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Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA) is Microsoft’s online training facility. Like any such endeavour, you read articles, watch movies and take a self assessment at the end to see how much you remembered.

From an educational standpoint, it sits somewhere between an actual MCP exam and the sort of "product information"tests you have to complete as a call center drone working for Dell or HP.

Depending on the MVA track you select, there may well be enough information provided to rival some of the easier vendor certs. The "self assessment" exams however fell far short of my expectations. I was steeled for a comprehensive technical lesson with MCP-style testing but found the exams weighted too heavily towards marketing mumbo-jumbo.

The resources used to make up the MVA tracks are scattered about Microsoft’s properties. Some were written specifically for MVA. Others are an accretion from Microsoft's main site, TechNet, MSDev and others. There are videos, well written articles and downloadable whitepapers.

The Hot Newness

The entire effort seems to have been some bright spark’s idea to take the vast amounts of useful information that already exists and bring it together to form simple, course-like instructional sessions.

 I hope that guy got a raise, because it’s a brilliant idea, and well executed.

I generally have little use for vendor certifications because they are filled with too much marketing fluff. One sequence of button clicks to accomplish a given tasks is correct, whereas another sequence that sees the same results is not?

But this is free. It may not be vendor-exam quality technical information, but it is a great way to bridge the gap between your existing experience and knowledge and Microsoft’s official take on whatever is the Hot Newness.

For my first online course – called tracks by Microsoft – I purposefully picked the one I was least interested in: SQL Azure.

The theory went that given my general disillusionment with vendor exams and "educational" (marketing) material, if I could see the good in the topic I found the most boring, then it would probably be worth some serious time commitment.

Vendor certifications are filled with too much marketing fluff

It was definitely worth the time. If your day-to-day is applications that use SQL anything, then it’s time to learn about SQL Azure. It’s the future, and Microsoft does a good job of explaining why.

If your day job lies more towards the implementation side of things than programming, I still recommend taking a boo. SQL Azure isn’t a paradigm shift in which button to press in order to receive bacon, but most systems administrators will be very interested in the security aspects. The very idea of using a database located outside my security perimeter to power local applications makes my tinfoil hat itch.

That said, Microsoft did a good job of putting my fears to rest here. The entire SQL Azure setup seems well thought out, and MVA does a really good job of bringing this particular cloudy technology down to earth. The security module took me from hardened sceptic to someone who would legitimately consider using a product that depended on SQL Azure to run.

The SQL Azure track is composed of five modules: Introduction, Setup and Configuration, Security, Synchronizing and Migrating On-Premises Data and Business Intelligence. The modules vary greatly in quality, but together provide me – a systems administrator with a middling level of programming knowledge – with everything I could ever want to know about SQL Azure.

As someone who has used SQL Server in various forms for almost two decades, the various modules in the SQL Azure track provided me every bit of information I needed to take my existing skills and port them to SQL Azure. No fuss, no muss, no need for recertification. (SQL Azure is about as different in practice as the jump from SQL 2008 to SQL 2008 R2. You’ll adapt.)

I was thoroughly impressed by the "Introduction to SQL Azure" module. It starts out with two lengthy and very technical articles that on their own were all the systems administrators among us need to read. It follows up with decent video on the pricing structure of Azure, a necessary component – Microsoft’s traditional licensing clarity seems to have been ported to the cloud – and one I found lacking from other tracks.

If you have any interest at all in SQL Azure you need to go take this course

The Setup and Configuration module was less helpful. It starts off with a video give you step-by-step instruction on how to sign in with your live ID and handle confirmation emails and creating an SQL Azure server.

The processes in this video are less involved than those required to sign up for MVA in the first place, so the use of this video has me confused. If you can’t puzzle your way through signing into a webpage with your live ID, you shouldn’t be allowed to program applications for other people.

Meat and potatos

The rest of the information in the module was marginally useful, but all one really needed was the written article at the end. The meat and potatoes of MVA seem to be in the text documents.

I could go on, but a blow-by-blow of the other modules won’t really help you here. Suffice it say that if you have any interest at all in SQL Azure – or even if you program for another database entirely – you need to go take this course. It’s free, and will only take a few hours of your time.

What you get out of it are some ephemeral MVA "points", and a rock-solid grounding in the differences between SQL Azure and previous SQL Server products.

You will understand the benefits of SQL Azure, and come to terms with its limitations. You will be shown how to migrate your datasets from existing servers and round it all out with a reasonably well done business intelligence demo.

The added bonus is that the resources used are all free resources that you can simply link out to people. They aren’t behind a paywall and they don’t require you to sign up for the MVA course and step through a dozen hoops to use.

If you feel that the business intelligence demo might help you sell the boss on SQL Azure, go ahead and send him the link. If you think that the sysadmin with the "cloud computing, get off my lawn" demotivator needs to watch some of the security videos, then forward him the relevant info.

Overall, I’m impressed with MVA, and I am actually looking forward to taking some of the other tracks. ®

Trevor Pott is a sysadmin based in Edmonton, Canada. The Register is a media partner of Microsoft Virtual Academy.

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