|My old home lab|
One question I am constantly asked by students and other aspiring I.T. professionals preparing for the A+ exams is "how do I get experience working on computers?" The best way to get experience and the method I used is by constant hands-on practice. This is generally best done by setting up a home lab. Believe it or not, there are inexpensive ways to setup a decent home lab that will prepare you for the A+ exams.
A home computer lab can not only assist you in preparing for the A+ certification but also in gaining expertise in new technologies, which is important in today’s job market. It doesn’t have to cost very much and is a better use of old technology that would otherwise end up in landfills or gathering dust in a closet somewhere.
When considering building your own home lab first ask yourself, why? Obviously, the most common answers are for:
- Exam preparation and study: You can build a simulated environment to follow examples in any study material you are using. It also allows you to confirm that what you have read in your study material actually works as described.
- Hand-On Learning: The most proven method of learning for an I.T. professional is by breaking it, fixing it and then breaking it again. In other words, getting your hands dirty. People, especially adult learners, have higher retention levels when learning with a hands-on approach.
Once you have determined why you want to have a home computer lab, then you need to consider your workspace. When planned properly, the lab will not require a lot of space, especially if you already have a desk with a keyboard and a monitor. Do keep in mind that you will need a large area to work so that you can spread things out. I used the floor at times. If possible, find a place without carpet to avoid dealing with Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) issues. If you do not have an area without carpet, make sure that you are following the ESD guidelines to minimize any risk.
After you have designated a workspace for your, lab, check with family and friends to see if they have any old computers (desktops and laptops) or other equipment (printers, scanners, PDAs, etc.) lying around that they can give you or sell to you cheap. Goodwill, The Salvation Army, yard sales, Craigslist and eBay are also good places to find old computers cheap. Having a few old computers on hand provides you the opportunity to get your hands dirty. Take it apart. Put it back together. Learn what function each part you take out performs. See if you can upgrade it. Install the operating system. Just keep doing it until you familiarize yourself with it and tie it in with the exam objectives that you are learning.
Of course, don’t forget to buy yourself the necessary tools to disassemble a computer. You can get a decent, multi-piece toolkit for around $20 or less. There is no need to spend a lot of money on a fancy toolkit. Many times, all you need is a decent screwdriver set.
Microsoft TechNet subscription. For $199 ($149 for annual renewal) a Microsoft TechNet Standard subscription will provide you access to the vast majority of Microsoft’s operating systems and applications with your own unique license keys. Not only is this a bargain but also a great investment of money for anyone serious about entering the I.T. field (especially if you are planning to pursue Microsoft certifications after the A+). Just remember that the software provided with a TechNet subscription is for evaluation purposes only. It provided for you to become familiar and keep up to date with the latest Microsoft software. It is NOT meant for you to resell or distribute to family and friends.
Because the A+ exam covers multiple versions of Windows (XP, Vista and 7), you could buy (or build) one computer and then multi-boot it. The problem with going that route is that if you need to practice in a networked environment, this configuration doesn't help much because it only allows one OS running at a time and you have to reboot whenever you want to test a different version of Windows.
One thing to consider is virtualization. Virtualization is a technology through which one or more simulated computers run within a physical computer. The physical computer is called the host and the simulated computers are referred to as virtual machines (VM). Basically this allows you to create multiple virtual computers on one physical computer. Most importantly, these virtual machines can be configured in a virtual network allowing you to create an entire network without having to purchase additional computers or network components.
Download a free copy of VirtualBox to get started with virtualization. Also, if you can afford to get your hands on a computer that supports hardware virtualization technology (Intel VT or AMD-V), then you will have a much more comfortable experience with your virtual machines. It is important to remember that each virtual machine "borrows" hardware resources from the host computer, so the more CPU and RAM you have at your disposal, the better. In other words, just try to get the fastest computer you can with as much CPU, RAM and available hard disk space as is possible given your budget.
Finally you need study material. There are plenty of quality books that will prepare you for the A+ exams. The two that I recommend are the CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Exam Cram and CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Practice Questions Exam Cram both by David L. Prowse. Nevertheless, before you spend money on the first book you pull off the shelf what someone recommended, do a little research. Go to your local bookstore (Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, etc.) and read through the first few chapters of a book. You can also check out reviews of the books online (Amazon is a good source). One thing to keep in mind is that you have to pick a book that YOU are comfortable with. A book that may have helped someone else pass the exam might not help you pass. Does the author's writing style keep you interested? Are you comfortable with the printed text in the book? Is it the right length for you to read within a reasonable timeframe? How well does it actually cover the material for the exam?
The bottom-line is that you will not get the same level of exposure or experience working on a computer by just reading a bunch of books and magazines. The A+ exam, just like other certifications, is a means to validate your skills. Employers want to hire people with skills, not knowledge. You develop your skills by doing, not reading. The key is getting hands-on experience to go along with the knowledge you gain from books or any classes you take.