In-Depth

Cool Tools that Rule -- and They're Free!

Finding the right tool for the job can be difficult and finding it for free next to impossible. But standing next to impossible is the Redmond Free Top 25. We think it can make your search a lot easier.

Why buy a tool when you can get it for free? That is the question we posed to users in putting together the first Redmond Free Top 25. Sure, some Windows administration issues require an end-to-end solution purchased from a reputable vendor, but there are times when a very small problem requires a very small answer. In those cases, the best course is to wander off the beaten track and explore the little-traveled roads of the Windows world.

Redmond Free Top 25 Tools

UBCD4Win Recovery CD
BartPE
Sam Spade
Angry IP Scanner
DNSreport.com
SolarWinds Advanced Subnet Calculator
GNU Emacs
Notepad++
SourceEdit
NoteTab
Gvim
POSTIE
PDF Creator
IE Privacy Keeper
HP Insight Manager
Joeware
LanSweeper
GenControl
CCleaner
ClipName
Password Control
BgInfo
PsTools
Process Explorer
PageDefrag

With the invaluable help of our readers, we present the best of the best and the freest of the free. The only requirement we placed on user submissions was that they provide great value at no cost. We categorized tools into four major groups: Disaster Recovery, Network, Developer and Administrative, with the reviews being split between yours truly and our readers.

Disaster Recovery
While it represents the smallest category, Disaster Recovery tools are the ones that can help you the most when your Windows servers won't boot. Comprised of bootable tools that provide full functionality to servers, these products can either completely resurrect a dead server or transfer critical data from one that can't be revived.

The first entry is from Wade Lahr, a network administrator for Sysco Food Services in Kansas. He casts his vote for the UBCD4Win Recovery CD, which is designed to be used as a CD- or DVD-bootable OS. It's a tool, he says, that has saved the day in many different system-down situations. If you get a "No Operating System Found" message, just pop in the UBCD4Win Recovery CD to boot a Windows-looking interface that enables you to further investigate the problem. UBCD4Win, which has several built-in freeware programs, including Ad-Aware, McAfee AVERT Stinger anti-virus scanner and Disk Tools, can bring a server back to life. If you can't resurrect a server, the tool allows you to copy important files from the hard drive to a USB flash memory card or external drive. It can even burn files to disk. You can grab UBCD4Win here.

Kirk Unruh, IT manager for Buffalo Air Handling Co. in Virginia, nominates BartPE, which stands for Bart's Preinstalled Environment. This tool allows you to create a bootable CD-ROM or DVD that provides a complete Win32 environment allowing access to hard drives and network resources. Once the PE builder is downloaded, just point it to the Windows installation files, add any additional files or plug-ins and burn a bootable CD. It's useful for troubleshooting failed hardware and recovering data and it's freely downloadable here.

Network
Although many Windows admins shy away from administering the network, all Windows servers rely on that same network for their basic communication. Our free tools in the network space serve to enlighten the Windows admin about what's open and listening on the network while helping to narrow the knowledge gap between layers seven and one.

Bill Brower, network operations manager for the Monroe County Government in Indiana, says that Sam Spade is a freeware network utility that offers a range of network troubleshooting tools through a single interface. The utility includes well-known tools such as ping, traceroute, nslookup and WHOIS, and is best suited for network troubleshooting. If you're interested in looking at raw HTML instead of rendered HTML in order to troubleshoot a Web page, you should dig Sam Spade. Most useful is the traceroute function, which is quicker than the native Windows version and can be tweaked to do parallel queries for a faster response. Admins can download it here.

Sam Spade
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. Sam Spade provides a console that can run many useful network tests.

Tom Cole, a consultant from Delaware, says he finds the open-source tool Angry IP Scanner to be a fast and configurable IP and port scanner. Cole reports that he can install it on a range of servers and finds it particularly useful for confirming who has what IP address at any given time, as well as for checking whether certain addresses have unauthorized open ports. It's available here.

Troy Sorzano, director of professional services for RippleTech in Pennsylvania, believes www.dnsreport.com is one of the leading DNS and mail-server testing tools. If you are concerned that your external DNS is not configured to meet the RFC requirements, then admins should point www.dnsreport.com to any externally-accessible DNS domain name and it will automatically run and report on dozens of tests that validates addresses' configurations.

Mark Morgan, enterprise architect for the Washington State Dept. of Information Services in Washington, religiously uses the SolarWinds Advanced Subnet Calculator for figuring out subnets, subnet sizes and their boundaries when he doesn't want to calculate in binary. The utility will also carry out a WHOIS lookup for a host server or IP address. The product is available here.

DNS Report
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 2. DNS Report will run a series of sanity checks on any DNS zone.

Developer
Without developers, there would be no Windows to administer to, nor any developer tools to work with. Tools in this category make it easier for code writers to highlight, edit and debug code, while still ensuring an easy installation at a reasonable price.

Nao Takano, software developer for Aurora Loan Services in Colorado, says that GNU Emacs text editor has long been a staple for Unix environments but points out there is also a useful Windows version. While it can't be considered a fully Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that supports execution and debugging within the software itself, GNU Emacs does provide more than enough keystroke shortcuts to the point where programmers can eliminate using the mouse. One of its best features is automatic code indentation, which makes logic syntax clearer and debugging easier for C/C++, C#, Java, JavaScript and Perl programmers. GNU Emacs for Windows can be found here.

Both Notepad++ and SourceEdit are "great free text editors," according to Chad Ness, director of technology for Art Institutes International in Minnesota. Both products have built-in markup of source code that supports a variety of different languages, he says, as well as other features such as multiple views, code highlighting, and search and replace.

The Chief Code Monkey for Artful Development Organization in Ontario, Canada, Arthur Fuller, claims the single app he couldn't live without is NoteTab, available here. What Firefox is to IE, NoteTab is to Notepad, he says. The product has tabbed panes, the ability to reopen every file that was open at the last exit, and leaves every cursor just where you left it. NoteTab even allows you to open Linux text files and HTML files.

NoteTab
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 3. NoteTab adds tabs and additional functions to our old friend
Windows Notepad.

For programmers with lots of experience using vi, or those jumping back and forth between Unix and Windows, gvim has the ability to accommodate both needs, says Kevin Weinrich, sub-team leader for the Environmental Protection Agency in Georgia. The tool seems to intuitively know what you want it to do, and, Weinrich notes, includes color-coded syntax highlighting for "just about any language" you need to use including Perl, PHP, HTTP and others. Gvim can be downloaded here.

Daniel Sheehan, a senior systems engineer for DataLine in Maryland, says he has used POSTIE, a utility he uses in batch files to automatically send e-mails, for years. By combining this command-line e-mailer with some batch environment variables, it allows you to send "bad reports" to one set of users while sending "good reports" to another. He also uses this tool to test SMTP connectivity to remote mail servers when there is a problem with mail delivery.

Administrative
Creating your own tools takes time and effort, but finding free administrative tools on the Internet means we can go home early and catch the football game. Being a systems administrator means working with other people's data and using other people's tools, but finding just the right one is typically the hardest part. The tools in our Administrative category, the largest one in the Redmond Free Top 25, are favorites of systems administrators around the globe.

Kelvin Lee-Ting, senior technical systems analyst at RBC Financial Group in Ontario, Canada, says his favorite free tool is still the good old Windows DOSKEY macros. He uses it to build his own custom commands that can take variables as input. Since DOSKEY is included as part of every Microsoft OS, his custom commands can be used all the way from a DOS machine to the current operating system on both workstations and servers. If you are looking to shorten an often-used command, by using DOSKEY you can just open a text file called MyCommands.mac and create custom commands like the following:

[cmd.exe]
mac=doskey /macros:ALL
applog=type "\program files\myapp\deepDirectory\myApp.log"
elog=notepad "\program files\myapp\deepDirectory\myApp.log"
cdapp=cd \program files\myapp\deepDirectory
np=notepad $1
nu=net use * \\$1\c$ /u:$1\$2 $3

To use My Custom Commands, start a command prompt with cmd.exe /K doskey /macrofile=D:\MyCommands.mac.

Harvey Colwell, senior network analyst for System Development Services in Illinois, has owned several versions of Adobe Acrobat and swears that for some high-end publishing-related activities "it's the only way to go." But for most people, PDF Creator can do everything you need. Based on the Ghostscript engine, this tool enables a simple Windows printer driver that generates a PDF file instead of a printed output when you click Print. Because Adobe provides Reader at no cost for so many different platforms, the PDF format has long since been the de facto standard for archiving and making information available to the masses. With PDF Creator, now even the writing is free.

The favorite free tool of Stuart Garner, computer specialist for the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., is IE Privacy Keeper, available from Browser Tools here. This tool performs a suite of browser cleanup processes that clean up the browser history upon exit. Some features include the ability to clean up index.dat files without restarting and to securely delete files, folders, registry keys and managing cookies by keeping selected ones and automatically deleting all others. It can be set to run the same for all users or allow individual users to configure selected items. IE Privacy Keeper works with all versions of Windows back to Windows 98 running Internet Explorer 5.5, or Firefox 1.0 and later.

For admins overseeing HP servers, Dave Krzynowek, a systems engineer for Excelsior College in New York, suggests the Web-based HP Insight Manager designed for managing servers. Insight Manager monitors all aspects of server hardware, which includes monitoring network traffic through network cards, server temperatures, uptime reports and component pre-failure warnings. The tool even generates reports to capture server serial numbers for those painful inventory projects. Insight Manager can be set up to page an administrator for events like failed hard disks or servers not responding. The utility and server agents can be downloaded from HP's Web site here.

David Loder, an Active Directory architect in Michigan, claims that joeware is the premier Active Directory command-line tool. Just by dropping any executable into your path, you can start banging away at AD to your heart's content. Joeware's single-executable tools allow for rich querying and manipulation of AD and Exchange Mailbox objects, he says, and can locate and clean old machines and user accounts. Joeware can be downloaded here.

According to Tim Grigsby, an IT support manager from Daytona Beach, Fla., LanSweeper is the best tool for keeping the database responsible for all his company's computers up-to-date. The tool works through a log-on script to pull hardware, software and configuration-inventory data on every machine on the network into a SQL or MSDE database. He describes it as "invaluable" for troubleshooting support and for ensuring software-licensing compliance. Download LanSweeper here.

GenControl is an "amazing clientless tool," says Jason Boroff, a network engineer in Ohio, because it "allows admins to remote into Windows-based computers." Unlike the VNC application, which requires a software installation on each machine you want to control, GenControl does not require you to install anything on unmanaged remote computers. Download GenControl here.

Gary Praegitzer, senior systems administrator for BVS Performance Systems in Iowa, stands by CCleaner as his favorite freebie because it is so thorough in the removal of the piles of garbage that Windows can leave behind. It's capable of cleaning up IE cookies, Temporary Internet Files and History, as well as fixing and removing registry inconsistencies. CCleaner can be scripted to run silently from batch files, log-on/log-off scripts, or a Windows scheduler. Get CCleaner here.

The favorite of Jan Roose, IT manager for BBTK-SETCa in Brussels, Belgium, is ClipName, which can be obtained here. If you right-click any file on your desktop, this tool will copy the complete pathname to the clipboard, and it's handy for pasting file paths into a command prompt. Also, multiple file paths can be copied to the clipboard as a space- or carriage return-separated list.

If unfettered Active Directory Users & Computers access for your help desk employees is giving them heartburn, then have them check out Password Control, says Hans Straat, technical support specialist for Gentronics in The Netherlands. Designed as a super-slim tool allowing help desk employees to reset passwords without giving them a full MMC console, this tool can help with that nasty reflux.

Sysinternals
OK, so I lied. There's a fifth category. Think of it as a surprise bonus. With their recent merger with Microsoft, Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell's Sysinternals site at www.sysinternals.com is sure to make history, if it hasn't already. For years, the Sysinternals Web site has provided free administrative tools that solve the problems not resolved through the native Windows toolset. Redmond readers have shown such deep appreciation for the tools of Russinovich and Cogswell that we felt it necessary to plunk them into their own section.

Todd King, lead Internet systems administrator for Johnson County ITS in Kansas, says that BgInfo from Sysinternals is his favorite tool because it provides easy access to information like machine names and logon domains, last boot time, IP address and drive information. The product builds a bitmap of system information to display on the machine's background. If you connect to a large number of machines through remote desktop, knowing exactly what machine you are on is important. You can download BGInfo here.

In the opinion of John Remillard, IS engineer for Perot Systems in Rhode Island, the entire suite of PsTools, downloadable from the Sysinternals site, is exceptional. To use the tools from the command line, just download the PsTools package and copy them into your path. I personally use them to enable scripted daily event-log gathering from our servers, to help users stop and restart services for their applications, and to remotely launch processes on other machines.

Process Explorer is a Windows Task Manager that provides information on system processes and the resources used by those processes. According to Jenn Davis, an infrastructure engineer for SAIC, the product presents this information in a very intuitive and highly customizable format. With this product administrators can get a complete view of all their apps and processes running on a Windows machine. For each process, you can drill down to see the DLL's being accessed and the TCP/IP connections being made, or kill a malfunctioning orphan, abandoned thread or even an entire process tree with a single mouse click. Personally, when troubleshooting performance issues on a workstation or server, Process Explorer is the first tool I load. It's indispensable for controlling the CPU and memory usage, and allows me to sidestep costly reboots. Download it here.

A Colorado-based IT Specialist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a big fan of Sysinternals PageDefrag, a tool that defrags the page file and registry on systems allowing them to perform better. Typically, a well-performing page file means a well-performing system. PageDefrag can be set to run at each boot or on-demand. I am so impressed with the performance it adds to the overall system that I've incorporated the tool into our standard workstation images.

Sysinternals
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Figure 4. Sysinternals' PageDefrag can be set to automatically defrag at every boot.

If you are interested in any of our free tools check out their associated Web sites, and be sure to thank the authors when you do. Redmond thanks the writers of all these free tools for their efforts to make the lives of their fellow administrators easier and much less expensive.

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