford a server of your own; but let's face it, most prospective MCPs are going to have access to at least one computer that meets the minimum hardware configuration for Win2K. Even if you don't own a computer, it would be cheaper to purchase a low-end system and install Win2K yourself then it would be to purchase a six-month subscription to E-Labs, especially since what E-Labs is offering is time-sharing on a single server. For E-Labs to be attractive to prospective clients, it needs to offer access to what would be difficult or expensive to reproduce on a home network, namely multiple servers. If E-Labs allowed you to connect through a TS connection and configure six different servers in a multiple domain Win2K forest, it would be more cost effective then having to buy the same six computers and the accompanying connectivity gear to network them together.

E-Lab Browser screen
Figure 2. The E-Lab browser screen is split between the exercise on the left and your live Terminal Services session on the right. (Click image to view larger version.)

Not Enough Bang for the Buck
In summary, E-Labs is a good concept, but right now simply doesn't offer enough for the investment. You're better off installing Win2K on your home computer in a dual-boot environment or even purchasing a new system. The E-Lab objectives and exercises are too basic and don't offer enough content when compared to other products on the market that use a Win2K simulation engine and do a better job of knowledge building. Finally, the time-slot scheduling model doesn't work well in our busy world where e-based training is typically on-demand, even if it is pay-per-view. I do like this concept, but E-Labs has to offer concurrent access to more then just one server for me to recommend it as a viable training solution. Hands-on experience is an important part of your MCP training plan, but for right now, the old adage still holds true—it's better to own than rent.

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