Part 2: The Labs
This is the second article in a three-part series about Microsoft exam AZ-103. In this post, we’ll discuss the labs and provide a few tips and tricks that you may find quite helpful during the exam.
Originally, at the Dawn of Time, all Microsoft exam questions were—for the lack of a better term—let’s call them regular. You get a brief scenario, a question about it, and four or five choices, of which you are supposed to select one, two, or maybe three. Sometimes the number of choices you are to select is part of the mystery that you are supposed to solve.
At some point, Microsoft discovered that it was not always successful in keeping exam contents confidential. To maintain the value of its certifications, Microsoft started using some new techniques intended to ensure that those who pass its exams really have the requisite knowledge. One such technique was to include tasks that would be impossible to complete without being reasonably familiar with the relevant subject matter. At that time, those tasks were called simulations. You were presented with a screen that looked almost exactly like the real GUI for the appropriate version of Windows or a certain application, and you were required to create some objects, configure some settings, or troubleshoot some problems.
Those simulations did not last long, because they were rather limited in their supported functionalities and were not exactly easy to create or frequently modify. Gradually, the scope and complexity of the simulations started dwindling, and eventually the simulations were replaced with so-called interactive items. Instead of simply clicking on one or two choices out of four or five, you were required to perform some simple graphical tasks, like dragging-and-dropping items from one area to another, selecting some menu items, or simply clicking on some other active GUI elements. This type of question has become so popular with Microsoft exam writers that nowadays most of the exam questions are interactive.
The advent of cloud computing made it possible to revitalize the idea of simulations. The new “simulations” are called labs, and they are not simulations at all. In fact, they are the real thing. For each lab, Microsoft creates an actual, 100-percent real, Azure subscription and populates it with the necessary resources. You are given the credentials—the login name and the password—of an Azure user account that has the permissions sufficient for you to perform the requisite tasks. All you need to do is read each task, go to the appropriate part of the Azure portal, and perform the actions that the task requires of you.
How It Works…
You click the Next (or another similar) button, thereby indicating that you are done with the current section and are ready to exit from it, and the next screen presents a lab. On the right, there is a vertical pane that contains the list of your tasks for this lab. The tasks are expandable textual items; initially, they are presented in the collapsed form. At the very bottom of that pane, in the lower-right corner of the screen, there is a control that you need to click in order to see the login credentials for this lab. You are then supposed to click a button, somewhere on the left, that will launch the Azure portal and then prompt you for credentials. You should enter the provided login name and password and, after a successful sign-in, start working on the first task.
Suppose a task says that you are required to create a virtual machine (VM), subject to certain criteria. To accomplish that, you need to navigate in the portal to the page where a new VM can be created and configure the settings that are required by the task. Another task might require you to configure a specific existing VM in a certain way. To accomplish that, you first need to locate that VM in the portal, locate the settings that you are required to configure, and configure them. Sounds easy? Well, it can indeed be quite easy, especially if you know the necessary technical stuff and know your way around the portal. So, here is my first advice: Sign up for a free-trial Azure subscription and start playing with the portal as early in your exam-prep process as possible. The more you play, the more you learn and the easier your exam will be.
To complete a lab task successfully, you need to do several things and do them quickly. First, after reading the task, you need to look around in the portal in order to familiarize yourself with the relevant portion of the lab environment. For example, you might want to click All resources in the portal’s main navigation pane in order to view all the resources that exist in the lab’s subscription at the moment. Then you might need to examine certain settings for some of those resources. Based on the discovered information, you need to decide what precisely you are required to accomplish in this task. Once you have figured that out, you need to take the appropriate action or actions.
To be successful, you need—among other things—to know, off the top of your head, certain basic rules of the game. For example, you need to know that a VM and the VNet to which the VM is connected always reside in the same region. The same is true about a web app and its parent service plan, a load balancer and its back-end pool members, a Recovery Services vault (RSV) and the VMs whose backups are to be written to that RSV, and a whole lot of other similar facts.
You need to be very attentive in regards to the names of the resources in your labs. Because the labs are real, all the related resources either actually exist or are supposed to and their names must therefore be unique throughout the entire Azure universe. For that reason, those names are rather complex and difficult to remember. In some cases, they are easily confused with similar names of other resources. Those names may also be difficult to correctly type by hand, especially if you are in a hurry.
Some of the tasks within the same lab may be related to one another, whereas other tasks may be totally independent. It may happen that you complete a task, move on, and then a couple of tasks down the road realize that you have made a mistake earlier. For example, suppose you read a task in a hurry and the only thing that catches your attention is that you must create a VM. So, you create a VM. Suppose you name it VM1 because any VM must have a name and VM1 is the first name that came to your mind. Two or three tasks later, you are required to configure some settings for a VM named something like VMa1b2c3d4. You check the All resources or Virtual machines page, but you don’t see a VM with that name. On a hunch, you go back and re-examine the earlier task where a VM was to be created. It turns out that you were supposed to name it VMa1b2c3d4, whereas you named it VM1 instead. What should you do now? First of all, don’t panic; the skies are not falling yet. Next, recall that Microsoft grades the labs based on the end results, not on the process that led you to those results. If a task requires that a VM named VMa1b2c3d4 be created and configured in a certain way, all you need to do is ensure that, by the time you exit from the lab, a VM with that name exists and is correctly configured. So, to correct your mistake, you should simply create a new VM, assign it the correct name, and configure it as required by the task. The fact that there is also another, extraneous VM in the same subscription doesn’t matter, because it is not part of any task and its existence will probably not even be noticed. If you have enough time, you should delete your VM1, just to keep everything nice and clean. If you are in a hurry, don’t bother and leave it be. As long as the existence of VM1 does not interfere with any tasks in the current lab, you should be fine.
… and How It Doesn’t
You are in the exam room, looking at the computer screen with a question displayed on it. Your initial, pre-exam nervousness is already gone. The questions that appear on the screen don’t look too tough, so far. You are confidently clicking them away, one after another, and are quite happy about the amount of the remaining time displayed in the upper-right corner of the screen. What could possibly go wrong? Well…
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You have just completed the current section and clicked Next (or something like that) in order to move on to the next one. A message on the screen says that the next section is a lab and that it may take a few minutes to load. Don’t worry, says the message, this time does not count toward your exam allotment; your exam timer has been paused and will resume when the lab is ready for you. A time-passing image—a series of dots trying to form a circle, like a snake trying to bite its own tail, or whatever other visualization might be presented in your particular case—indicates that something is happening behind the scenes. After a while you become a bit restless. You don’t have a watch, because the exam rules do not allow you to have any electronic devices with you. So, you can’t tell for sure whether you’ve been sitting and staring at the self-biting snake on the screen for only a couple of minutes or it’s been already half an hour.
Don’t panic, at least not right away. Wait for at least what feels like 10 or 15 minutes. Most of the time, your lab will eventually show up; so you should be reasonably patient. But sometimes it won’t. You might get a message, saying that something went wrong and the lab failed to load. Or the snake might just keep chasing its tail forever. Call the exam administrator. There is nothing else you can do at the moment.
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When the lab finally appears on the screen, click the control in the lower-right corner of the screen that is labeled “User credentials,” “Sign-in user,” or something similar. You will see the user name and password that you are supposed to use to sign in to the Azure portal. The user name should be more or less readable, and you are unlikely to have any trouble with it, but the password… It’s not a word, phrase, or anything else that you might be able to reasonably figure out. It’s a random sequence of characters that is not intended to make any sense. Copy/paste doesn’t work on the exam. You have no choice but to start typing the password by hand. Then you press Enter or click the sign-in control on the screen and… discover that your credentials don’t work.
Don’t panic, at least not yet. Take a closer look at the displayed credentials. The font in which they appear is of the sans serif type. This means that letters don’t have any extending features, such as “finishing strokes.” This makes certain characters hard to tell apart. For example, both an uppercase letter “I” (as in “I am taking the exam”) and a lowercase letter “l” (as in the word “low”) appear as a simple vertical bar, similar to the “pipe” character used to chain commands in PowerShell. Depending on the resolution on your screen, you might have trouble distinguishing those two letters not only from each other but also from an exclamation point (!). Another example: a combination of two lowercase letters r and n (rn) might be virtually indistinguishable from a lowercase letter m. A few other character patterns may also be difficult to quickly make out. Look at your sign-in credentials very attentively, try to type them again—very deliberately, one character at a time—and write down those characters on the scratch pad provided to you for your exam so that you can keep track of the combinations that you have used. You don’t know for sure how many times you are allowed to try before the user account is locked. So don’t try the same combination of characters repeatedly. Hammering a wrong password over and over would not make it right. If one combination didn’t work and you know exactly which characters you had typed, change one dubious character to something else you think it might be intended to be, and try the new combination. If you are thorough enough and methodical, eventually you will get it right.
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Finally, the lab has loaded, you have successfully signed in, and now you are on the right page in the portal, working on a task. You are trying to click some option or select an item from a drop-down list box, but your mouse doesn’t want to go where you want it to go or doesn’t want to click on something that you are trying to click on. For example, you click on a drop-down list box and it expands to the left or to the right (instead of upward or downward). As a result, the items in the expanded list happen to extend beyond the area of the screen where the portal is displayed. When you try to click on one of those items, your click is registered outside the portal boundaries and is interpreted as your attempt to abandon the page you are currently on. You have no choice but to start over, but if you keep repeating the same actions, you shouldn’t expect a different outcome. So, it looks like you are stuck.
Don’t panic; there is a way out. First retrace your steps in order to restore the configuration that you have just lost. Then start tabbing through the controls. Press the Tab key on your keyboard once, and note which control is now in focus. Press the Tab key again, and note where the focus has moved. When you get the hang of it, keep tabbing until you get the focus on the control that you need to configure. Then see which keys you need to use in order to achieve the requisite configuration. For example, up or down arrows will usually work on drop-down list boxes. Once you have successfully highlighted the intended item on that list, press Enter. This type of malfunction—a misbehaving mouse—is so common in Azure exam labs, that you may want to practice this tabbing technique in advance, just to figure out which keys to use on which GUI controls in the portal.
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If something else goes wrong with your lab and you have no idea how to make it work, consider the possibility of cutting your losses. If you studied and practiced properly and you are reasonably confident that you can answer the regular questions correctly, you might be better off to simply skip the malfunctioning lab and move on. The two labs within the same exam are entirely unrelated. If the first lab went sour, the other one might still work fine. But even if you completely bungle both labs, there is still a chance that you will pass the exam—of course, for that you must get everything else right.
In many cases, everything may sail through quite smoothly. But if there is a technical problem, the best advice is, Don’t panic! Think rationally. Assess the problem, and try to find a workaround.
In the next post, which will conclude this series, we’ll provide some additional tips.