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?
- By Greg Shields
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|Figure 2. DNS
Report will run a series of sanity checks on any DNS zone.
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
GNU Emacs for Windows can be found here.
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
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.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|Figure 3. NoteTab
adds tabs and additional functions to our old friend
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.
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:
applog=type "\program files\myapp\deepDirectory\myApp.log"
elog=notepad "\program files\myapp\deepDirectory\myApp.log"
cdapp=cd \program files\myapp\deepDirectory
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|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.