Companies with complex software products often rely on hands-on labs for customers to experiment with a product and learn how to use it effectively. With in-person training effectively dead in the short term, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have been forced to quickly pivot to a virtual paradigm. This approach is likely to continue even as vaccinations ramp up, because many technology companies have moved to permanent remote work or hybrid models.
Fortunately, virtual machines and the cloud have made it possible to offer hands-on training labs in virtual formats that mimic real-life experiences. Like all online learning, virtual labs can either be instructor-led or provided on demand with no instructor. Virtual training labs offer benefits that will extend beyond COVID recovery, but to be successful, providers need to account for four major requirements: managing latency, provisioning labs, changing configurations at the last minute and delivering supplemental lab materials.
First, let’s discuss the benefits of virtual labs. Training labs offer several benefits over in-person instruction, especially for companies with large numbers of geographically distributed users. Virtual training scales more easily to support more students at a lower cost. With full on-demand virtual labs, companies can eliminate the need for instructors altogether and make it easier for students to complete a curriculum on their own schedule, regardless of their time zone.
Companies can also integrate on-demand training labs into a learning management system (LMS) so that students can complete a lesson about a product and then go directly into a lab to practice what they learned. Even instructor-led virtual training labs are more convenient than in-person labs, because learners can participate in them anywhere. By offering greater accessibility to training, companies can increase the number of potential customers they serve and, if they charge for training, create new revenue opportunities.
But the move to virtual creates new problems that organizations will need to solve in order to enjoy these benefits. Here are the most important ones to consider:
1. Managing Latency Around the World
If an organization is delivering training globally from a single data center, latency will be a significant issue for some students. For example, if your data center is in California, students trying to access a lab environment from Europe or Africa will have high latency and a terrible experience.
If your organization doesn’t have multiple data centers, moving your training lab environment to the cloud is the best way to mitigate this issue. One solution is to use a cloud provider with multiple regions and host the lab in the region closest to the student’s location. Depending on your cloud provider, there may even be automatic tools that can help with this process.
2. Provisioning the Labs
For applications with relatively simple environments, such as a single virtual machine (VM) with a standard networking configuration, there are numerous options for cloud-based virtual labs from solution providers or cloud providers. More complex environments, on the other hand, can require significant time and expertise to stand up and tear down with some cloud solutions, providing little improvement over configuring physical machines. Here are some of the factors that make provisioning a lab more complex:
- Lab environments with two or more VMs due to multiple product modules or solution prerequisites.
- Multiple network configurations, such as connections to external or on-premises resources through private network connections or virtual private networks (VPNs).
- Applications that change often or have frequent updates.
Once you have set up your labs, some customers will inevitably break their environment — which, given the time it takes to provision a new environment, can effectively end a lab session. For paying customers, this can be a serious problem.
As a result, faster provisioning is essential for virtual instruction. Many virtual lab service providers and cloud providers make it possible to use templates that can automatically create and replicate lab environments. This approach enables the information technology (IT) team to set up a master template that can be duplicated quickly and easily (and perhaps automatically) for every student.
3. Managing Last-minute Changes
There will always be students who want to join or need to cancel labs at the last minute, mistakes in lab provisioning that you need to correct on the fly, problems with VPNs or connections, or other last-minute issues. Unless your IT team is immediately responsive, the instructor (or the student, in the case of on-demand training labs) needs to be able to solve these issues on his or her own.
To manage these changes without causing frustratingly long delays for students, you’ll need a virtual labs provider that offers instructor tools that can easily extend, reschedule or cancel lab access; restore a lab to a given state at any time; and add new participants to a course. Giving instructors better controls helps them solve the majority of these pop-up issues without needing to call IT.
4. Delivering Supplemental Lab Materials
In most scenarios, the training lab will be accompanied by other instructional content. Students may need access to a lab manual, guide or tutorials to successfully complete their training. In some cases, the organization can deliver these resources as email attachments or using file sharing tools, but delivering this content within the lab itself often makes for a smoother learning experience. A next-generation virtual lab platform may even allow for interactivity between supplemental content, like a manual, and the lab environment for a more immersive experience.
Most organizations can handle these four issues if they are dealing with simple environments and a relatively small number of students. But, as the number of lab attendees and the complexity of lab configuration increases, the challenges increase exponentially. Organizations with large training programs should carefully consider whether they have the bandwidth and technical ability to manage their own virtual labs or they’d be better served working with a solution provider.