Windows System Administrator`s Toolbox

System administrators always have their preferences when it comes to software and tools. Most utilities help them to accomplish routine tasks, or to identify possible flaws, and thereafter fix them with ease. Throughout this article we will recommend a bit more than a dozen applications that can be found almost certainly (or their variations, nonetheless) in most Windows sysadmins’ toolboxes.

Everyone knows that lots of management tools and command-line based utilities are shipped with Microsoft Windows Server operating systems such as 2003 or 2008. It is totally understandable that sysadmins are going to use those applications and MMC snap-ins, but also cmdlets, so getting into those is beyond our scope.

This article will entirely focus on third-party software that helps to ease administrative tasks. You may find that many of the tools presented have other, similar alternatives. Basically, it’s up to you to use and pick whichever one you want. The kind of applications that you can read about on the following pages are used by the author, who is a sysadmin in a predominantly Windows-based environment.

The title of this publication hints at the toolbox. Probably most people reading this are thinking only of software. However, system administrators also must be familiar with (and bring with them as well) numerous physical tools (such as screwdrivers, RJ45 cable crimpers, needle nose pliers, spare cables, RJ45 jacks, etc.). On the last page we will get into these too!

That’s enough of an introduction. Let’s kick-start the article with the first set of tools. One thing to consider is that the majority of tools (almost all of them) are free (and possibly also open source). Our purpose is to increase the efficiency of administering Windows workstations, servers, and entire networks without increasing either the cost or the complexity; i.e. relying on "all-in-one" admin suites that promise the moon from the sky.

Let’s begin.

{mospagebreak title=First Set of Tools}

Without any doubt, PuTTY is one of the most popular terminal emulator applications. It can act as an SSH client but also connect to many other protocols such as Telnet, rlogin, and as expected, many other raw TCP connections. PuTTY is cross-platform. It sports an impressive set of features, such as IPv6, encryption (3DES, AES, DES, Blowfish, Arcfour), public-key authentication, serial port connections, xterm, and so forth.

PuTTY does not require installation, and it has the ability to save connections, which helps a bit, since you can select the destination server from the list without being forced to type in the hostname or IP. PuTTY isn’t updated that frequently, but it has reached such a level of maturity that it does get the job done efficiently. Connections are stable.

Should you want an alternate terminal emulator application, check out TeraTerm. This project is more frequently updated and offers features and capabilities similar to PuTTY’s. It’s an enhanced telnet and SSHv2 communication program that also supports serial connections (which we need to configure network devices, for example). It is written for Microsoft Windows platforms, so it is not cross-platform, but it is open source.

WinInternals was an independent company that developed the SysInternals suite along with many other standalone tools targeted towards Windows sysadmins. In 2006 Microsoft acquired the company; it now works as a subsidiary. Windows SysInternals has been merged with the Microsoft TechNet website. Check out the website here.

Chances are you will find many interesting tools that can help with repetitive tasks or strip down relatively complex administrative tasks. PsTools suite is undoubtedly the most complete resource kit package; it contains numerous programs which should be included in a Windows system administrators toolbox. PsExec, PsShutdown, and PsService are, probably, the most frequently used apps from the package.

While you’re surfing Sysinternals’ website, don’t miss out on Process Explorer. This application is more than your default Task Manager on steroids. It supports listing of the handles, memory-mapped files, and many other important functions aside from the renowned task manager enhancements. It also helps identify DLL-version problems.

Opting for some kind of Notepad replacement utility is pretty much expected, since editing scripts and working with all kinds of source codes as well as log files and many other configuration files is part of a system administrator’s repertoire. Notepad++ is the most widely recognized and appreciated application that does these tasks and more, such as zooming in/out, drag-n-drop, auto-completion, syntax highlighting…

The sixth tool that we recommend before you go to the next page of this article is some sort of Windows implementation of the powerful Grep that is found on *NIX operating systems. Grep is the most customizable text searching utility that works based on regular expressions. We use it on a daily basis whenever searching for snippets inside huge verbosely-logged log files or config files, or you name it.

There are more than a few Grep implementations for Windows. Their features are pretty similar. Check out the following: dnGrep (open-source, requires .NET 2.0), Grep for Windows (free, Win32), Windows Grep ($30 per license; free evaluation copy), PowerGrep (130 Euros; way too expensive, if you ask me).

{mospagebreak title=Another Pack of Tools}

Moving on, system administrators work with files. Their everyday repertoire is about moving files, downloading files, editing files, deleting files (why not?), and so forth-in a nutshell, we need a decent feature-laden file management utility with built-in FTP connection support, archiving capabilities, and other functionalities listed below.

Some of the features we’re truly looking for include tabbed browsing with dual-paned interface, archive capabilities, and lots of keyboard shortcuts — which are similar to what we get used to back in 90s, such as F3 and F4 for "edit," F5 for "copy," F6 for "move," F7 for "new folder," and F8 for "delete." We’re getting old, aren’t we?

FreeCommander is probably one of the best when it comes to the “free” as in free beer part. This Windows file manager replacement is pretty full-featured and just works. Some old tech junkies might love FarManager; it’s also free and it’s the classic FAR. Anyone that was heavily involved in IT back in the 90s knows what FAR is like. For some screen shots check out this page.

We must also mention Total Commander, which is shareware but truly deserves our notice. It’s still considered the premier file manager when it comes to IT pros and specialists. It’s well worth its price ($38 or 26 EUR). The new 7.5 version is in the RC2 state right now and looks even better.

If you don’t have any Total Commander familiarity, then by all means do your best to evaluate it (for one month as shareware). It’s a pretty amazing piece of software, and some of us started using it even before 2002, when it was called Windows Commander.

Let’s accelerate our pace a bit. Moving on, we have another utility that helps us sniff packets and analyze their content. It’s Wireshark portable. Why the portable edition? Because you never know where and when you need to sniff. Sure, on the main workstation machine you should have the non-portable edition installed.

Ultimate Boot CD is a suite that boasts over 100 diagnostic tools. UBCD is free and all of the tools inside within it are free (thus, it is a legal). It shouldn’t be left out of any system administrators’ suite. You may eventually want to hook it up on a bootable flash drive. There is another Boot CD suite, but it isn’t legal, so I won’t mention it.

To continue, we have the single most important security and network diagnostic tool; it’s called Nmap. It helps us to investigate, diagnose, carry on network audits, and thereafter find solutions, fix problems, debug traffic issues/flows, tighten security, and so forth. You need to have (and know how to use) Nmap.

And finally, let’s look at some sort of back-up suite that supports mass-cloning, disk-imaging, and other similar functions that the expensive Norton Ghost suite can do. Clonezilla is the free open-source alternative that is just as powerful. It gets the job done. Another extension of the project is called the GParted-Clonezilla LiveCD, which allows you to boot into either of the two. When you need to mess with partitions, you can opt for GParted.

{mospagebreak title=Physical Tools, Closing Thoughts}

As you can see, we’re slowly reaching the end of this article. We have presented almost a dozen software items that should be included in any Windows system administrator’s toolbox. But as we said at the beginning, aside from these, most tasks need to be carried out through MMC snap-ins, management suites, and command-line utilities (or cmdlets) that are already shipped with your server operating system.

While your job title specifies clearly that you are a system administrator, that does not mean you do not need to mess with network cables, routers, switches, and basically network components, let alone mess around inside computers and PCs. And in most small-to-medium companies, the positions of “network technician” and “sysadmin” are pretty much merged. These people are all-around IT pros and techies.

So that means you should also carry around whenever necessary the following few physical tools: screwdrivers, with some additional nut drivers/bit sets of certain forms such as the torx, hex, star, etc. Hemostats and tweezers are also nice to have, depending on your preference. But basically, pliers do an amazing job and they aren’t optional; the same goes for wire cutters. Flashlights are handy; I use an LED keychain manufactured by ProtonLight. The amount of light it produces is surprising. 

During our everyday tasks, the network cable crammer (RJ45) suffices for “cutting the wires,” but a real wire cutter doesn’t hurt. The crammer is without a doubt one of the most required tools inside your toolbox. And yes, you also need to have about 5-10 spare RJ45 connectors as well. You’ll also need some spare SATA connectors and some small brushes (or even compressed air).

To close with something funny, here is the tip of the day: you can use RJ45 cable crammers as bottle openers. Get creative and see how and where you need to place the crown so it pops off quite easily and with a dramatic effect. Aside from being able to serve as wire cutters, obviously, this makes it the #1 tool within a sysadmin’s toolbox.

In closing, I’d like to invite you to join our experienced community of technology professionals on all areas of IT&C starting from software and hardware up to consumer electronics at Dev Hardware Forums. As well, be sure to check out the community of our sister site at Dev Shed Forums. We are friendly and we’ll do our best to help you.

One thought on “Windows System Administrator`s Toolbox

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