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Special reports - Jan 2000 - Training for Windows 2000
Philip Hunter assesses the huge demand for Windows 2000 training and discovers how to get up to speed in the new operating system.

Windows 2000 may not hit the streets until February 17, but there has already been a stampede for training based on beta releases of the product. Although demand has certainly been fuelled by Microsoft’s 3.1 million UK promotional programme, which includes course subsidies, the major factor governing early take up has been a widespread anticipation that Windows 2000 will have a huge impact on the way corporate applications are deployed, especially at the workgroup and desktop level. "I think Windows 2000 will redefine how companies will implement their IT systems," said Mark Parris, a self employed contractor who was among the first to take a Windows 2000 course. "Therefore I wanted to take the course early on so that I was prepared for the market when the product did launch."

Parris is not alone. It seems that many more self employed programmers and analysts are dipping into their own pockets and time to take Windows 2000 courses than was the case for NT 4.0. At ICL’s training division, Knowledge Pool, 75% of early takers have been contractors, while the figure was closer to 50% for NT 4. It is true that this ratio may change, as corporates are just sending a few key people on Windows 2000 courses to get a foot in the water with the bulk of their IT staff having to wait until full availability of the product. It is clear, though, that many contractors faced with increased competition as Y2K conversion projects run down are keen to seize the new opportunities presented by Windows 2000.

Job creation

There is certainly no doubt that Windows 2000 will create plenty of jobs for both contractors and permanent staff who really can show they have the necessary implementation skills. The fact is that with its incorporation of and dependence on the new Active Directory, Windows 2000 introduces a higher level of complexity, as Kevin Addington, technical business development manager of Azlan’s training division, points out: "While there is almost universal agreement that directory structures are positive and a massive step forward, it means that Windows 2000 implementation will no longer be the job of small departments, but will have to take place at an enterprise-wide level." This, said Addington, means that Windows 2000 implementation is no longer just a technical issue, but enters the realm of corporate and inter-departmental politics. Ultimately the objective of a distributed directory is to reduce cost of IT ownership by simplifying software distribution, configuration management and other administrative tasks, and establishing a sound overall IT infrastructure. But in the short term the roll out and configuration of the directory itself will bring considerable pain for many enterprises, especially those without much existing experience of the issue.

Fortunately, the challenge posed by Active Directory is reflected in the Windows 2000 course structure, which is considerably different from NT 4. "We’re now looking at much more solutions oriented courses than just teaching how to use the operating system," said Microsoft’s UK skills manager Clare Curtis. "With Windows 2000 implementation more likely to be a larger scale migration, there is a need to understand how to prepare properly at the design stage."

Active Directory provides the cornerstone for this, and therefore features very prominently in the courses. It is worth remembering though that Microsoft is not the first to introduce a distributed directory, and is merely following in the footsteps of Novell, which went this way in 1993 with its NetWare Directory Service (NDS) launched with NetWare 4.0. Active Directory has some features that NDS does not, notably better integration with other Microsoft technologies, such as COM, but essentially the two are very similar. Both are based on the X.500 distributed directory standard, with the differences lying in usability, and level of integration with other relevant standards or products.

A helping hand

What this does mean is that implementing distributed directories is not alien to many enterprises, and Microsoft has learnt from some of the pain Novell and its users have gone through. Indeed the need to gear up customers, IT practitioners and partners lies behind Microsoft’s decision to subsidise training courses for the first time. However the subsidies only apply to two types of course, and are only relevant for people already well versed in NT 4 who want to upgrade their skills. The principle course, eligible for a subsidy of 500, is called "Upgrading Support Skills and Designing a Directory Services Infrastructure for Windows 2000", or simply, Microsoft course no 1579. This five day course is actually a combination of two other courses, one on support skills and the other directory services, omitting some of the deeper detail (see box). It is interesting to note that Parris decided to forego the subsidy and pay for both courses separately in order to maximise his knowledge. He felt this would prepare him well for the Windows 2000 exams when they become available after February 17.

However, Microsoft anticipates that the combined course 1579 should give existing holders of MCSEs (Microsoft Certified System Engineer), who gained accreditation via NT 4, training to pass the relevant exams to update their MCSE to Windows 2000 status. One exam will cover Windows 2000 Professional, the desktop version, and then there is a group of exams for Windows 2000 Server including all the complex directory services and security features. Contractors paying for their own courses will be particularly interested to note that there are wide variations in prices for the five-day 1579 course covered by the 500 subsidy which, incidentally, they can obtain in the form of an electronic voucher from Microsoft’s Web site (go to www.microsoft.com/UK/train_cert/win2ksub).

Shop around

Generally, prices for course 1579 are in the range 1,200 to 1,600, less 500 with the subsidy, but can be lower. Some examples include Azlan Training, weighing in at 1,495, Knowledge Pool at a similar amount, Ilion Faculty at 1,395, and TechConnect substantially lower at 1,000. With the subsidy taken into account, the last is half the price of the first two. It is small wonder therefore that Tech Connect reports a particularly strong uptake of its courses from contractors. Price is not everything, but it may be that the likes of Tech Connect which specialise in training are more competitive than others that provide it as part of a larger IT service, mostly for corporate clients. The overall message is that it pays to shop around, with the subsidy amplifying price differentials. However, it is also worth noting that these prices are not always fixed, and that substantial volume discounts are usually available to enterprises making block bookings for their IT staff. Microsoft is also subsidising a brace of one-day courses, one on W2K Professional, the other on Server. In this case the prices are fixed, and both courses have to be taken, at 99 the two. Essentially this is two for the price of one, and these courses are designed more for incorporation in broad based IT courses rather than for existing MCSEs specifically wanting to update their skills. For this reason, Microsoft is distributing the two one-day courses largely through its Authorised Academic Training Partners (AATPs), whereas the five-day course is being delivered directly through CTECs (Certified Training and Education Centres). CTECs are usually dedicated to specific vendor sponsored courses, although some cover multiple vendors while others are dedicated just to one. Azlan, for example, provides Novell, Cisco and Microsoft courses and for this reason is a popular choice for enterprises requiring all of these skills, being a one stop shop.

The situation is complicated somewhat by the existence of courses not covered by the subsidy, since some training companies are discounting those to make them competitive with the subsidised 1579. Some of these discounts are for volumes, but there are vendors offering special rates to contractors attempting to cash in on the early training boom there. In some cases these special discounts are not advertised, so it is often worth haggling.

Of course the whole world is not migrating to Windows 2000 at a stroke, and some large enterprises have only just got round to rolling out NT 4. There will, therefore, be continuing demand for NT 4 courses, and Microsoft has been criticised for deciding to phase these out by the end of next year (see the following article by Phil Edwards).

Structural change

During this next year though training companies face a challenging time running both NT 4 and Windows 2000 courses in parallel and coping with the change of focus. "It has been quite a challenge for us to accommodate Windows 2000 courses as well as keeping people happy who still want to do NT 4.0," said Julie Hunter, education manager of training Ilion Faculty.

The change in structure of the courses appears to have been well received by early pupils, but according to Microsoft’s Curtis, the option of online training has proved less popular. "Obviously the skills gap between NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 is quite large and people who have had no exposure prefer to be in the classroom," said Curtis.

However, online tuition is likely to prove useful for revision purposes when students who have taken the course some time ago prepare for the exams. Even then though the best form of revision will be hands-on experience in a real job which is what many of the early takers are hoping for.

Although the curriculum has now been defined, there is still some uncertainty over the exact structure of the exams when they come out in February. This is a controversial point because the NT 4 exams attracted some criticism for being too easy to pass, and Microsoft has come under pressure to make the tests harder and reduce the pass rate this time round. "The ball’s in Microsoft’s court," said Martin Jones, marketing director of Tech Connect, a Microsoft CTEC. To some extent the exams are bound to be tougher because Windows 2000 is a more complex product with considerably more in the curriculum, Jones added. And the time taken to qualify as an MCSE from scratch will be substantially longer. Even so it is unlikely that the MCSE will reach the status enjoyed by Cisco’s CCIE certification, with which it is sometimes compared. CCIEs still enjoy widespread respect largely because the course is comprehensive, exams quite hard, and the pass rate low. Unfortunately Microsoft is caught in a cleft stick, because if it makes the exams too hard, not enough MCSEs will be produced to satisfy the huge demand. At the same time the skills shortage cannot be cured just by issuing certificates.

Cisco’s European academy training manager, Bob Lewis, refused to comment on the merits of Microsoft’s Windows 2000 training programme, but admitted that there was a debate going on within the industry. The general view is that Microsoft has raised its game considerably though, and at least as far as Windows 2000 training is concerned, has got things right this time, even if the move to phase out NT 4 courses so quickly is unpopular.

Windows 2000 courses in a nutshell

Microsoft has developed a range of courses covering various aspects of Windows 2000, and of these only one, apart from a pair of one-day courses (see main article) attracts the 500 subsidy, which is available until 29th February 2000. This is the five-day course 1579, which is an amalgam of two other courses comprising the main components of each. These are 1560, Upgrading Support Skills from Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 to Windows 2000, and 1561, Designing a Microsoft Windows 2000 Directory Services Infrastructure. The combined course is aimed at existing Windows NT Professionals in the hope of getting them up to speed with Windows 2000 in time for its release, so there is no subsidy for people starting out on the Windows ladder. Course 1579 should provide existing MCSEs with the required knowledge to pass the exams to maintain their MCSE status at the Windows 2000 level.

There is also a family of Windows 2000 courses not covered by the subsidy which gives a leg up to less experienced people. Briefly these are:

1556 - Administering Windows 2000, a three-day course covering basic tasks such as setting up and managing user accounts and resources.

1557 - Installing and Configuring Windows 2000, a five-day course following on from 1556 which has to be taken first, covering installation of both Windows 2000 Server and Professional, with more on the Active Directory.

1558 - Advanced Administration for Microsoft 2000. This three-day course in turn follows on from 1557, delving more deeply into Active Directory and focusing on administration of large networks.

1560 and 1561 are the two we mentioned, aimed at existing professionals, so they sit outside the ascending structure of 1556 to 1558.

There are also two parallel sequels to 1560, which can be taken independently of each other or as a pair. The first is 1562, Designing a Microsoft Windows 2000 Networking Services Infrastructure, a four-day course covering design, installation, and support of Windows 2000 Networking Services Infrastructure. The other is 1563, Designing a Change and Configuration Management Infrastructure for Windows 2000 Professional, covering the remote installation and backup tasks needed to roll out the operating system to multiple desktops.

Phillip Hunter