E-Labs is a good idea, but has significant weaknesses that should make a prospective buyer beware.
- By James Carrion
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.
Productivity Point International, Inc,
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.
|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.
|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