'Loadfest' tour offers free Exchange training

Not to be confused with a Lollapalooza tour, Microsoft's "Loadfest" has kicked off with an extended engagement in Boston. The free Exchange Server 2003 training may be coming to a user group near you.

IT administrators in the Boston area will be among the first to benefit from a new Microsoft training program for Exchange Server 2003.

A Massachusetts-based IT training company, working closely with the Boston Area Windows Server User Group, will host a week of Microsoft-sponsored training to teach IT professionals how to install Exchange Server 2003. The Exchange "Loadfest" actually began in October, but it will continue through the month of December, with classes every business day. User group members will have their own week of training starting Dec. 8, said Rick Zach, chairman of the user group.

The training is part of an effort by Microsoft to build closer ties to grass-roots user organizations, Zach said. Lately, Microsoft has sent some of its most qualified trainers to teach customers about new products at user group meetings. In some cases, the members also receive free software.

Though Loadfests are sponsored by Microsoft, IT professionals need to bring their own servers. Additionally, the events are by invitation, so if you're not a member of the user group, you have to be invited by the training company hosting the Loadfest -- in this case, Pinnacle Training Corp., of Westborough, Mass.

The company looks to invite a mixture of IT professionals from large enterprises and small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), said Steve Roy, Pinnacle's president. Most attendees are messaging administrators or general IT administrators with messaging responsibilities.

The event takes three modules out of a standard Exchange Server 2003 course and condenses it into a one-day session. Each student receives a copy of Exchange Server 2003, good for 180 days, and installs the software onto his own server in a controlled environment.

Roy said that nearly 500 people have participated so far, and there are already 72 IT professionals signed up for the December sessions. Of course, there is no guarantee that graduates will actually install the software in their businesses, so it's too early to tell how much the free training will lead to actual enterprise migrations.

Boston's group is the first user group to participate in the Loadfests, although Zach expects there will be others, particularly user groups recognized by Microsoft's own IT Pro Council. Microsoft has sponsored Loadfests using other platforms, but the Exchange Server 2003 endeavor is perhaps the biggest push to date, Roy said.

Microsoft has said it wants to forge stronger ties with user group members. Earlier this year, Rick Kalkowski, manager of Microsoft's "IT Audience" marketing team, explained that the effort to reach out to the community on this level is still new, but gathering momentum.

Contact with local user groups was once handled out of local sales offices, with mixed success. Microsoft decided to turn the administration of those relationships back to Redmond.

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