If I had to name the 10 most frequently-asked questions that come my way from Microsoft certification candidates, the question "Where (or how) can I get Windows software for low or no cost to use in a home or practice lab?" would be very high on that list. This turns out to be a more interesting question than you might expect and has different answers, depending on the version of Windows you're using. Let's start in reverse chronological order, beginning with Windows Server 2003.
It's relatively easy to obtain a 180-day evaluation copy of Windows Server 2003. If you visit the Windows Server 2003 Trial Software page, you'll find instructions on how to order or download the software linked to that page. If you order, you'll get the software on CD for the price of shipping and handling, but you'll have to wait until Microsoft gets the CD in stock. (As I write this tip, the availability date is late June.) If you download, you can get it right away by walking through a no-cost purchase sequence on the MS web site.
The next version of Windows is XP, home and professional. According to the Windows XP FAQ, no trial versions of the operating system are available at this time. That's true as far as ordering or downloading trial versions from Microsoft. But there is at least one other legitimate way to obtain this software: by taking Microsoft courses, in this case, either 2285 or 2272. During early phases of product release, MS generally makes 120-day evaluation CDs of new products available; with luck, you might be able to hunt one down.
Self-study kits from Microsoft (which more or less require inclusion of evaluation copies to live up to their titles) are also available. This explains why many third-party training companies that don't teach the Microsoft curriculum include copies of such books as part of their student handout materials. Some good examples include:
* MCSA/MCSE Self Paced Training Kit (Exam 70-210)
* MCSA/MCSE Self Paced Training Kit (Exam 70-215)
Other core Windows 2000 Server titles should also include evaluation software as well. As with Windows XP, there are still plenty of 120-day evaluation CDs for Windows 2000 versions kicking around if you can lay your hands on them.
Bottom line: Hands-on installation, configuration and troubleshooting practice are all critical to passing the exams. Consequently, finding and using the right practice software should be a key component of a study strategy for all aspiring MCSAs and MCSEs.
Ed Tittel is a long-time certification follower. He's series editor for Exam Cram 2, a popular assembly of cert prep books from Que Publishing, and a contributing editor for Certification Magazine. He also covers certification topics for InformIT.com, and numerous other TechTarget Web sites.
This was first published in June 2004