Build Your Skills: The top 10 items for a network engineer's toolbox

Stock your admin tool box with these items

Behind every good network guru is a good set of tools. Quick access to the right tools can mean the difference between an easy job and an impossible one. But with the wide variety of gadgets on the market, it’s tough to know which tools are really helpful. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll review my picks for the 10 best tools to keep on hand.

1. Cable tester
The number-one tool that no network guru should be without is a cable tester. A good cable tester detects shorts in a cable and will tell you if the wires inside an RJ-45 connector are arranged correctly. You can see a LANtest cable tester in Figure A.

Figure A
A cable tester should be at the top of your must-have list.

You can use the cable tester shown in Figure A on coaxial cable and RJ-45 based Ethernet cable. Notice that there are two pieces to the cable tester. For shorter cables, such as patch cables, both ends of the length that’s being tested may be plugged into the main testing tool. For longer cable runs, one end of the cable to be tested will be plugged into the main testing tool, and the other end of the cable to be tested will be plugged into the secondary piece.

Although every cable tester works a little differently, this cable tester tells you whether or not a connection is solid through a series of LED displays. LED lights on both ends of the test unit circuit means the cable is fine; if the second LED is dark, it indicates a short. If a second LED is illuminated but the numbers don’t match up, you’ll know that an RJ-45 connector is wired incorrectly.

2. RJ-45 crimper
Another handy tool is an RJ-45 crimper, shown in Figure B. The crimper in the figure actually contains a wire cutter, a wire stripper, and a crimper. This single tool can cut a pierce of CAT-5 cable, strip off the end, and place an RJ-45 connector onto the cable’s end.

Figure B
A good RJ-45 crimper can cut, strip, and crimp.

3. Cordless screwdriver
One of the tools I use most often is a cordless screwdriver, which is a great time saver for anyone who has to routinely open PC cases.

When selecting a cordless screwdriver, I chose the 3.6-volt Craftsman screwdriver, shown in Figure C. I like this model because it has adjustable torque and a higher voltage rating, and therefore more power, than many others that are available.

Figure C
This 3.6-volt Craftsman cordless screwdriver has an adjustable torque and plenty of power.

After purchasing a cordless screwdriver, I recommend getting a good set of bits, such as the one shown in Figure D, to make sure you have the right fit for any job that comes along. Remember that some PCs use Torx (star-shaped) screws rather than the standard Phillips and flat-head screws. The bit set in the figure also includes a few nut drivers. Some computer cases use screws with heads that have edges like those found on nuts. If the head grove is damaged, you can remove it with a nut driver. You might even consider picking up a flexible extension bit, which is great for getting to screws in those hard-to-reach areas.

Figure D
It’s important to have plenty of screwdriver bits on hand.

4. Two-way radios
Another tool that comes in really handy is a set of two-way radios, such as the Motorola models shown in Figure E. These radios are useful when two or more technicians are working in different parts of the building. For example, when testing cables, one technician may be in a wiring closet while another may be at a user’s desk. A set of radios lets the two techs compare test results and talk about repair ideas. These radios can also receive FM stereo, marine radio, and weather radio, so I can use them on my boat on the weekends.

Figure E
A set of two-way radios can help technicians working in different parts of the building exchange ideas.

5. Multimeter
You probably don’t want to get caught without a multimeter. Many different types of multimeters are available, ranging in price from about $20 to about $200. I use a midrange unit, the Craftsman Digital + Analog Multimeter 82322, shown in Figure F. It’s priced around $100.

I use my multimeter for four basic tasks. First, I sometimes use it to check electrical outlets for proper current levels. Second, I test PC power supplies. In fact, I recently wrote two TechRepublic articles, “Troubleshooting PC power supplies” and “The ultimate PC troubleshooting toolkit” on using a multimeter to test PC power supplies.

I sometimes use my multimeter to test for proper termination on coaxial Ethernet lines. Finally, because my specific multimeter contains a temperature probe, I can use it to measure the temperature inside a PC case to check for overheating.

Figure F
The Craftsman 82322 is very versatile.

6. Phone line tester
It’s easy to think of networks as consisting strictly of network cables and components. However, phone lines are still widely used in networks that offer remote dial-in services. Just as network problems may be related to a bad patch cable, modem problems might be caused by a bad phone jack.

I can’t count the number of times when I’ve seen the phone company or another technician accidentally deactivate a phone jack or crosswire a jack, particularly in large offices. You can use several approaches to test for phone line problems. I like to conduct the initial tests with a phone line tester, such as the one that’s shown in Figure G. This tester displays a green light if the line is good and a red light if the line is cross-wired. No light means the line is completely dead. You can find testers similar to this one for a few dollars at any hardware store.

Figure G
A phone line tester can help you to quickly diagnose phone jack problems.

7. Telephone
Having a phone line tester on hand will help you to diagnose many common problems, but there are some phone line glitches that you can detect only by using an actual telephone. I’ve seen several situations in which a problem with the phone company allows a modem to dial out but not receive calls. Likewise, I’ve seen phone lines that will let you receive calls, but not dial out. That’s why I keep a generic analog phone on hand.

An analog phone is also useful for listening for line noise. I sometimes just dial into a RAS server just to see if the modem picks up and if the various modulation tones sound correct.

8. Tone probe
If you work on networks that rely on patch panels, you’ll find a tone probe to be an extremely valuable piece of equipment. Suppose you have to service a network and none of the punch downs are labeled. You could hook a network jack to an inducer, which would put an audible tone on the network cable. You could then go down to the wiring closet and use a tone probe to see which punch down is carrying the tone. The punch down with the tone corresponds to the jack with the inducer.

9. Lantern
It may seem strange to end my list of essential tools with a lantern, but I can’t tell you how many wiring closets and server rooms I’ve been in that were so dark that I couldn’t see the back of the servers or read the markings on a patch panel. So I always keep a lantern with me when I go to fix a network. A lantern also is useful when trying to run wires through an attic or crawlspace. What I like about my specific lantern is that it’s designed to omit 360 degrees of light and is bright enough to light an entire room.

10: Cable snake
One tool that I have found incredibly useful is the cable snake. This gadget is little more than a retractable spool of flexible metal with a hook at the end. I use my cable snake for pulling network cable through difficult places, such as from the top of a wall to a jack that’s near the floor or through a building’s plenum space or subflooring. A cable snake is also especially helpful for feeding network cable through conduit.

The best laid plans
No matter how carefully you plan your toolkit, it always seems that the one tool you need for a job won’t be there. By collecting this top-10 list—or by compiling one of your own—you’re less likely to find yourself missing that one tool that will get you through the day’s emergency.

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