I guess many of you are now struggling these days with deploying Windows 8.1 to get rid of your Windows XP machines. Microsoft’s Virtual Academy and the TechNet Virtual Labs are great ways to get started.
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Windows 8.1 deployment documentation ^

Of course, Microsoft also offers comprehensive documentation about the Windows 8.1 deployment. Also have a look at the Windows 8 Deployment for IT Professionals step-by-step guide. This guide still applies to Windows 8.1.

I suppose many IT pros who last deployed an operating system in 2001, when Windows XP was released, might be a bit overwhelmed with all the different options. Quite a few things have changed in the last 13 years.

Microsoft Virtual Academy ^

Before you dive into the details, I recommend getting an overview of the different Windows 8.1 deployment options. A very relaxed way to get started is to watch the videos in the Microsoft Virtual Academy, where MVPs give an introduction to Windows 8.1 deployment, explain how to create a Windows 8.1 reference image, and demonstrate how to deploy Windows 8.1 with MDT and Configuration Manager.

If you plan to watch all the videos, you should have about four hours available. Note that when you access the third video through the Virtual Academy page, you will be asked to sign up. If you click “No thanks…,” the video won’t start. I am unsure if this is a feature, or a bug, of the website. If you use the direct links above and open the video in a second browser, you can watch the videos without signing up. But if you feel like patting yourself on the back by assigning yourself points after spending some hours in the virtual classroom, you might as well sign up.

TechNet Virtual Labs ^

Once you have an overview of the different Windows 8.1 deployment options, you can start playing in Microsoft’s TechNet Virtual Labs. There are now three new virtual labs that correspond to the videos in the Virtual Academy: Creating a Windows 8.1 Reference Image, Deploying Windows 8.1 with MDT 2013, and Deploying Windows 8.1 with Configuration Manager 2012 R2 and MDT 2013. Theoretically, you can access the labs from Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer. However, I recommend using Internet Explorer because it is less likely that you will run into trouble.

Unfortunately (from a blogger’s and search engine’s point of view), it is not possible to link directly to the virtual labs. On the Virtual Labs home page, you have to select “IT Pro” under Job Role in the left sidebar. The page will then be dynamically updated, and you should see all labs for IT pros. Next, you have to search for “Windows 8.1” on the page. You can also easily spot the new labs by their pink color.

Finding the Windows 8.1 deployment labs

Finding the Windows 8.1 deployment labs

The Virtual Labs are a great way to get some practical experience. The main advantage is that you don’t have to build your lab environment before you can start testing. Often, installing all the requirements takes longer than testing the feature or functionality that interests you. A downside can be that things in your environment might be a bit different, and what worked perfectly fine in the virtual lab could fail in your network. However, the virtual labs show you how things should work and help you troubleshoot your own test environment.

To work with Microsoft Virtual Labs, you need a Microsoft account. After you sign in, your browser will download the holSystems LaunchPad. The file is only 2MB and you can ignore the warning that this will take several minutes. Once the app is installed, you can connect to the Virtual Labs.

Downloading holSystems LaunchPad Online

Downloading holSystems LaunchPad Online

When I first started a lab, I didn’t notice that a second window had opened behind the virtual machine window that contains the lab’s documentation. It is an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide.

Virtual Lab guide

Virtual Lab guide

What I like about the Virtual Labs is that all the virtual machines you need can be easily accessed from the sidebar on the right. This gives you a good overview of all the machines in the lab and allows you to quickly switch between the different virtual machines. Don’t worry about messing up the machines. If you get lost, you simply close the lab and start a new one.

TechNet Virtual Lab

TechNet Virtual Lab

A downside compared to a lab that you build on your own virtual server is that you can’t save snapshots at critical points. However, if you just follow the step-by-step guide, you will have a good overview and you will be well prepared to build your own lab afterwards.

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