Last week, in "Chipping Away at the SQL Server 2005 Iceberg" ( http://lists.sqlmag.com/t?ctl=78E5:2621E7 ), I encouraged you to check out Microsoft's series of SQL Server 2005 Webcasts to ramp up on new product features. The Webcasts can give you a great overview of what to expect, but you also need to spend some time with the product. I have a great way for you to get your hands dirty while keeping your system safe and clean.

Virtualization software provides an excellent way to play with SQL Server 2005 if you're worried about the effect the new software might have on your machine. In fact, virtualization software is an incredibly valuable tool for production-ready bits as well. Is your hard-drive too small for all the demos you want? Create a virtual machine (VM) that's basically a big file that does whatever you need. Then when you don't need it, you can archive it on the network or an external drive.

Microsoft and VMware are the two major players in the VM space for Windows software. I won't say one is better than the other, but Microsoft Virtual Server and Microsoft Virtual PC are free for development and testing to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscribers. I've always been a big fan of free software when it gets the job done. Note that the MSDN virtual labs don't require an MSDN subscription. They're free to everyone! Building your own VMs is a great way to learn, but some of you might be so busy that you don't have time to build your own. You can still play with SQL Server 2005. MSDN Virtual Labs provide a hosted, VM environment that you can access through Internet Explorer with no special software or hardware and the service is free to everyone. Most of the labs are 90 minutes and they cover a variety of topics, including solutions to development and Windows-related problems. I haven't counted them all, but I estimate you can walk through more than 200 distinct modules across more than 20 subject areas--Microsoft recently added SQL Sever 2005 coverage to the list ( http://lists.sqlmag.com/t?ctl=78E6:2621E7 ). Some SQL Server 2005 topics that the labs cover are SQL Server 2005 Integration Services (SSIS), introduction to SQL Server Management Studio, SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services, SQL Server 2005 Server Management Objects (SMO), SQL Server 2005 common language runtime (CLR) integration, query tuning, SQL Server 2005 and ADO.NET (Lab A), SQL Server 2005 and ADO.NET (Lab B), SQL Server 2005 T-SQL enhancements, Web services, and XML capabilities.

Using the labs isn't as good as having your own VM to perform ad-hoc explorations of the product, but it's incredibly easy to be able to do full-fledged lab exercises without having to bother with installing and setting up your own VM environment. Some of you simply don't have access to hardware resources to test SQL Server 2005 in a contained environment, and many of you are probably hesitant to install any type of beta software on machines that you actually need to use for your daily jobs. Can you run SQL Server 2005 on your primary development machine without causing a major problem? Probably, but don't forget that it's called beta software for a reason. So I definitely encourage you to fire up the VM of your choice and start learning SQL Server 2005.