The mother of all Test environments (series)

So a few weeks ago I set out to create the mother of all Test environments at work running the latest Microsoft tech. We’re talking SharePoint 2013, Lync 2013, and Exchange 2013 all running on Windows Server 2012. In addition, my SQL backend is SQL 2012 SP1, and my workstations are running Windows 8 with Office 2013. All brand new tech that I won’t be able to put into production for months (if not 201 4).

It’s all set up now and let me tell you…it is a thing of beauty.

I’m going to putting together a series of articles outlining all the lessons learned and the pitfalls I ran into. The series WILL NOT be regurgitating MSDN and Technet articles; 1) because Microsoft pays their writers handsomely to write that stuff; and, 2) I’m a lazy blog writer.

My first post will be around setting up my VMs and the Domain (complete with AD Certificate Services). Who’s excited!? I know this kid is:

Skytap vs. CloudShare

Since I got to Trek a year ago, we’ve been using cloud providers for our dev and test stuff. It’s very slick stuff and I don’t have to sit around and wait for a new box. I just log in, spin up my VMs, and off I go. Consider these providers your own personal Easy button when it comes to dev/test infrastructure.

Based on my experiences, I felt compelled to provide a comparison of the two. Please bear in mind that this is my opinion and your experiences may differ from mine. Let the cage match begin!


Their bread and butter is SharePoint offering pre-configured, fully licensed VM’s complete with all necessary service apps , accounts, and site collections. However, CloudShare also offers many other VM’s to choose from including: Windows Server, Exchange, Oracle, CentOS, Ubuntu and Windows 7. CloudShare deploys 2 account types: CloudShare Pro ($49/month) and CloudShare Enterprise (negotiable based on number of users). Each image is fully built and ready to use.


  • Pre-configured VM’s with absolutely no administration needed to get started. Doing so gives it much more of a PaaS feel; however, you are free to manipulate the servers in any way you like making it a full IaaS option
  • Fully licensed. No need to have an MSDN or TechNet subscription as the licensing price is already factored in to the monthly fee
  • Easy to add VMs to the localized domain, but not much control beyond that
  • Friendliest UI available
  • Flat cost for Pro plan at $49 per month / $490 per year


  • Little freedom to manipulate the network/domain. Cannot setup multiple subnets or add a firewall. Because of this CloudShare is much more geared towards application development rather than architecture testing
  • Zero support (yet) for Red Hat or Suse, which makes Hadoop deployment more difficult to accomplish
  • Limited run time. For Pro plan, images can only be on for 180 minutes at a time. There is an option to upgrade to "Always on" but the pricing appears to be exponentially more per month.
  • Easily snapshot environment
  • Difficult to import your own images. Must contact sales to do so and it is more trouble than it’s worth


Skytap offers complete flexibility in their offering by giving you everything from raw images to pre-built, multi-VM configurations. Monthly pricing varies based on the base package of resources as well as utilization rate. Your own OS and app licenses are required


  • Full, granular control of the environment including (but not limited to): networking, firewalls, group policy, domain administration, server administration, application administration, & user administration
  • Easy to import your own images, although can take considerable amount of time due to file sizes
  • Straightforward operation to snap a copy of all or part of a environment and rebuild within a matter of minutes
  • Big advantages in availability of build scripting and timing usage based on Google Calendar
  • Nice selection of public Skytap templates to choose from (examples include Red Hat, Suse, Windows 7, Windows Server, etc.)
  • Convenient point-to-point VPN connections are available as well Skytap offers users to federate VM’s to their own domain


  • Minor nuisance – must possess your own licenses
  • Limited shelf-life for images – environments are not meant to be permanent or "Always on"
  • Difficult to manage large environments due to the web-based management console
  • Zero system-level alerting available

Both providers work off a resource pool model, meaning you pay for a specific amount of RAM (20GB to start) which is shared amongst your VMs. CloudShare Pro offers 10 GB RAM, 300 GB disk, and 10 virtual CPUs to start. CloudShare Enterprise and Skytap are both negotiable.



Winner: Skytap. The flexibility offered makes this provider king. CloudShare is too one dimensional as it is 90% focused on SharePoint and SharePoint developers. While building Skytap images is far more time consuming than CloudShare, the ability to create templates means you only need to setup your environment once. Improvements for Skytap include offering fully licensed VM’s, more granular storage control, and more pre-built application and/or service configurations (Visual Studio, Exchange, Oracle, System Center, etc.).

Anyone using these services or others? Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.