First Look: VMware Hands-on Labs Online Public Beta

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For the past five years, VMware Hands On Labs (HOL) have been one of the main reasons to attend a VMworld conference. It is a unique chance to experience the latest and greatest in virtualization technology firsthand and form a practical perspective on how its applied in real life scenarios.

At VMworld 2011, the HOL were hosted entirely in a geographically distributed public cloud in three data centers around the world. Many of the attendees had speculated that at some time in the near future we would be able to access those labs online, and even VMware staff admitted they were working towards this goal.

About a year later and shortly after VMworld 2012, news started to circulate about an interest list to register for the HOL Online Public Beta. I registered my name immediately. It took some time, but an invite from Project NEE finally arrived on Christmas Eve and in time for the New Year holiday.

What is Project NEE?

Project NEE is VMware's latest plan to revolutionize online learning by providing cloud-based labs, chat, video and integration with social media. If you are interested to know more about Project NEE, you can start with this article.

An Easy Start:

Choose your new password and save to continue to log in for the first time-and that is it! You will be nicely surprised to see a selection of some of the most-popular labs from VMworld. I expected to fill out many forms and provide a lot of personal data, but I did not need to do any of that (except reading the agreement of course).

At the time of writing this post, these 11 labs covering cloud infrastructure, cloud operations and end-user computing were available:

Cloud Infrastructure:

  • HOL-INF-02 – Explore vSphere 5.1 Distributed Switch (vDS) New Features

    This lab explores the new features of the vSphere Distributed Switch (vDS).

  • HOL-INF-03 – Automate Your vSphere 5.1 Deployment with Auto Deploy

    Learn how to use VMware Auto Deploy to scale and manage ESXi deployments or upgrades.

  • HOL-INF-04 – Deliver Optimal Performance with VMware vSphere 5.1

    This lab will step you through performance monitoring, troubleshooting, and optimization options in VMware vSphere 5.1.

  • HOL-INF-05 – VMware Site Recovery Manager (SRM)

    In this lab you will leverage various VMware technologies to implement disaster recovery protection for a vCloud Director managed infrastructure.

  • HOL-INF-06 – Deploy and Operate Your Cloud with the VMware vCloud Suite

    Learn how to build and use the Virtual Datacenter with the vCloud Suite as introduced by Steve Herrod at VMworld 2012. This lab is presented as two 30 minute lightning lab modules.

  • HOL-INF-07 – VMware vCloud Networking and Security (vCNS)

    Learn the fundamentals of software defined networking in the VMware vCloud Suite using vCloud Networking and Security (vCNS).

Cloud Operations:

  • HOL-OPS-01 – VMware vCenter Operations Manager Enterprise

    This lab covers automated performance, capacity, and configuration management with VMware vCenter Operations Manager Enterprise.

  • HOL-OPS-05 – Explore VMware vCenter Operations Manager Enterprise New Features

    In this lab you will use new features of VMware vCenter Operations Manager Enterprise edition for performance monitoring, troubleshooting, and optimization of VMware vSphere infrastructure.

  • HOL-OPS-07 – VMware vCenter Orchestrator – “The Undiscovered Country”

    This lab introduces the little known yet powerful automation solution, VMware vCenter Orchestrator

End-User Computing:

  • HOL-EUC-03 – Troubleshoot and Optimize VMware View

    This lab covers new performance features in View 5.1 with two 30 minute lightning lab modules.

  • HOL-EUC-04 – Discover VMware Horizon Application Manager

    Explore VMware Horizon Application Manager through two 15 minute and one 30 minute lightning lab module.

My first HOL Online:

I will do all of the available labs (maybe more than once), but I decided to start with the first one on the screen, which was about the new features in Virtual Distributed Switches (vDS), because I had not the chance to play with vDS after my vSphere 4 course (back in 2009). At that time, Distributed Switches were a brand-new feature in vSphere 4, and I didn't need to use them in production, but now I urgently need to familiarize myself with them before starting a vCloud implementation in the near future.

An important thing you need to keep in mind before starting any lab is that they are timed and each will require a considerable time to complete (around 90 minute for most). Set aside some time when you cannot be interrupted.

The user interface:

At VMworld 2011, we used thin clients with dual screens to be able to do the labs on one screen while viewing the instructions on the other. When I got back home, I bought a second screen as I learned how useful this setup can be.

I should have expected that for HOL Online you would not need to use dual screens, as VMware can surely find a way to make both the instructions and your virtual console screen fit nicely in one physical display. Actually, since VMworld 2012 used the BOYD model and allowed attendees to use their own laptops to access the labs, this change is very logical. The only side effect of this user interface (UI) is that screenshots are very hard to read; they are too small to be of any use. If I were not already very familiar with vSphere web client, I would not have been able to follow the instructions without useful screenshots.

You can dock the instructions to the left or make them float freely, but I was not able to move the instructions to my second display. It is a smart move to design the UI in a way that it does not need a dual display to function, but it would been much nicer if you could use it when available. If you need to, you can use an external source for the lab instructions, as they were published by VMware. I saw posts mentioning the pdf version of the instructions, although I could not locate them.


The lab is generally slower than I expected. But the most annoying issue I experienced is that my console machine kept freezing. I was forced to hard reset it six times during the 90 minutes to be able to complete the lab!

I later found out that the HOL team has already warned people about "Wacky Wednesday," as the day when they do general maintenance and changes.  Anyway, I got lucky in the last 15 minutes, and it did not freeze, which allowed me to race the clock to reach 100 percent complete.

The Labs Catalog:

Having the chance to experience the latest and greatest VMworld labs is an amazing thing indeed. However, I really wish that this platform would also include labs that demonstrate the older functions and features. Personally, I was looking for a lab to guide me through the process of creating a Virtual Distributed Switch and migrating uplinks and VMs to it. Since this was a new thing in the vSphere 4.0 days, I would not expect to see it among the VMworld 2012 labs, but it is still a relevant skill to today's virtual admins.

Some may even want to experience the more basic features, like HA and DRS clusters. I believe the HOL Online labs must include updated versions of almost all VMworld labs in the past years (not only the past year) to be more effective as a replacement to a home/company lab.

New Way to Learn:

VMware is talking the talk and walking the walk. They do not only preach cloud-enabled technologies and BOYD concepts to their customers, they also embrace them to achieve business goals.

HOL Online is not just a remarkable experience and a valuable resource to gain the know-how needed to truly understand VMware latest offerings, it is also a new way to learn.

Do not waste the chance; put your name on the interested list while you still can.

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Ashraf Al-Dabbas

Ashraf Al-Dabbas is a vExpert, VCP, 3xMCSE, MCITP, CCNP, ITIL v3 Certified and an MBA holder. He has 10+ years of diverse experience working in a large organizations in systems infrastructure support, leading corporate wide IT initiatives, organizing and conduction projects and social activities.

For Ashraf, IT is a passion not a profession. He is self-motivated, persistent and full of positive attitude. Exploring new technologies, learning new knowledge, visiting new places and meeting new people are the things that drive him forward. He likes to write, share ideas and interact with different people. As part of his upbringing in the Jubilee School for gifted students (Amman, Jordan), Ashraf learned to understand, accept then debate all points of view objectively and respectfully.