Like most admins, you’ve probably walked up to a server connected to a KVM switch and either checked a setting or scratched your head in confusion, wondering why a certain application no longer appeared on the Start menu. Glancing down at the KVM switch, you notice that it’s not on the port you thought it was on. Or maybe you needed to know what service pack was installed on a server, or wanted to quickly get the machine’s IP address and had to start digging around various menus to gather info on the server.

I’ve seen admins try various approaches to help overcome this server identity problem. On Windows servers, I generally change My Computer to the name of the server. This gives me a way to quickly check to make sure I’m on the right server. I also saw one completely frazzled admin who created a tailored desktop background for each server, with the server name in huge letters. Although that’s creative, there’s a better way to address this issue.

BgInfo to the rescue
SysInternals, the creators of a number of extremely useful Windows utilities, has available for download a program called BgInfo, which will help to solve this problem. BgInfo creates a new desktop background that automatically contains an abundance of system information, ranging from the host name to the length of time since the last reboot.

BgInfo requires virtually no system resources for normal operation. The only time system resources are consumed is when BgInfo is refreshed to create an updated desktop background, and even then it uses minimal resources. At all other times, it’s just a regular desktop background, albeit one that shows a plethora of system information.

Installation of BgInfo is a breeze. On my test lab Windows 2000 server, it was a matter of simply extracting the executable from the downloaded package and running it. BgInfo does not have an installer. The program consists of a single .exe file you can place anywhere you choose.

Configuration and customization
When you run the BgInfo executable, you get a screen similar to the one in Figure A, which allows you to customize the information that you will be shown and to determine where it will be positioned on the screen.

Figure A
BgInfo configuration screen

BgInfo contains a number of fields you can place on the desktop background. By default, it displays every field of information, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
The default BgInfo desktop display

For some, this is probably too much information. Most admins I know are more likely to want an at-a-glance display of critical system information. To this end, BgInfo allows you to decide what to place on the desktop.

I’ve found that the easiest way to begin is to remove all the information from the preview window and then add only the elements I need. For my servers, I like to have the system name, IP address, domain name, system boot time, user currently logged in, OS version, and service pack information.

For this demo, I selected all the text in the preview window and deleted it. Afterward, I selected each piece of information I wanted on the display and clicked the Add button. Figure C shows the results.

Figure C
Displaying a little less information

More customization
If you don’t like the default font of white, 12-point, bold Arial, you can change that too. You can even change it on a line-by-line basis. You can also put the information in various positions on the screen by clicking the Position button and choosing the location.

Additionally, if your servers have a custom background—such as a company logo—on the desktop, you can continue to use it by clicking the Background button and choosing the file that contains your background image. BgInfo will use your custom background and simply place the system information on top of it. Figure D shows a sample screen with yellow, 10-point Verdana text positioned in the center of the screen on top of a custom background picture.

Figure D
BgInfo with a picture as the background

Keeping information timely
If you decide to use BgInfo to keep track of things such as the amount of free disk space on a volume, it’s most helpful if BgInfo can continually update itself to keep this information current. That’s pretty simple to do and can be accomplished in a couple of ways.

When you run BgInfo, you should see a countdown timer in the upper-right corner of the window, as shown in Figure E. When it gets to zero, BgInfo writes a new desktop pattern and exits. If you want to keep these settings, simply put the executable (located in C:\WINNT\System32\) in the startup group and schedule a task to run it at certain intervals.

Figure E

Use the command line
BgInfo also includes command line parameters to make things even easier, letting you avoid the configuration window altogether. When you run the BgInfo GUI, you have the option of saving your settings to a file. For example, I’ve done this on my lab system and saved the settings to C:\WINNT\tr.bgi.

To create a scheduled task, choose Start | Settings | Control Panel | Schedule Tasks, choose Add Scheduled Task, and follow the instructions in the wizard. With the wizard, you can’t specify an interval of less than one day for a task, nor can you specify command line parameters for the executable. To do either of these things, you’ll need to open the advanced properties for the task after the wizard completes. Figure F and Figure G show my task properties for the example screen configured above.

Figure F
Task properties: Command line options

Figure G
Task properties: Scheduling

For this example, I used the /i command line parameter and pointed it to the full path to the configuration file I saved earlier. I also used the /timer:0 parameter to prevent the GUI from opening.

Sometimes system administration tasks can be greatly simplified and less prone to error if you use simple and intuitive tools. BgInfo meets both of these goals—and it’s free to boot. BgInfo can be useful on any server, but it is invaluable when managing groups of servers over a KVM switch.