Essential Tools: One tech's top picks

If you're like most net admins and support pros, you've got a collection of favorite time-saving tools you routinely use to make your life on the job a little easier. Check out this admin's 17 favorite utilities and applets and see how they compare with your favorites.

Over the 16 or so years I've been in the business of helping humans get to know and love their computers, I've acquired a set of tools, utilities, and applications to assist in this sometimes daunting task. Although every tool or applet might not be the latest or greatest, I've developed a familiarity and fondness for each of them and would like to introduce them to you, with the hope that they can become your friends, too.

RealVNC has been with me for a number of years. It might not be the most full-featured or even the most reliable means of remote access, but it has remained my method of choice, as it’s free, small (<150K), fast to install, well-behaved, fully cross-platformed, and extremely easy to use. For mixed OS environments, it’s particularly beneficial. I can use my home Windows PC to view a Linux server in the office. I have the client installed on every notebook, desktop, and server in the company. Nothing can substitute for face-to-face contact with stressed users, but sometimes being able to quickly connect to their computer to fix a problem or show them how to perform some task is all that’s necessary.

EventSentry Light has been in my toolbox since we migrated from NetWare to Windows 2000 Server approximately four years ago. EventSentry assists with network administration by running on any NT/2000/XP computer/server, monitoring selected events, creating logs, and sending alerts. As the free version of its full-featured big sister, EventSentry, EventSentry Light has limited options for filtering but will run with no time limitations—just the occasional popup advertisement for the full version. I use EventSentry Light on all our W2K servers to send e-mail alerts every time an error or warning is entered in the System log file and, on some servers, in the Application log file. Scanning these entries in my in-box is much faster than accessing each server individually.

Software Update Services (SUS)—a freebie from Microsoft —simplifies the task of monitoring and distributing critical Microsoft OS updates. Although this solution is far from ideal, it does allow the administrator to automatically download the critical updates to a central location, test them, and then select which updates to distribute. Used in combination with group policy, updates are pushed to clients at specified times. Although it was initially difficult to set up, our SUS installation has been running flawlessly for more than two years. SUS will be replaced shortly by Windows Update Services (WUS).

Filemon for Windows is a free application that monitors and displays all file system activity on a system in real-time. Its advanced filtering and search capabilities make it a powerful tool for exploring the way the OS works, seeing how applications use the files and DLLs, and tracking down problems in system and application configurations. Every event is precisely time stamped. Filemon works on NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 64-bit Edition, Windows 2003 Server, Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows ME. Administrative access is required to run Filemon. I do not use this utility often, but for diagnosing intractable application incompatibility issues, it has been invaluable. Watching the display as the utility runs also has a high geek-appeal.

MSConfig, or the Microsoft Configuration Utility, is built in to Windows 98, 98SE, ME, and XP, but not W2K, for some unknown reason. It is used for speeding up the boot process and troubleshooting problems. Although this utility does not come with W2K, it will run on it. MSConfig allows you to perform various diagnostic startups; edit system, win, and boot.ini; start and stop services; and see everything that is running at startup. I frequently use this tool to diagnose unexplained generalized computer performance issues, particularly if the user has administrative access and a penchant for installing unapproved applications.

Regmon is another free utility with high geek appeal. It helps demystify the registry on any Windows NT/2000/XP/2003, Windows 95/98/Me, and Windows 64-bit for Itanium and x64 system. Regmon features a real-time display of exactly which registry keys are being accessed and the registry data they are reading and writing. I have used this utility to determine which registry keys a restricted user needs access to in order to run a particular application.

If it weren’t for the cost, approximately $70 per license, I would like to have Norton Ghost 2003 on every computer. As with all Symantec products, this is a solid, well-constructed application that performs exactly as described. I use it primarily on the notebook computers of the more advanced users, particularly if they are road warriors who carry their data with them and are very dependent upon their computers. On more than one occasion, I have been able to get a stressed user back up and running thanks to this product.

Magical Jelly Bean Key Finder is a useful little utility, with a great name, designed to help with the odious task of license tracking. Key Finder will retrieve your Windows installation product key from your registry. It works on Windows 95, 98, ME, NT4, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Office 97, and Office XP. I’ve used this utility during a self-imposed license audit to match installed products with physical proof of ownership.

X-Cleaner is another of those cool, free utilities intended to make a techie’s life just that much better. X-Cleaner will run through your system and eliminate all the detritus accumulated by simply surfing the Web. Although it’s touted as a privacy tool to hide your footsteps, I use it on a routine basis when users complain of browser issues or when I’m transferring a computer from one user to another.

Microsoft Visio Viewer recently saved my company a couple of thousand dollars when we investigated a purchase request for 30 copies of Visio. A quick conversation with the user in question revealed that he merely wanted to be able to distribute his Visio files to his department so they could be viewed. No one would be creating or editing the files but him. Visio Viewer can be downloaded for free from Microsoft and can be installed on W2K, W2003, and XP.

3Com Network Supervisor ships free with 3Com switches and can be downloaded from the company Web site. Provided you have at least one 3Com switch on your network, you can use this utility to create a topology of all devices connected to the switch. The discovery process can identify both 3Com and non-3Com nodes, gathering such information as IP and MAC addresses and device type. It can also be moderately useful as a tool for diagnosing some network problems. I use this product anytime I need to lookup a device’s MAC address.

Qcheck is a free network troubleshooting tool from Ixia. You can use this utility to test response time, throughput, and streaming performance. We’ve used it to find bottlenecks and evaluate our network’s ability to support the streaming multimedia used by CBT for the Safety department. You can run Qcheck on XP, 2000 or NT. You can install the performance endpoint software, also free, on any other computer and then use the Qcheck console to test various performance parameters between the console and the endpoint or another console. The utility is fast, easy to set up, and simple to use.

TrendMicroHouseCall is an online antivirus utility we have occasionally used as one weapon in our defense against the ever-increasing threat of viruses. We frequently recommend it for users’ home computers. It offers a relatively quick and easy method of checking out the status of a computer with no, or out-of-date, virus protection.

The Google Toolbar has become part of our standard configuration for end-user computers. We found that it has considerable value in suppressing annoying popups, and a recently added feature allows users to type names directly into the browser address bar instead of having to enter a URL or browse to a search engine. The Google Toolbar can be installed on Microsoft Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP and requires IE 5.5+ to use the anti-popup feature.

To protect our users—particularly the less-disciplined, traveling variety—from the different forms of data mining, advertising, and tracking invasions, we use and recommended a variety of free products. Our current inventory includes Ad-Aware SE Personal, which will scan the RAM, hard drives, registry, and external storage devices for known miscreants and banish them from your system, and Bazooka Adware and Spyware Scanner, which detects spyware, adware, Trojan horses, keyloggers, and trackware components and gives the information you need to remove them.

eFax offers a free, receive-only fax service to your e-mailbox. This is a great solution for traveling users who need to receive occasional faxes and provides an easy way to