Sneak previews aren't just for movie fans. Administrators can explore upcoming attractions in System Center Configuration Manager with help from a lab environment.
It is a great idea to have a technical preview lab to get an early look at future features. Whether you're a novice just starting with the device management product or an expert who wants to stay ahead of the learning curve, using an SCCM technical preview lab is one way to hone your administrative skills. It's also helpful to have a lab in place for testing new developments before implementing them in the production environment.
Back to basics: What is the SCCM technical preview?
Microsoft started delivering SCCM technical preview releases in mid-2015 to get feedback from its customers on upcoming features.
SCCM has two channels: technical preview and current branch. The current branch release is supported by Microsoft and built for production environments, while technical preview releases are intended for testing away from production.
Microsoft delivers a technical preview edition every month with new features that may or may not arrive in future versions of SCCM. In my experience, nearly all functionality in the technical preview eventually appears in the current branch.
How do SCCM technical previews differ from current branch releases?
Because technical preview releases are separate from the current branch, they are not licensed for use in production environments and are therefore not recommended for use outside of a lab environment.
Other differences between the technical preview and the current branch releases include:
- Microsoft supports primary sites, not secondary, central administration, or several primary sites.
- Releases expire after 90 days.
- Just 10 clients are supported.
- There is no need for a product key.
- There is no ability to upgrade from a technical preview environment to the current branch.
Admins can continue to use a technical preview lab before the 90-day limit by updating to a later version via an in-console update.
Best practices for a SCCM technical preview lab configuration
For the optimal experience, admins should follow the following best practices:
- Create a simple hierarchy that approximates a real scenario.
- Automate as much as possible to rebuild the lab quickly.
- Provision the host machine and guest VMs with sufficient resources, including RAM and vCPUs.
- Run the VMs on a device with a solid-state drive (SSD).
The pros and cons of an on-premises lab versus an Azure SCCM lab
Admins have several options to deploy an SCCM technical preview lab, but the two main choices are to have it installed locally or to build it in the Azure cloud platform. A local installation has been the typical setup for several years and, while it remains the easiest solution, there is some benefit to a cloud-based SCCM lab.
The advantages of an Azure lab include:
- no need for the cost and support associated with local infrastructure; and
- relatively easy reinstallation if required.
The disadvantages of an SCCM technical preview lab in Azure are:
- Azure subscription is required;
- less control of the underlying infrastructure; and
- a running cost for the VMs.
Admins will have to maintain oversight on the VMs used in the Azure lab and watch the charges.
How do I build a technical preview lab for SCCM?
The following requirements -- for the purposes of this article, the latest supported OS and SQL will be used -- are needed for an SCCM technical preview lab:
- Hyper-V host, which can be a dedicated host or on a laptop;
- Hyper-V guest machines;
- Windows Server 2022;
- SQL Server 2019;
- domain controller;
- account with administrator permissions; and
- the latest version of the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK).
For a locally installed lab, configure a Hyper-V host with guest VMs on the laptop or separate server. Since the technical preview lab has limitations to the scale, you can keep the system requirements to a minimum.
How to build an on-premises SCCM technical preview lab
First, download the technical preview from the Microsoft Evaluation Center at the following link.
Before installing the technical preview lab, install the prerequisites, which are identical to the ones for a current branch lab and available at this link.
At a high level, these are the required activities:
- Configure a Hyper-V host with an external virtual switch.
- Create at least three VMs: one for Active Directory, one for System Center Configuration Manager, and a Windows 11 client.
- Create a System Management container in Active Directory with ADSI Edit.
- Extend the Active Directory
- Install SQL Server 2019.
- Install SQL Server 2019 Reporting Services.
- Install a primary site using the SCCM technical preview media.
- Install the Windows 11 test clients.
As with current branch releases, download a baseline version of the technical preview from the Microsoft Evaluation Center, then update to the latest version.
How to deploy an Azure-based SCCM technical preview lab
The easiest way to set up an SCCM technical lab in Azure is to use an Azure template from Microsoft that configures the necessary components: domain controller, primary site and remote site server with a distribution point and management point role.
The requirements to deploy an SCCM technical preview lab in Azure are:
- an Azure subscription
- one Standard_LRS storage account
- two Standard_B2s VMs
- one Standard_B2ms VM
The Azure template is here.
To install an SCCM technical lab using the Azure template, press Deploy to Azure and enter your environment-specific information to start the process.