Once you have a good virtualization platform chosen, whether it is a desktop, server or laptop environment, the temptation is to build “X”. “X” may be a SharePoint lab, a Virtual Cluster, an AD test environment or some other cool project that you really need RIGHT NOW. That would be doing it wrong.
My grandfather taught woodworking and cabinetmaking for twenty-seven years at a trade school in Alabama. He was the first instructor hired at that school and the only teacher for the first two years. His students built tables, chairs, and workbenches so the school could start its HVAC courses. Visiting as a child, I also noticed many extra “helper” stands, benches, holders, and gadgets all built from wood.
What does that have to do with a virtual lab, you ask? Well, that is the same approach you should take. Build stuff that you will use. Not for solving a particular problem, but to let the Virtual Lab be part of your normal troubleshooting toolkit.
Start with basic copies of various Operating Systems. Load and patch server and desktop OS environments. This also helps build your collection of ISO files, another essential element of a virtual Lab. Once you have these “baseline” images, you can use your Virtualization software’s snapshot capability to freeze the image. Clone the snapshot and you have a brand new fully patched machine in mere moments. You may have to sysprep some of the Microsoft OS environments if you are going to create a domain environment or experiment with clustering. That is still much faster than loading and patching from scratch.
So once you have a stock of raw materials (baseline images in this case) where should you start. Again, my grandfather’s workshop gives us the answer. In the shop it was workbenches and tables to hold large workpieces that made the equipment more useful. In a Windows environment the same role falls to the fundamental network services: DHCP, DNS, Active Directory, Routing, File Services, and Storage services. Plan your internal network setup. Build out an AD controller with all the features listed. Make the actual domain an isolated domain so it will not care about where you take it. Add the Microsoft iSCSI target. Once you have this single system, you can leverage it for almost any network environment beyond a simple stand-alone system.
Having these templates and fundamental infrastructure elements ready to run means I can build a quick lab in minutes instead of hours. My solutions are well-tested, my processes fully documented with screenshots, and my plans validated well before I have to make any changes to client systems. the work I put in is easily returned in increased value and client satisfaction.