In other articles—namely, those about using virtual machine technology like VMWare or Microsoft's Virtual PC or Virtual Server products to set up multiple code images that can communicate with one another—I've been able to help certification candidates find an affordable way to practice with multiple Microsoft platforms and technologies without having to buy or set up a lot of equipment. Some users, in fact, report successful simulations of multi-server networks using only a single PC (albeit one with substantial amounts of disk and memory, Microsoft's appetite for those resources being what it is).
In response to a reader's question about how to set up and play with the new VS.NET 2005 beta products, the same recommendation comes readily to mind. Instead of installing the software directly onto a Windows PC and then having to deal with the whole uninstall and clean-up maneuver later on—usually required when installing betas because they're designed to time out after specific usage periods, or when final versions become available—it makes a lot of sense to create a separate virtual machine, and then install the beta software in that context. When it's time to blow it away, nothing more than deleting the whole virtual machine environment in which the beta is installed is required. All other cleanup is unnecessary and the whole process is pretty darn quick and easy.
In fact, the same technique works very well for those who need to work in multiple development environments, particularly when those environments may not interoperate at all, or as well as they should. Each such environment can be installed on its own virtual machine, then loaded and used as needed. When it's time to switch to another one, simply shut down one virtual machine and load up the other. Both can read from and write to the same file system, which provides most of the sharing that's needed to make things work. But should you need to test code running in one environment against other code running in a different environment, you can do that too, by setting up a virtual network link between the two separate virtual machines and letting them interwork that way. Of course, this can slow down just about any machine, so think about working in environments with 200-plus GB of disk space, at least 1 GB of RAM, and the fastest CPU you can afford.
Users will find they can use Microsoft's sysprep utility to create code images for virtual machines they can store on a hard drive, then load and use as they need to. This is described nicely in a TechNet article on automated installation and deployment. To make this work you'll want to use Virtual PC 2004 or a beta version of Virtual Server 2005 from Microsoft (Virtual PC costs from $100 to $125) or EMC's VMWare for Windows Workstation (costs from $189 to $199 for Windows XP and 2000).
Hopefully, this will make creating beta test environments, multiple run-time environments, and other potential throw-aways easier for those inclined to spend a little extra time and money on making this possible.
Ed Tittel is a full-time writer and trainer whose interests include XML and development topics, along with IT Certification and information security topics. E-mail Ed at email@example.com with comments, questions, or suggested topics or tools to review.