In-Depth

The 2008 Editors' Choice Awards

Here are our selections for the products we believe you just can't live without.

Craftsmen often define themselves by the tools of their trade. They see these tools not only as a means to an end, but as a reflection of themselves as masters of their respective domain. With that in mind, we pulled together a select group of our contributing writers and editors to compile a list of the products they've come to rely on most to produce quality work that's delivered on time. These are tools that help IT admins keep the lights on, streamline operations, save money and time, and help identify new business opportunities.

For this Editors' Choice, we chose not to group the tools and technologies by feature or function. There are no categories like best firewall or best network-management tool. Instead, we established categories based on what these tools mean to our expert editors and writers and how they help them get their jobs done.

Let us know how our experts' picks match up with your preferred tools and what you use in your everyday life as an IT professional.

Most Reliable Best Breakout Technology
Best Product that Never Was Best Product You Wish a Vendor Would Make
Works with Everything Best New Version
Works Right out of the Box You Can't Live Without It
Low-Maintenance Magic Your First Love
They Don't Make Them Like this Anymore Most Like Magic Dust
Slickest Time-Saving Tool Best Value in Software
Best Value in Hardware Easiest to Use/Manage
Biggest "Wow" in an IT Product Still Useful After All These Years
Favorite Free Software The Contributors

Most Reliable
This is the "accidentally built a wall around it and forgot it was there" kind of reliable:

1. VMware ESX: The least stable part of ESX is usually the administrator. The code is virtually bomb-proof.

2. IBM mainframes: They've been running for more than 50 years, and probably will for another 50.

3. DOS 6.2: One company had a DOS machine with a terminal emulator connected to a remote customer. It downloaded thousands of invoices per month and delivered them to a file share. The box was never rebooted and was found behind a filing cabinet when the company moved.
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Best Breakout Technology
The products that changed the way you play the game:

1. VMware: Solidified virtualization's place in the mainstream as well as giving it access to new markets and applications.

2. Windows Networking: Novell trained 50,000 Certified Netware Engineers, and Microsoft essentially put them out of work.

3. PerformancePoint 2007: Although it carries a hefty price tag, this new server from Microsoft is considered "cheap" when compared to others that provide similar business analytics.

4. Exchange Server: If you've never worked on Banyan Vines or Novell Netware's e-mail products, don't complain about Exchange.

5. Symantec Ghost: Set the standard for imaging and backup, and keeps getting better.
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Best Product that Never Was
A product or technology that was promised, but never actually delivered:

1. SQL database for Exchange: Exchange administrators hate the eight hours of rebuild time every time Exchange's database decides to puke.

2. WinFS: Sounded like the next great thing, but if it sounds too good to be true ...

3. Windows Vista: After five years of promising to deliver a breakthrough version of Windows containing things like the long-talked-about WinFS file system and the Indigo Web Services engine, it arrived minus those key technologies. What did we actually get? An expensive, slow, graphically enhanced version of XP.
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Best Product You Wish a Vendor Would Make
Great idea, but no one has had the vision to step up and make it happen:

1. A batch download tool for Internet Explorer: Something similar to FlashGet, but with a subtle user interface.
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Works with Everything
The most interoperable tool with the fewest problems:

1. SecureZip: Secure compression for everyone.

2. Mozilla: Runs on any OS, doesn't complain and gets the job done.
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Best New Version
Best improvements to an existing version:

1. Microsoft Windows XP SP2: Still the gold standard.

2. Internet Explorer 7.0: This has the best set of improvements seen in a long time, especially tabbed browsing and enhanced security.

3. SWsoft Virtuozzo: Not version after version of the same product, but a new virtualization architecture that may offset what we've come to think of as "virtualization."

4. SQL Server 2005: A whole new query engine, a whole new toolset and an interface that makes much more sense, particularly for DBAs doing both admin and development work.
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Works Right out of the Box
The tool that requires the least customization to be useful:

1. Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold: Complete and easy network monitoring.

2. Groove 2007: Re-released with very few changes, Groove lets you collaborate anytime, with anyone, anywhere. All you need is an Internet connection and Groove gives you the tools to collaborate with team members smoothly.

3. TechSmith's SnagIt: This is indispensable, not only to writers/document creators but to anyone who has had to send a screen shot to a technician. It's cheap, plugs into almost every Windows app and works with any flavor of Windows (even Vista).
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You Can't Live Without It
The one tool you just gotta have:

1. BeyondTrust Privilege Manager: Security settings at a much more granular level.

2. ViceVersa Pro: Bi-directional file synchronization with a separate database that tracks changes.

3. Camtasia Studio 5.0: Webcasts with transitions, zooming, recording and other production options, plus TechSmith support is incredibly responsive with help or advice.

4. MWSnap: Essential freeware for taking screenshots of anything.

5. NGSSQLCrack: When you absolutely, positively must know those SQL log-in passwords.
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Low-Maintenance Magic
The tool that requires the least amount of ongoing attention:

1. Exploit Prevention Labs' LinkScanner Pro: Just set it and forget it.

2. Sunbelt's Ninja Email Security: Stealthily keeps your e-mail clean and healthy.

3. Microsoft's WSUS: Plug it in, attach clients to it and they're patched. The best part is it's free.
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Your First Love
The first tool that saved your butt and made your life much easier:

1. SMS Installer: If only there were more tools like this.

2. TrendMicro HouseCall: This tool does a good job of performing an online scan of your system, looking for all the latest virus and spyware crud.

3. Exchange Server: This baby is rock-solid. It has been hosting billions of e-mail accounts for years and gets the job done.
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They Don't Make Them Like this Anymore
You haven't found anything to replace it since it was discontinued or the vendor went out of business:

1. The original SMS installer: The one that came with SMS 2.0, because with SMS 2003, they moved to a more complex model. You can still use that tool today to create .EXE packages.
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Most Like Magic Dust
Tools that make you look like a magician to your superiors and users:

1. Symantec Ghost: Seamless imaging that helped start the virtualization revolution.

2. Norton Utilities (now a part of Symantec): Data recovery, disk repair and about anything else you need in a maintenance utility.

3. VBScript: PowerShell is great, but our old love is still the fun of VBScript scripting.

4. Standard User Analyzer: This is part of Vista's Application Compatibility Toolkit -- hidden deep within the kit so you barely know it exists -- that lets you loosen the ACLs of User Account Control for a Standard user so they can use hardware or software that would ordinarily require an Administrators account. And, it's free.
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Slickest Time-Saving Tool
Tools that take years off your time in the office:

1. Tabs in IE7: Tabbed browsing is the best development in browsing since, well, the browser.

2. BeyondTrust Privilege Manager: Setting fine-grained security policies across an enterprise has never been easier.

3. PowerShell: You can do a lot with one line of script.

4. Diskeeper: An easy way to keep hard drives healthy.

5. MSConfig: Get that computer to boot faster.
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Best Value in Software
The most capability for the lowest price:

1. LogMeIn Free: If you forget a file or need to check on an e-mail, this service lets you easily grab it from your home machine.

2. Google: Any of it -- Google gmail, docs, portal, you name it -- it's all good.

3. Firefox: A better browser -- by many benchmarks -- than IE.

4. Apache Web Server: Running on more than 60 percent of Web sites operating today, as well as most enterprises with an external Web presence, Apache continues to be the most reliable and interoperable Web server today.

5. OpenOffice: Remains the most viable open-source alternative to Microsoft Office among desktop productivity suites.
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Best Value in Hardware
You can't believe it does everything for the price:

1. Hewlett-Packard DL series server line: All that firepower in a 1U and/or 2U form factor.

2. eMachines computers: Low-cost machines from a real (not white-box) company.

3. Strangeloop AppScaler: Can you really save yourself months of performance tuning by adding an appliance in a production environment? Yes.

4. The XO $100 laptop: Oops, we mean $200 laptop. Still a bargain, though.

5. inVion GPS: It has mapping software, an MP3 and AVI player, and an FM transmitter.
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Easiest to Use/Manage
You could use it in your sleep, and often do:

1. VMware Workstation: Virtually anyone can use it.

2. SurfControl: It has software, appliances and services. Pick the one that's easiest for you -- it's hard to go wrong.

3. KACE Kbox: Turn it on, give it an IP address on your network, and off you go.

4. MySQL: It's easy to learn and configure, and lightning fast.

5. Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager: With a name like that, it had better be easy to manage.

6. Kaseya Platform: An easy to use and highly scalable configuration-management tool for Managed Service Providers and enterprises alike.

7. EqualLogic PS series iSCSI storage: Plug it in and go.

8. Altiris Carbon Copy: Remote management made easy.

9. OpenSpan: Helps integrate and run existing applications together without having to know a thing about Web services.

10. Quest Group Policy Manager: Keeps those pesky policy updates in line.
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Biggest "Wow" in an IT Product
Your jaw dropped the first time you used this:

1. VMware Fusion: This is a must-have for the Mac-ophiles in any organization.

2. Vista's Instant Search: Our reaction is simply, "Wow."

3. Ubuntu 7.04: The "be afraid -- be very afraid" moment for Microsoft may be nearing.

4. VMware ESX 3i: You mean I can get VMware ESX in a slim 32MB package on a piece of firmware now?

5. RapidMind's RapidMind Platform: It adjusts an application to take advantage of all CPU cores in a system.
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Still Useful After All These Years
Your grandparents passed this tool down to you:

1. Symantec Ghost: An indispensable tool for more than 10 years.

2. Norton AntiVirus: The Norton name still conveys nerd cachet among industry veterans.

3. WinZIP: Because file sizes are growing almost as fast as storage sizes.

4. Microsoft Outlook: Outlook has been a workhorse in the industry for 15 years. Even with IM and text messaging, e-mail still rules.

5. Windows XP: Every day with Vista makes the six-year-old operating system look better.
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Favorite Free Software
These tools are free, but worth a whole lot more:

1. Firefox: The best browser for the best price.

2. Virtual PC 2007: Most prefer VMware, but you can't beat free.

3. PKZip: You still need to compress files, and you always will.

4. Microsoft Virtual Earth: It's easy to program and easy to use.

5. VideoLAN's VLC Player: Media without corporate-driven integration -- seems like freedom to me.
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The following Redmond editors and writers contributed to this article: Ed Scannell, Lafe Low, Peter Varhol, Doug Barney, Keith Ward, Michael Desmond, Guy Wright, Greg Shields, Josh Jones, J. Peter Bruzzese and Bill Heldman.

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