Microsoft has recently released SQL Server 2012 to manufacturing, which means that businesses will begin incorporating SQL Server 2012 into their infrastructures. Fortunately, you don’t have to make that jump cold. We'll be covering SQL Server 2012 extensively in SQL Server Pro. Also, one of the best ways to get started learning about SQL Server 2012 is through Microsoft's virtual labs.

These labs are really slick. They don’t require you to set up anything, and they're free. The virtual labs run off Microsoft servers in the cloud. When you start a lab, it opens one window with the lab manual and another window with remote desktop connections to all the virtual machines (VMs) required by the lab.

I've noticed that the labs can sometimes be overcommitted, so you might need to use them after hours. Here are some new SQL Server 2012 labs to check out.

SQL Server 2012 – Upgrading to SQL Server 2012 (SQL 151 )

Of course one of the first things that organizations adopting SQL Server 2012 will be doing is upgrading older versions of SQL Server to SQL Server 2012. This lab steps you though running the Upgrade Advisor, then correcting the upgrade issues, and finally performing an in-place upgrade.

SQL Server 2012 – Installing and managing SQL Server 2012 on Windows Server Core (SQL 153)

One long overdue feature in SQL Server 2012 is the ability to install SQL Server on Server Core. This makes a lot of sense as it significantly reduces overhead and patching requirements. However, because Server Core has no UI, the installation process is entirely different. This lab walks you through creating an unattended installation of SQL Server 2012, then takes you through the commands required to install it on Server Core.

SQL Server 2012: AlwaysOn Availability Groups (SQL 142)

Without a doubt, the most important new SQL Server 2012 feature is the AlwaysOn availability groups feature. AlwaysOn availability groups are a new evolution of database mirroring. This lab provides you with five VMs and steps you through configuring a Windows failover cluster and an availability group, then performing a manual failover of the availability group.

SQL Server 2012 – Working with Contained Databases (SQL 145)

Not a lot of businesses take advantage of the contained databases feature, but it makes it easier to deploy databases and move them between different SQL Server instances. This lab takes you through creating contained databases and shows how to move them between servers.

Exploring Power View (SQL 140)

Power View is the most important new business intelligence (BI) feature in SQL Server 2012. This lab guides you through Power View by exploring the Power View design environment, then takes you through the steps of creating a Power View report and saving it to SharePoint.

Importing and Developing a BI Sematic Model in Microsoft Visual Studio (SQL 141)

Although Power View is very cool, and it’s easy to be impressed with its power and ease of use, it’s not always obvious that it requires you to a build a semantic model for your data before you use it. This lab shows you how to build a tabular data model based on AdventureWorksDW, then test and explore the model using Excel.