Over a decade ago, when the startup company that I worked for went bankrupt, I received a few servers and some other hardware as a partial severance. At the time it seemed like a good idea, and it was nice to have a few spare servers on hand. I would later use some of that hardware to work on SQLServerCentral. My wife, however, wasn't thrilled since spare hardware, even powerful hardware, doesn't buy groceries.
These days the pace of technology change is high. SQL Server is a stable platform that many companies might install and use for a decade, but it seems we have new features to learn every 18-24 months as new versions are released. I think more and more of us have to understand a wider variety of features and platforms all the time, even if we use them sparingly. For many of us, that means some sort of lab if we want to gain any sort of skill with the products.
One of the best things about virtualization, in my mind, is that it enables the average professional working with technology to build a huge lab for a fraction of the cost that it would have cost a decade ago. A relatively modestly priced laptop, something in the $600-800 range, will run most any technology you need, including Windows 2008 R2 Data Center in a VM. If you wonder how you can do this on a budget, check out Denny Cherry's article on building a lab with VMWare or the Virtual Server series on SSC. You could do the same thing with Hyper-V or Virtual Box, and a subscription to MSDN or TechNet, something many of us get from our employers. If you don't have access to those programs, there are evaluation editions of almost all software you can use.
With an external hard drive, you could even have a portable lab that you can take with you anywhere.
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