Several weeks ago, I asked TechRepublic members to tell me which tool they rely on the most in their work. Between the responses in the discussion thread and the ones sent to me directly, there were a great many from which to choose. Further, although I had originally intended to focus solely on software tools, a number of really good non-software responses came in as well.
So without further fanfare, here are the 10 "best tools" I've picked from the entries, along with some thoughts on each one.
1: The simple NAT router -- the hardware kind
When you really think about it, the rise of the simple home router that provides routing, wireless access, DHCP services, an Ethernet switch, DNS services, and much more has enabled a whole slew of other things at home. Good or bad, it's made it easier for people to work from home and has transformed how we interact with our devices there. People think nothing of connecting their smart phones, iPads, laptops, and TVs to these devices and getting on the Internet.
How many of you don't have a router in your home? If you have an Internet connection, I'd be willing to bet that a vast majority of you do have one.
Believe it or not, there was a day when getting a terminal emulator was an expensive proposition. When I started working in IT, we needed a tool that could emulate a Data General terminal, and we spent hundreds of dollars per license.
With more and more servers requiring terminal-based remote access -- think Linux -- there was a rising need for affordable and accessible tools. That was solved with the release of PuTTY, an open source Telnet and SSH client with xterm support.
Multiple readers submitted PuTTY as one of their tools of choice. This is also a tool that I use on a pretty regular basis. Best of all, PuTTY is free.
Dropbox is a perfect example of a utility that can be found with cloud-based solutions, particularly those that are free. As you probably know, Dropbox is a popular file-sharing and storage solution, with clients who work across a multitude of platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. It's super easy to use, too. Users just identify a folder they'd like to synchronize and Dropbox does the rest. Any time a file in that folder is added or updated, Dropbox syncs the file to all other devices connected to the Dropbox account and also stores a copy on Dropbox's servers, making all the content available via the Web.
4: MacBook Air
Again, I'm including a hardware device. The MacBook Air was submitted by a reader and is also on my personal list of favorite tools. Back in the olden days, I was pretty anti-Apple. These days, I consider myself pretty pro-Apple, although not to the point of hating other platforms. As an IT pro, I make every effort to ensure that the recommendations I make are based on the situation at hand rather than my own preferences. In fact, on my Air, I also run Windows inside VMware Fusion, so it's not exactly a pure OS X play.
Why does this product make the list? Although somewhat pricey, it's an incredibly portable form factor with punch. I run Fusion on this device with room to spare and without performance issues. The Air brings real portability to the computing paradigm. Whereas the iPad is a great content consumer, the Air can be a great content creation tool.
It's not for everyone. I wanted something versatile that I could easily transport and that would still support Windows while letting me learn something new. I got it!
5: SolarWinds Subnet Calculator
What network pro hasn't had to use a good old subnet calculator from time to time? If you do IP subnetting every day, maybe you've got everything memorized. But for us mere mortals, a quick reference tools takes the pain out of network planning. SolarWinds makes available for free -- always a good price! -- its Advanced Subnet Calculator product.
Screen capture tools are used for all kinds of things, including creating documentation and producing content for TechRepublic. Some of you submitted Snagit as one of the tools you can't live without. I agree 100%! I use Snagit on my Mac and a tool called HyperSnap on my Windows machines. I've been using HyperSnap pretty much since it was first released, so it's the tool I grew up on and hence, I keep using it.
Not much else to say about these tools except that they're easier to use than the built-in screen capture methods found in Windows and Mac OS X!
If you listen to XM radio, you probably hear constant ads for Citrix's GoToMyPC application; at least one of you does, since this was submitted as a favorite tool. GoToMyPC is a Web-based service that allows you remote access to your desktop as if you were sitting at the keyboard. So you can use your work PC from home with any browser and even from an iPad or other mobile device.
I'm also a huge fan of LogMeIn, which performs a similar function. I have LogMeIn installed on all my lab servers, as well as my home desktop. When I'm on the road, I can work with my lab environment as if I were sitting in my home office. It makes it easy to travel while still getting work done. LogMeIn is available in free/lite (but extremely capable) and paid versions. I have a couple of paid subscriptions, but I also use the free service for some of my needs.
If you've used anything from Microsoft in the past few years, you've probably become at least a little bit familiar with PowerShell, the scripting language Microsoft is using for all its product management these days. PowerShell allows administrators to automate pretty much any task that can be performed with the associated product GUI. In fact, for some functions, you have to use PowerShell, as not every possible action has been added to every product's management interface.
Beyond automating administrative tasks, PowerShell provides a great way to pull data elements from Active Directory, Exchange, and more. Even VMware leverages PowerShell in its PowerCLI command-line interface tool, used for managing vCenter and vSphere hosts. It's only going to get more powerful with PowerShell 3, coming soon.
9: Anything from Sysinternals
Many of you submitted tools that have been created by the mastermind at Sysinternals, which was acquired by Microsoft a few years ago. Sysinternals has created a number of those "man... if I could only do this" tools that can, well, do that! From AccessEnum (to show you exactly who has access to directories, files, and registry keys) to PsTools (a suite that includes command-line utilities for listing the processes running on local or remote computers, running processes remotely, rebooting computers, dumping event logs, and more), Sysinternals helps administrators peek under the hood of their Windows systems to figure out what's really going on in there. The tools are must-haves for troubleshooting as well as any serious administration of Windows systems.
10: The brain
This was a submission from a reader and, frankly, it's brilliant. When it all comes down to it, the one tool we all use -- okay, most of us use -- every day is our brain. Without it, none of the other tools on the list would mean a thing. It does math, it can do subnet calculations, it can interpret the results from using the AccessEnum tool from Sysinternals. It is, by far, the most complex utility out there and also the most capable.
While it may not be able to do calculations as quickly as Excel, it can make leaps that AI systems only dream of making. Our imaginations allow us to unlock the "power" in PowerShell and create systems that make life easier. It's a work of evolution that hasn't yet been matched by anything artificial.
If you missed out on the original Call for Feedback, here's your chance to chime in. What other tools do you rely on the most? Share your favorites with other TechRepublic members.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.