Whether you're an IT student or already an IT professional, you might want to experiment with Microsoft Windows Server or try out Microsoft's software development tools. You'd like to get hands-on experience and fiddle around without having to worry about breaking a production server, for instance.
Purchasing a copy of a server license likely isn't feasible just for tinkering around or for start-ups just gettting, well, started, but as we'll share shortly, fortunately many free or cheap options are available.
Download a Free Windows Server Trial
Microsoft provides a 180-day free trial of Windows Server and most other products via the company's TechNet website, which includes both current and previous editions. You can download a disc image (ISO) file to burn to a disc or load onto a virtual machine, or download a virtual hard disk (VHD) image specifically designed for virtual machines.
Free Student or Academic Downloads via DreamSpark
Microsoft's DreamSpark program is for students and academic institutions, and it offers students, faculty and labs free access to download Windows Server and many other Microsoft products.
Free Development Downloads via BizSpark
Microsoft's BizSpark program is basically an extension of DreamSpark. It offers smaller start-ups free access for up to three years to download Windows Server and Microsoft software development products.
Access via Windows Azure Cloud
If you'd rather remotely access Windows Server, don't have a spare physical computer, and don't want to run a virtual machine (VM), consider utilizing Windows Azure. Windows Azure is Microsoft's cloud that you can utilize to run Windows Server as well as other Microsoft and Linux platforms for development, website, database and other purposes. Basically, you can get instant access to a pre-configured, remotely accessible virtual machine with Windows Azure.
Microsoft is currently offering a 30-day free trial of all Windows Azure services, up to $200 in usage. For eligible BizSpark subscribers, Microsoft is also offering $150 monthly credits for Azure, lower rates and no additional charges for using MSDN software on Azure.
Access via the Amazon EC2 Cloud
Amazon offers a similar cloud, called Amazon EC2, but it offers a full year free trial for new customers to run both a Microsoft and a Linux/Unix platform using Micro Instances. Amazon EC2 also includes free limited access to other Amazon Web Services, such as Elastic Load Balancing plus 15 GB data processing and Amazon EBS Standard volume storage plus 2 million IOs and 1 GB snapshot storage.
Participate in Microsoft Virtual Labs
Microsoft also offers free Virtual Labs, providing education on many topics and functionality around its products. It provides access to a private cloud-based virtual machine environment so you can get hands-on experience with the associated software products or technologies as well. For instance, when you start a lab it instantly creates and configures the necessary virtual machines, giving you the ability to switch between them. Microsoft also offers a helpful manual for getting started and using the lab.
Discover and Experiment
After you get access to a server via one of the above options, use the opportunity to discover and experiment with features that are new to you. Consider configuring Active Directory and creating a domain on test machines at work or home.
Then perhaps set up Exchange and configure an Outlook client, play with Group Policies, or set up NPS for 802.1X authentication. If you are already an administrator, consider tweaking settings or trying new functionality to test before enabling on the production server.
Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer — keep up with his writings on Facebook. He's also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and On Spot Techs, an on-site computer services company.