The best way to learn SQL Server is to get your hands on it. Build your SQL Server on your workstation or even better in an virtual environment. No matter if you are trying new features, testing your scripts or learning for your certification, it is more efficient to put the new knowledge in practice and see the end result yourself. At least for me. You may read some books, blogs or articles about doing things in certain ways. You won't be 100% sure until you try it yourself.
Building the SQL Server lab should be relatively low cost. Here are few links to help you to build your own SQL Server lab,
SQL Server download (180 days Evaluation) - The link includes SQL Server 2012 trial, and other version such as SQL Server 2008 R2, 2008 and 2005. Try Microsoft SQL Server.
Microsoft Windows Server Trial & Evaluation (180 days) - The link includes Windows Server 2012 RC and Windows Server 2008 R2 installer and Microsoft VHD virtualization file format for Hyper-V. In addition, Microsoft also provide Virtual Labs with guided hands on labs to speed up your learning process. Try Microsoft Server and Cloud Platform
You may need to extend the Windows Server 2008 initial 60 days initial evaluation period. You can do that by resetting the evaluation period (re-arm) for 3 times to get the evaluation period up to 180 days.
Here is the steps to extend the evaluation period,
- Click Start, and then click Command Prompt.
- Type slmgr.vbs -dli, and press enter to check how many days left on the evaluation.
- To reset the evaluation period, type slmgr.vbs -rearm and press enter.
- Restart the computer.
You can also automate the extension of the evaluation period. Go to this Microsoft article for more detail.
To build your own virtual environment, you can use virtualization software like vmware, hyper-v or VirtualBox (free open source!). Virtualbox is widely used among the community as a virtualization software for testing lab purpose. It supports many Windows, Mac, and Linux operating system, as well as different virtualization disk format such as VDI, VMDK, VHD (yes, the Microsoft VHD stated above works in VirtualBox).
Have fun learning!