What's in the box, Windows sysadmin?

What lurks inside the toolkit...


Sysadmin blog Windows is a powerful and complex Operating System (OS). As with any modern OS, it comes equipped with numerous features, utilities, and applications. But Windows' default tools are not always the best widget for the job at hand.

The ubiquity of these tools makes them a standard minimal toolkit that Windows administrators can rely on having available, no matter what the circumstance. When you take your many and varied Microsoft certifications, this is the toolkit you will be expected to know how to use.

Windows XP has lasted 11 years in regular production and Windows 7 is creeping up on its third birthday. Tools that have become important since the launch of these operating systems must regularly be sought out, downloaded, and installed.

To this end, Windows sysadmins often maintain a USB stick or DVD filled with critical utilities. These are the tools of the trade: the software that allows us to get our jobs done.

Some software needs to be downloaded to the local system to be useful to us. Applications like Foxit, PDF Creator, Classic Shell, or Wireshark don't serve much of a purpose as portable apps. Fortunately, websites like Ninite exist. Ninite alleviates the tedium of installing common utilities by providing a unified one-click installer covering all the utilities listed on its website. Simply tick the boxes for the applications you desire, download, and launch.

Some tools are essentially standalone files. The most prominent in this category – the Windows Support Tools (2000, XP2003, R2) – became so important to basic administration that Microsoft incorporated them into the next generation of operating systems. These tools are easy to transport and use: stick them on a web server and download them as one-offs. No fuss, no muss.

Some utilities require configuration. Do you really want to download the same set of plug-ins for every browser, on every computer you touch? Do you really want to drag along your custom dictionaries from system to system, or migrate your saved Putty favourites?

Taking your toolkit with you, including all of its configurations, is the niche filled by portable applications. Those with an interest in building their own set should check out Portable Apps. In my time as a sysadmin, I have accumulated a collection of favourite utilities. I'd like to share my toolkit with you.

Under "productivity", there is NSIS for building Windows installers. DIA is great for quick-and-dirty diagramming and we all know about GIMP for minor image work. Firefox + Addons come in portable flavour, and uTorrent helps you download those pesky Linux ISOs. Skype because everyone seems to use it for conferences and interviews, and VLC because I randomly given training videos in bizarre video formats. Libreoffice for obvious reasons, and Notepad++ (now with Spell Check!) because I simply can't live without it.

Getting into the more traditional sysadmin tools there are WinSCP, Putty, Cygwin and Xming for speaking to Linux. CDBurnerXP does what it says on the tin while KeePass is a great portable keyring. 7Zip handles compression while Windirstat displays folder and file usage graphically.

ComboFix and ClamWin are good front-line antivirals, while Bleachbit is good for cleaning out the unmentionables. Don't forget to add the entire Sysinternals Suite, a VNC viewer and Filezilla. I round it out with Teamviewer as my choice of remote support tool and XYPlorer as my file manager. (XYPlorer is payware, but has proven to be entirely worth it.)

I store these applications in Dropbox. There is a specific reason for choosing Dropbox here: it is supported by Ninite. A quick single installer from Ninite, log into Dropbox – and my entire toolchest downloads itself. If I add a bookmark, it is synchronised to all of the other computers. If I discover a new tool, I add it to my chest, and it is immediately synchronised across all of the other systems. For enterprise deployments, I replace Dropbox with TeamDrive.

A special mention should be given to one of the few bootable DVDs I still carry around with me: Hirens. Hirens offers virtually every diagnostic tool a Windows administrator could possible want from a single Windows PE live CD. I encounter only a handful of software problems per year that I can't solve with only my Hirens disk, Ninite and my Dropbox toolchest.

What tools and utilities have I missed? What are your favourites, and how do you transport around your digital tools of the trade? ®

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