Laptops

The well-stocked sysadmin toolkit

Jerry Smith shares the main components of his daily toolkit as a sysadmin, including an everyday office supply that doubles as a go-to support tool. Is there anything unusual in your kit?

While we systems administrators are running from server room to data center and back again saving the world, we never leave without our trusty IT toolkit. Today we're going to take a look at what a typical systems administrator carries in his or her backpack on a daily basis. These are tools we simply cannot live without. In the comments section add your own must-haves, especially if you have something obscure or unconventional.

#1 Laptop

The 15" Macbook Pro is my undisputed weapon of choice. This isn't a Mac vs. PC article so whatever laptop you carry is fine. The longer the battery lasts the better and an additional power supply is definitely a must have.

#2 Backpack

To carry your arsenal of IT goodness a backpack is in order. I use a Swiss Army pack that can be picked up at a local retailer for around $50-70. It has adjustable straps and is large enough for your laptop and all of your gear plus your tablet of choice.

#3 Smartphone

A smartphone is as much of a necessity as your laptop today. You can surf the web for a quick fix, call for support, listen to music, and take notes. The camera can be used for those hard-to-see areas in your server rack and you can install a flashlight app for those dark corners. Perhaps most importantly, your phone can be used as a mobile hotspot if all network connectivity is down. (Be sure to carry a spare charger and earbuds.) I personally carry the iPhone 4 but as noted with the laptop, other flavors of smartphone are all welcome in this discussion.

#4 Serial to USB

As laptops evolved over the years one of the items that didn't make the design cut was the serial port. To overcome this, many IT departments keep an old laptop lying around just for configuring switches, routers, and firewalls. I carry this keyspan serial to usb converter and it seems to do the job fine.

#5 USB Drive

Just about everyone today carries a USB drive with them. This is a 32GB Sandisk that has encryption software for things you don't want others to see. The large capacity means plenty of storage space for drivers, anti-malware utilities, even entire operating systems.

#6 Toolkit

A screwdriver is an absolute must, and until laptops, servers, switches and racks all use the same screw, a multidriver is required. This kit is perfect for mobility as it's only about 6"x4" and less than an inch thick.

Other tools not pictured
  • Cables- I don't go crazy with these but I do carry an ethernet cable and a small variety of USB cables.
  • Notepad and pencil- tried and true and always useful.
  • Dropbox or Box.net- you can keep files there and access them anywhere with an internet connection. Also perfect for sending links for others to download patches and hotfixes.
  • Ninite- this one-stop-shop for common downloads is the best thing since sliced bread; in one download you can get antivirus, iTunes, OpenOffice, and a host of other free utilities.
#7 Rubber bands

I always keep a handful of rubber bands in my kit to keep things organized and many times the rubber band has been the most important tool I carry. How's that you ask? How many times have you been replacing a hard disk in a server only to find the head of the screw is stripping? The fix? Place a wide rubber band between the screwdriver and the screw and the rubber band will fill in the stripped area. Try it and you can thank me later.

What's in your toolkit? Have you replaced your laptop completely with a tablet? If so, which one? What are your favorite odd-ball "tools" that you carry?

About

Jerry Smith is an IT Pro with over 15 years experience. He currently is a Systems Engineer for a leading SaaS firm in Birmingham, AL.

99 comments
BitHammer
BitHammer

because HP likes Torx screws!

BitHammer
BitHammer

Datacomm scissors (Always in my pocket - Don't leave home without it!) Punchdown tool RJ45 crimper and spare plugs Cable tester Toner and Probe

jivarro
jivarro

A headlamp, I hate holding a flashlight.

fernlyn
fernlyn

With one these I can have two nic's on a laptop in a transparent bridge, perfect for packet capture to find network bottlenecks or troubleshoot troublesome network connections

ToadWiz
ToadWiz

I carry three thumbdrives. The first is loaded with all the best antivirus and anti-spyware tools on it that I can find. For this one, I use a thumbdrive with a write-protect switch. The second has a Knoppix installation along with a program which can reset windoze passwords. The third is for backing up anything the user has to have before I start repair work. I also carry a mini-mag flashlight. Otherwise, I find your list comprehensive and complete.

2Daves
2Daves

I know it sounds strange but they are great for opening laptop cases without damaging the plastic clips like metal things can. They're also handy for damage free keyboard and screen bezel removal. You can grab a pack of em in different gauges really cheap! Ps. I like the Gigaware serial to USB cable.

Matthew G. Davidson
Matthew G. Davidson

Great tip for stripped screws....once I read this I knew which laptop I would try it on. Worked like a charm!

jfrange
jfrange

Precision Tools has a telescoping mirror and telescoping magnet. I've needed both plenty of times to make them both a permanent part of my kit.

erickalvarez2
erickalvarez2

When working inside CPUs, I come across lots of dust bunnies and lint monsters. A small hand balloon pump gives me plenty of air to blow away those things without freezing my fingers and using a can per CPU or keyboard. The paint brush allows me to quickly clean an otherwise filthy keyboard which then I finish up with a desinfectant wipe.

tim_harms
tim_harms

for server racks with cabling gone bad, clipping a small carabiner onto one end before pushing through the spagetti can make a cable trace easier.

donniekm
donniekm

I would suggest to use a wireless network adapter for Internet surfing. Reason is that smartphones get easily wore down (like scratches, etc.) as these devices are usually meant for personal /business use (i mean that they are not suited for tough environments).

pbounds
pbounds

I agree, I am on my 2nd MBPro. It is currently running Parallels& which gives me the ability to run Windows7(used to be XP), along with Ubuntu10 Server and Ubuntu 10 Desktop concurrently with the I7 processor and 8 G of RAM. All four gives me the ultimate workstation to simulate pretty much any environment I need to for field support. With Ubuntu's LMAP server, and additional apt-get tools, you'll be able to pretty much take care of any situation out there in the field.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

If your pen drive gets stuck you can use the HP format tool.It plows through anything.I use NTFS.It even will get rid of all those app programs.There is some USB partition software out there but Windows itself will not recognize the partition!I know that in VST writing everything you need is in the dll.All of the GUI and voltage stuff is in there.It stands alone.I suspect that it is the same way for all software programs.Most boot manager programs are old.There's not much new stuff out there.In Win Builder it's script.This make a virtual drive then convert it --- doesn't work.Command prompt typing is out for me.It's got to click and run.I do not like doing a lot of work only to see the same problem over and over again.(With the USB Win 7 you need the update to get it to run.It's about 15 gig on the pen drive.Win 7 is in the VHD format here.In the pen drive it's just two files.)

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

You can make a VHD of XP but you can not get it to boot from one of these USB boot programs.It's "Boot Manager Missing".You can make a bootable USB pen drive but then what?It just sits there at C:.I like XP because it will run in most computers.Some kind of file will be recognized by the computer and start a boot.There's boot ini,DOS and Win 32 and so on.A good boot manager program is Plop boot.It's a CD boot disk that will allow a USB boot even if your computer doesn't have one.If I wanted to run just a plain ordinary exe from a boot what would I do?Apparently you can't do it without a boot manager file.Disk2vhd is a small program that I am currently studying.It makes a vhd from the OS on your hard drive.Maybe Plop will detect it.Norton Ghost converter stops you dead near the end with a license page.It converts a Ghost image to a vhd image.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

I download a lot and USB is a good way to keep the good ones.Program types into a labeled folder.After many good ones it's record to the CD and into a paper envelope.I never write on the CD just on the envelope.One of my bigger drives (32 gig) has this pen drive WIN 7.For some reason the Win 7 has Pirate Bay all over it.In many sites they said that Windows could never boot from a pen drive but it can.It's fun to argue in a forum isn't it.You can see the programs that were used to make this USB Win 7 in the folder.It's a bugger to figure out how he did it.

ROD33
ROD33

Velcro straps are inexpensive and can be used for a variety of things. I use them to keep the cables I carry with me as well as cables in communication rooms organized. They are easy to work with and durable.

jens
jens

2 chargers for my smartphone, one for mains and another for my car. A powerbar in case I get hungry. A headset for my phone that can also be used as headphones for my computer.

calebp
calebp

I use Keepass to keep track of all my passwords. The password database is stored in my dropbox folder. So I my passwords are synced between my iPhone, workstation (linux) and my laptop (Windows 7). Also, how could you leave out zip ties?

james
james

I like to use Evernote on my smartphone and use it rather than pad and pencil when possible. Then I have notes of what I've done (possibly including pictures, etc) for later on that are easy to organize or access later on back at the home office. Makes writing up invoices and incident reports easier...

ralph.l.miranda.civ
ralph.l.miranda.civ

I was thinking of using a Netbook. More portable for me instead of a large laptop. Will have extra power back-up.

bill
bill

A Universal Power Supply AC DC Adapter Laptop 70W 90W 96W 100W Power Charger to cover routers/switches/laptops/smart phone/GPS and anything else that runs out just as you REALLY need it. 8-}

ffries
ffries

I have a small memo book that I keep some notes for obscure system notes or allow me to write down stuff. I have a combo bootable/portable app thumb drive I have named "FrankenThumb". It does include a BartPE Shell and a Win7PE Shell, plus a plethora of various bootable distros and distros. The environment you work will determine your needs.

polarverse
polarverse

As soon as I read about the rubber band I put a handful in my bag!

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Cordless drill driver and set of driver bits (For rackmount equipment) USB to IDE/SATA external adapter (drive imaging, AV/Malware scrubbing) Fox&Hound & Cat5 cable test/trace. Voltmeter/Outlet tester (Gnd,Neutral,Hot et-al) Flashlight

kiwidave
kiwidave

I usually carry a pen (and my CyberTool has a pen as a last resort), but here's a trick I discovered. If you have any old zip drive disks lying about, the plastic cases the disks came in are the PERFECT size for storing that ubiquitous square memo paper. I keep one in my bag loaded with paper. Oh, and I try to bike to work as often as I can, so my bag of choice is a Timbuk2 Classic messenger. Awesome bag. http://www.timbuk2.com

tony.wilkinson
tony.wilkinson

One thing I find very handy is a pen magnet that extends to recover those small screws that drop and a small vial of assorted screws and washers

BUDogs
BUDogs

A couple of inspection mirrors, a 48" fiberoptic viewer, a couple of wireless security camera's with a monitor, and a pair of FRS/GMRS walkietalkies.

matstace
matstace

My ultimate toolkit gadget is something the manufacturers call a portable virtual rom. In a nutshell, it's a USB HDD caddy with funky firmware that lets you put it into a mode where it presents itself as a USB DVD drive, and you can load it up with ISOs for whatever you want, which are then selectable via a jog wheel and built in display. When I picked up mine, it was made by iodd, but I believe they're now licensed to, and made by, Zalman.

xxtreem11
xxtreem11

The 5-in-1 network cable will give you a rollover, console, straight through, null modem, and modem cable all without carrying gobs of cables. http://www.ossmann.com/5-in-1.html I'm also a proponent of UBCD and UBCD4WIN CDs. VMWare on your laptop with a bunch of "vanilla" OSes. "All-in-one" install CDs/DVDs. (I carry an old Windows one that gives me every OS up to XP/2003, a Vista all in one, a Win7 all in one and a 2008 all in one. I also carry MS Office All-in-One DVDs)

kjackson
kjackson

A Small swiffer does wonders for cleaing inside PC cases and any PC, Server, switch, or router with a blocked air intake. I also carry an Iomega 500 GB external drive for backing up large files.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Cable Ties Non-Windows "Security Toolkit" Live CD Canned Air and Vacuum Cleaner oh - and don't forget Duct Tape Bubble Gum WD-40 ;-)

ceo@yac.ca
ceo@yac.ca

A good head light from Mountain Equipment Coop for hads off light in dark quarters. My screw driver kit includes a micro nut driver set as well Magnetic pickup for lost screws which can grind up nicely if not retreived Multi-meter Cable Tester

JoshtheGeek
JoshtheGeek

- A Multimeter - An Ethernet cable tester - A tone generator for line tracing - An Ethernet cable - A phone cord - A DSL line filter (Yes, people still use DSL, especially small businesses) - A USB wired network adapter (with drivers) - A USB wireless network adapter (with drivers) - A pen and notepad - A can of compressed air - Long tweezers - Needlenose pliers - An LED "headlamp" so you can have light where you need it and keep both hands free. - A compact travel keyboard and mouse if your toolbox/bag has room for it. These external HID can save time and frustration. - A paper clip - A Linux boot ("Live") CD with software tools preloaded - An Updated Avira boot "rescue" CD - MalwareBytes, HiJackThis, and Spybot Search & Destroy installers and updated definitions on a USB drive. - An assortment of OS and Office installation discs for repairing installations. - Hand sanitizer

Jack_Deese
Jack_Deese

There's always somewhere that needs cleaning that I just can't reach. I've long since kept a toothbrush in all of my kits. Great for cleaning heatsink fins, small fan blades,hard to reach corners, you name it! Oh BTW, please buy NEW toothbrushes. This isn't a time to recycle. *shudder*

jeff
jeff

I need a magnifying glass and flashlight

squirrellysiege
squirrellysiege

Will definitely have to give Portable Apps and Ninite a look at. One thing I can add is a small 5-7 day pill container that can be found at pretty much any drug store. It can come in handy when taking apart a pc or laptop and you need a place to keep the parts. The different day compartments are nice to keep the parts separated.

Pete.Bobcat
Pete.Bobcat

I keep 2 precision screwdrivers with me: Husky HD74501 (slot&philips) and HD74502 (torx) both available from Home Depot.

polingj
polingj

Definitely a small flashlight, small magnifying glass, mirror, claw / retriever, and a multimeter.

Pete.Bobcat
Pete.Bobcat

I usually carry a RJ45 crossover adapter and a patch cable, The adapters are about 1.5" long and M-F, available from Cyberguys.com or vpi.us. I also carry a magnetic pickup for when I drop screws in un-reachable places. I recently added a DualComm 5-port 10/100 switch that is USB powered - no DC converter to carry around. Buffalo has a smaller 3 port switch, but I can't find it anywhere except Amazon/Japan.

Roc Riz
Roc Riz

This way, if one fails, I have others. Also can label them for different purposes (ie: files, documents, spreadsheets, etc.). Not to mention the bootable USB drive.

Magic_8_Ball
Magic_8_Ball

This is some great advice and now I am reminded of that extra customer service step of wiping things down before the repair is considered complete. I would propose that the programs and files on the USB should be on a CD. I have encountered situations where one or the other does not work. My added items are hemostats and zip lock plastic baggies. I generally use the hemostats for either grabbing that little screw that fell under the rack or for holding "things" in place (Most commonly I use them to hold up cables with a carabineer, but I also use them for diagrams and/or note sheets so I can look at them easier). The baggies are great for storing my smaller tools to help keep them neat and clean as well as holding those little screws so I am not chasing them around.

chris.lumpkin
chris.lumpkin

BartPE (customized, of course!)--don't leave home without it! If you take laptops apart, a guitar pick is a handy-dandy device for popping apart those pesky plastic clips along the sides of the bezel, etc. I've also used a wide wood chisel or putty knife for removing some keyboards (especially useful on Acer laps). You may also want to include a magnet for sticking tiny screws to...unless you enjoy crawling around the floor with a magnifying glass. Duct tape. If you have to ask why, you don't need it. I'll also argue that a real flashlight is better than the flashlight app on a smart phone (but still a good idea). Hard to talk on the phone and see in the dark at the same time (yes--I have a speaker phone, which is useless behind 10 racks filled with 200 servers, each with 10 fans running at 5k rpm.) I don't like LED flashlights; wavelength is useless beyond 10 feet, IMHO.

kalpthegr8
kalpthegr8

A mobile with 32Gb MicroSD and 3G/GPRS connection, datacable. In the 32GB carry the driver for the connection cable and the PC suite, rest of the things will take care once you are connected to Internet ! 1 Mobile, 1 Toolkit & 2 SIM cards with redundant network connectivity !!

JerrySmithTR
JerrySmithTR

Big fan of evernote. I use it for notes as well as pictures and other items.

BitHammer
BitHammer

Cool bag! Can it be worn like a backpack? I use a Swiss Army notebook / attache type bag, but with all the stuff I have stuffed in it it's fairly heavy, and it throws me off balance on the bike. I stuff it into a bigger backpack when I bike to work, which makes it even heavier, but stays centered rather than swinging around.

rlcohen
rlcohen

I would suggest a small paintbrush rather than a toothbrush.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

These are both great cables. The null modem and atm both would have gotten me through some various pinches. Good call guys.

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