Clarity: MCSA vs. MCSE: the what and why

This article was originally published in June, 2012. Due to the relevance and current interest in certifications I decided to republish. -MDG

When I found out that Microsoft Learning was (again!) revamping the certification stack, I thought to myself that after all these years it might be time to stop chasing certifications.  After all, when they created the MCTS/MCITP model I had to essentially start from scratch, and if they were doing that again it might not be worth the effort.

Let me clarify that statement… Certifications are extremely valuable and necessary to an IT Pro, but at a certain point you have proven yourself… I have by now passed over 35 Microsoft exams, and expect that by now people know that I am established.

I stated in an article earlier this month that certifications are not for our current job, they are for your next job.  Unfortunately, as a contract worker, I am always working for my next job.  That means that I always have to maintain my certifications current, or at least I cannot let them get stale… Once I became an MCITP: Enterprise Admin on Server 2008 I might have gotten away with not taking my exams for Windows Server 2012… but because the new generation revolves around solutions rather than products I expected I would need at least my MCSE: Private Cloud… then people looking at my credentials would know I knew at least Windows Server 2008 R2 and System Center 2012.

Cert StackI like the way the new certification ‘pyramid’ is designed.  The ‘junior certification’ is the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, which is product-focused.

As I stated earlier, the requirements for an MCSA: Windows Sever 2008 are the same requirements you previously needed for the legacy MCITP: Server Administrator.  It is three exams, and you are certified.  I assume that when Windows Server 2012 comes out there will be a new MCSA for that platform, and I have no early insight into what that will look like, nor how many exams will be required.

My point is this though.  Now that the junior certification is now three exams deep, it is going to be harder for people to claim the title.  When I first got certified any exam you took earned you the title Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP).  I knew people who passed one exam, and coasted on that certification for years.  Heck, I was one of them for about a year… at least the first exam that I took was for Windows 2000 Professional, and not a sales-related exam, which gave you the same MCP title.

That problem was supposed to be resolved in the next generation, the MCTS/MCITP era.  At the beginning there was talk that not every exam would earn you that MCTS certification, and I believe that on the dev side there were a couple of those.  However on the IT Pro side there was never an exam that did not give you a cert… so when I passed three exams to get my MCITP: Virtualization Administrator cred, I had three certs, including two MCTS and the one MCITP.

I was asked this morning by Veronica Sopher of Microsoft Learning what I thought of the 70-246 exam, and my first response was it was ugly.  However that was my way of saying that it was tough, and that it tested your knowledge of a lot of different products in a relatively small number of questions.  In truth I am glad that it was as tough as it was (now that I have passed) because it means that Microsoft is trying to make earning your senior certifications more difficult, which means that you will really need to know your stuff.  A step in the right direction, no doubt!

As for the Master level – the Microsoft Certified Solutions Master – I assume this is still going to be out of my grasp, until I decide to take a job running the infrastructure for a major international company.  I like what I do, so I don’t know that is in the cards.  However If you are an MCSM (equivalent to the former Microsoft Certified Master / MCM) then you are certainly recognized as a very top expert in the technology.

If the MCSM is anything like the old MCM then you not only have to know the technology, you then have to spend several weeks in Redmond on the Microsoft Campus learning from the product team, and then have to pass a series of exams and boards.  There is a reason they are called Masters… it is not for the faint of heart!

I appreciate Microsoft Learning’s revamped certification plan.  It makes it harder to ‘just get by’ and easier to distinguish IT pros by the exams they have passed.  I think it’s a step in the right direction, and look forward to seeing what other MCSE tracks will be revealed as the next generation of Windows operating systems launch later this year!

It’s Coming… Can we now compare Hyper-V with vSphere as both new products prepare for launch?

On July 5th I published an article titled A Response to VMware’s ‘Get the Facts’ page comparing vSphere to Hyper-V & System Center. In the seven weeks since it went live it has become the 4th most read article I have ever published (in seven years as a blogger), as well as being by far the most commented on, discussed, and shared article I have ever written.

André Andriolli, a former VMware field engineer and now a Systems Engineer Manager with VMware in Brazil, responded very well.  One of the first points he made was:

we should start by comparing what’s in the market TODAY with what’s in the market today: I mean vSphere 5 versus Hyper-V 2, or vSphere 5.1 with Hyper-V 3. Since vSphere 5.1 news are not in the street yet, we should go with the first. Comparing a future MSFT release with what VMware customers are running for over 1 year now is simply not fair, to me at least.

While I did not entirely agree with this at the time, I accept that it is a valid point.  I am looking forward to hearing comments in the next few weeks though… as Windows Server 2012 (with Hyper-V 3.0) becomes generally available on September 4th, and vSphere 5.1 becomes available on September 11th.

My opinion is simple… VMware still makes a great product, but so does Microsoft; the benefits of the former, in my opinion (and that of many VMware customers I have spoken with), simply are not worth the the difference in cost over the latter.  While it will be a relief that VMware is abandoning their Virtual Memory Entitlements (commonly referred to as the Memory Tax), I think the last year will have left a sour note with a lot of their customers, and given them an opportunity to see for themselves just how good Hyper-V really is.

I do like the fact that both platforms are being released at the same time though; I once made a comment that I regretted right away that of course one would always be ahead of the other because one would come out with a new feature, and the other would take that feature and include it in their next release, along with whatever else they were planning, and that would continue on.  For the next year the two will be compared as equals.

Now, this is one place where VMware has a slight advantage… insofar as they have a one-year product cycle, and Windows Server has a 3-year product cycle.  This was adjusted last year when they took the rare step of adding new (and major) functionality into Service Pack 1 of Windows Server 2008 R2.  For now, frankly I am not sure that pound for pound Hyper-V (with System Center) is not already the better product.  I guess we will find out what the market says though…

If you are in Toronto, we would love for you to join us for the Windows Server 2012 Launch Event on September 5th, or if you are in another city across Canada, later in the month.  Check out Ruth Morton’s blog to see the dates, and to click to register.  We hope to see you there!

Client-Side Hyper-V: How Microsoft is changing the game

I have been a virtualization guy for a long time, so when Microsoft released Hyper-V 2.0 with Windows Server 2008 R2 I was among the first to ask why they weren’t including it in the client OS.  In my opinion it was a no-brainer.

With the launch of Windows 8 with the client-side Hyper-V, they made a Layer 1 hypervisor available to the masses.  True, there have been free Layer 1 hypervisors for years (Hyper-V Server, ESXi and others), but they required another machine to manage them, and those machines had to be properly networked.  There are people out there who do not have multiple systems to play with.  When it comes to doing demos outside of your office environment not only would you need two systems, but they would both have to be portable.  For most of us, this was unmanageable.

Of course, Windows 7 did have Virtual PC, and even Windows XP Mode.  These were great solutions for what they were, but Virtual PC never supported 64-bit guests, which meant that in order to run a x64 OS (such as Windows Server 2008 R2) you needed a third-party virtualization platform.  It also meant that, as an MCT, if you wanted to run the Microsoft Official Curriculum courses on your system you needed to be running Windows Server 2008 as the base OS.

Alas, in Windows 8, Windows XP Mode is no more; however that doesn’t mean that if you need to run Windows XP you cannot simply build a Hyper-V machine running that OS.  Same is true for Windows 7, which I run in a VM for two distinct reasons: so that I can answer questions for the vast majority of people who are still running that platform, and because Windows 8 no longer supports desktop gadgets.  (If this second reason sounds a bit peculiar, then you should know my secret: I use the Windows XP End of Support countdown gadget to keep you all informed as to the number of days left until #EndOfDaysXP Smile).

In my professional capacity I have needed Hyper-V on my laptop for several years; I have used one of three methods of achieving this need: Dual Boot, Boot from VHD, and occasionally Native Boot.  All of this because I also needed the Windows client on my laptop.  Now, however, I can run my virtual machines (32-bit or 64-bit) from Hyper-V in Windows 8, and I don’t have to decide how I am going to boot my laptop each time I start up.

In addition to installing Hyper-V in the Native Boot Windows 8, you can also install it in a Boot from VHD environment, as well as on a Windows To Go (WTG) key.  However on those you should be even more aware of where you are storing your VMs, because storage space will be more scarce.

SNAGHTML3f56db4In addition to the native hypervisor, you might also want to install the Hyper-V Management Tools (either GUI or PowerShell, or both) on your client.  By doing this you can now manage remote Hyper-V servers from your desktop (in the same way that you could do in Windows 7 by installing the Remote Server Administration Toolkit).

To install these features, simply open the Windows Features screen, and select the desired features (Hyper-V Platform, Hyper-V Management Tools).

  1. From the Windows 8 Start Screen type Features.  Ensure that Search is in the Settings context.
  2. Click Turn Windows Features On or Off.
  3. The Windows Features window will appear (pictures at left).  scroll to the Hyper-V context.
  4. Expand Hyper-V, and select the desired features.

Just as is needed in Server, Windows will install Hyper-V, and then will need to reboot twice (See the article Layer 1 or Layer 2 Hypervisor? A common misconception and a brief explanation of the Parent Partition).

Once the reboots are complete, you will be able to create and start virtual machines, just as you would in Windows Server.  You can import and export them, pause, save, and snapshot them… just like you would in Windows Server!

Now it is important to remember that the same hardware requirements for Hyper-V apply to the client.  Your CPU needs to support hardware virtualization, and it must be enabled in the BIOS.  For that reason I don’t expect that MacBook users will be taking advantage of this option.  You also need to have Second Level Address Translation (SLAT).  However if you bought your PC within the last five or six years (and it doesn’t have an ATOM processor) then I expect you will be fine.

By the way, while I was writing this article I was made aware of a similar one in Windows IT Pro Magazine.  Check out Orin Thomas’ article on the  Hyperbole, Embellishment, and Systems Administration Blog called Windows 8’s “Killer Feature” for Microsoft Certified Trainers.

Good luck, and may the virtual force be with you!

Creating a Multi-OS Environment with Boot from VHD

Computers that contain this sticker met the re...

I spend a lot of time demonstrating different technologies for different audiences.  Because of that I often need to use different operating systems and rather than take along several machines (which I often have to do anyways, but for other reasons) I have taken to configuring my laptop (currently an HP EliteBook 2740p) in a multi-book configuration.  When I boot up I get a menu asking me which OS instance I want to boot, and I am off to the races!

Of course, this is easier said then done when some of the operating systems that I use and present change as often as they do – either because of things that I do (domain join, virtualization demos) or new versions (as is the case with the current Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012).  This problem is easily solved using the Boot from VHD (virtual hard disk) functionality in Windows 7 (and later).

Step 1: Preparing your host system

Although this is not strictly necessary, I like to partition my physical hard drive and place the VHDs on a separate partition from the operating system that is installed on the physical disk.  This is partially a legacy practice from when I would install all of my operating systems for the multi-boot scenario on the disk itself.  My current configuration has three partitions, one whose sole purpose is storing the OS VHDs.  However thinking about it logically, there is no good reason I can think of why you can’t simply store the VHDs on the C drive.

You need to have the source media for the operating system you plan to install, as well as the imagex.exe file, which is a component of the Windows Automated Installation Kit.  You can download this from download.microsoft.com, but make sure you download the version appropriate for the operating system and architecture on which you are installing it.

Because I often work with multiple images, I create a directory on my system called d:\VHDs, and in that folder I create a sub-folder for each image file.  So I may have the following directories:

  • d:\VHDs\Windows8RP
  • d:\VHDs\Windows2K8R2
  • d:\VHDs\Windows2012RC
      I prepare the media by copying the

imagex.exe

      program into the

d:\VHDs

      folder, and then from the media of each OS I copy the

install.wim

      file from the

\sources

      directory into the appropriate subdirectory.  The

install.wim

    files are the actual image files of the operating system, and have been standardized since Server 2008 (and Vista).

Step 2: Creating a VHD

There are a couple of ways you can create VHD files within Windows.  I prefer to use the Disk Partition Tool (diskpart.exe) but if you want you can also use the Disk Management Tool within the GUI.

  1. In the Start Menu type cmd.exe and press <Enter>.
  2. In the command prompt window type diskpart.exe.  You should be prompted with a User Account Control window asking for confirmation. (If you are not an administrator you will be asked for credentials)  Click Yes.
  3. (Determine where you will store your virtual disk, and what you will name it.  for this example I will call it d:\VHDs\Svr2K8r2.vhd) Type create vdisk file=”d:\VHDs\Svr2K8r2.vhd” maximum=20480.  This will create a 20GB VHD file.
  4. Type select vdisk file=”d:\VHDs\Svr2K8r2.vhd”
  5. Type attach vdisk
  6. Type list disk.  You should now see a new 20GB disk (the line should have an asterix at the beginning).
  7. Type exit to quit the Disk Partition Tool.

NOTE:

    I created a 20GB VHD file, but you can size this to your needs.  Remember, you may also be installing applications, data, and other tools into your VHD file.  However size it to your needs and storage limitations.  The minimum should be no less than 9 for Windows 7, 10 for Windows Server 2008 R2.

Step 3: Apply the image to the VHD file

Now that our VHD file is attached to the computer, it is visible in Disk Manager.  Load that up (right-click on Computer, click Manage, and in the navigation pane click Disk Management) and initialize the disk, and then create a simple volume.  Take note of the drive letter that is assigned to it.  For the sake of the later step, let’s say the letter F: was assigned.

We can now apply the image using the ImageX tool.

  1. In the command prompt navigate to the d:\VHDs folder.
  2. Because .wim files can contain multiple builds of an OS (such as Windows 7 Ultimate, Professional, and Home Premium) we have to determine which one we will deploy by specifying the index that corresponds to the proper edition.  Use the following command to check the Index value of the operating system you want to build: imagex /info d:\vhds\Windows2k8R2\install.wim.  This will display all of the editions within the .wim file.  If you have a .wim file containing several builds you may want to add the switch |more onto the end so that it will allow you to scroll.
  3. In this case I want to build a VHD with Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition (Full install), which might be Index 4.  I will type the following command: imagex /apply d:\VHDs\Windows2k8r2\install.wim 4 F:\ (Here the source media file is d:\vhds\Windows2k8r2\install.wim, and the drive letter assigned to the VHD is F:).

Step 3 will take a few minutes, but when it is done you can list the files and see that it resembles a bootable Windows 2008 R2 hard drive.  The problem is that most hardware will not recognize a VHD file as a boot device, so we need to edit the boot configuration data file, or BCD. 

Step 4: Editing your Boot Configuration Devices (BCD) file

Although this can be done from the command line (using bcdedit.exe) it is a bit of a pain.  there is a free (for personal use only) GUI tool called EasyBCD 2.1.2 which can do it for you. 

  1. Download BCDEdit 2.1.2 from SNAGHTML160d484www.neosmart.com.  Install the program and run it.
  2. Accept the EULA.  Please note that if you are using this for your work then you must buy the paid version.
  3. From the menu on the left select Add New Entry
  4. In the lower half of the window there is the option to add a Portable/External Media entry to the BCD list.  Ensure that Microsoft VHD is selected in the Type box.
  5. In the name box type the name that you want to appear in the boot menu (such as Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition (VHD).
  6. In the path box browse to the location of your VHD file (d:\VHDs\Svr2k8r2.vhd).
  7. Click Add Entry.

You are done!  All ready to go.

For Bonus Points!

  • Within EasyBCD you can click on the Edit Boot Menu option on the left, and choose which OS you want to be your default, and your timeout delay… but you have done it!  You are ready to restart into either operating system!
  • If you want to be able to revert your VHD configuration to this moment all you have to do is copy the VHD file to an alternate location.  If you ever hork things up all you have to do is copy over the original and poof, you are clean!
  • If you want to get fancy you can add several bootable VHDs to this menu… just follow the same steps!

That’s it.  The multi-boot option gets fancier in Windows 8, and I will cover that in a later article.  For now, as you know I always look forward to your comments and thoughts, and who knows… I might even give away the occasional prize for a good comment!

Winners – in more ways than one! Get your vouchers!!

Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist

Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Monday I announced in this space that thanks to my friends at TekSource Corporate Learning (www.teksource.ca) I had nine (9) exam vouchers to give away for the Microsoft exam 70-659 (TS: Windows Server 2008 R2, Server Virtualization).  The response was incredible, and I want to thank everyone who entered the draw!

I want to congratulate the winners:

  • Gregory Longere
  • Darrell Hutchinson
  • Bruce Richardson
  • Sumeeth Evans
  • Mike Ruicci
  • Victor Nichols
  • Tyler Coan
  • David Clark
  • Jordan Samulaitis

Remember… by passing the exam you are a winner, but just by trying you are one too!

Now you all have an obligation to me to take the exam before the deadline – May 31st, 2012! I would love to hear how you did, and if you are proud of your success, or you felt that this contest prompted you to get out there and do it now instead of later, write it up… I’d love to publish your story! (Bonus points for anyone who scans their score report… you have to be REALLY proud of it for that!)

Creating a Virtual Machine in Windows Server 8 “beta” with Hyper-V

Hyper-V is, as I have mentioned in this space before, going to be a game changer.  I am really looking forward to the new maximums both of the host and guest machines.  However those of you who have become familiar with Hyper-V over the past couple of years, you will be able to hit the ground running because there really isn’t much of a learning curve because as you will see in this demo, the basic functionality is as it used to be… with a couple of very minor changes.  Watch! –M