Windows 10 – Return of the Magnificent 7

So the big news flooding the web these days is the announcement from Microsoft of a new version of Windows – the longed for replacement to the much maligned Windows 8, expected to be Windows 9 has been passed over in favor of Windows 10! While this news may come as a shock to many people, the apparently time travel capable Infoworld called it way back on April 1st, 2013 (proof here) – an April Fools joke come true!

The Return of the 7
So what’s new in Windows 910? Well one of the most talked about features in Windows 10 is the Start button/menu.

Now you may be thinking you’ve seen that before somewhere and you’d be right of course, it is very popular with fans of Windows 7 (true it existed since Windows 95 but that would ruin my catchy title), but somehow, perhaps due to a forgetful designer, it was omitted from the Windows 8 interface. This naturally caused a fair degree of confusion and general annoyance as people couldn’t figure out how to start an app or find anything, some resorting to speaking into their mouse, with varying degrees of success. Enlightenment frequently came by way of a cat or toddler bashing the screen with paws or mucky fingers. Now this being a whole new version of Windows, the Start menu did actually get a makeover and so it comes with some fancy metro tile things as well as the traditional menu, so you get the best (or worst?) of both worlds.

[15 Essential Books]

Another new feature is what they call Multiple Desktops – in other words virtual desktops. You may well have seen this before also as such things have existed for many years (decades even?) in Unix/Linux systems so it’s about time Windows caught up there! Additionally there’s a snazzy new Task View so you can quickly switch between open files and your virtual desktops.

Also in Win10 is the ability to run Metro apps on the desktop in a window instead of full screen so that they will actually be more usable and in fact everything runs in a window now which is what one would expect for an OS called Windows.

There are of course plenty of interface tweaks and no doubt there will be more features to explore when the big day finally arrives, speaking of which, that day is said to be some time in 2015 and I suspect it will probably be later rather than sooner.

[Security Scanning Tools]

Lazy Coders
Now the big question is: why? Why is it called Windows 10 instead of the expected Windows 9? There are many rumors circulating, April Fools jokes not withstanding, but one possibly plausible explanation was posted on Reddit by a user claiming to be a Microsoft developer (that may or may not be true) who said the reason is due to basically lazy coding by 3rd party developers (ie. not by Microsoft devs such as himself), who saved a line of code in compatibility checks by lumping Windows 95 and 98 together as just “9”.

The offending lazy code looks something like this:

if(version.StartsWith("Windows 9"))
{ /* 95 and 98 */
} else {

This of course now presents a problem with Windows 9 which is very likely not very compatible with 95/98 as far as 3rd party apps goes. As mentioned, this is one of those rare occasions where we can’t actually blame Microsoft as the issue lies with software made by other unrelated companies.

None of this has been officially confirmed by Microsoft though, perhaps they just liked the number 10 or had some other secret reason, one day maybe the truth will come out.

So is Windows 10 simply a more magnificent version of 7? We can and perhaps should pretend that Windows 8 never happened and Windows 9 actually never happened so 10 is in a way, the new 7 and come to think of it, Satya Nadella does bear a passing resemblance to Yul Brynner!

Satya Brynner

[CommitCRM Review]

15 Essential Books for IT Technicians and Sysadmins

Books for IT Technicians and SysadminsTools for IT services doesn’t just mean gadgets or hardware you wield with your hands and in fact the greatest tool of all is your brain but brains need to be filled with information to be of any use and so we need good sources of data to start from. Of course there is always Google and a billion blog posts and wiki articles to learn from (no guarantees they provide accurate information though) but despite the overabundance of online info, books are still fairly essential for anyone serious about learning or acquiring a reliable source of knowledge for use in the business or elsewhere. Of course these days the books are often read on a Kindle or some other ebook reader but that’s another matter!

For Techs and Sysadmins it is common to have to wear many hats and know many different technologies to a greater or lesser extent. So here I provide a selection of books for IT technicians and sysadmins covering several platforms and areas of IT, from very basic to more advanced, which should provide a sound base for anyone working in the field or who is just getting started.
[Firewall Tutorials]

Windows Books

Mastering Windows Server 2012 – helps you do what it says on the cover. Everything you need to know to install, update, manage and use Windows Server in the real world. It is well written and comprehensive and if you ever in need to admin a Windows box, this is the “go to” reference.

Learn Windows PowerShell 3 in a Month of Lunches by Don Jones, a man who clearly likes his lunches. This is a great introductory book on the ever popular PowerShell which gets you up to speed quickly on the essential commands but doesn’t cover too much in the way of scripting. Assumes no prior knowledge and is split into 28 chapters, designed to be read over one month (hence the name!).

When you’re ready to move beyond that one and onto creating scripts and tools with PowerShell then you’ll be wanting Learn PowerShell Toolmaking in a Month of Lunches by the same author which claims to get you “Creating reusable tools that the rest of your team can consume” and I’d agree with that – it is very handy and you’ll soon be banging out custom PowerShell tools which will surely impress everyone, or at least everyone that knows what it is.

Windows PowerShell Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Scripting Microsoft’s Command Shell – it’s a cookbook so you know what to expect from this type of book and this particular one is no exception. This will save yourself lots of time with your PowerShell needs as well as help you see how to do things you may not have known you would need until.. you needed!

Plus there’s a bunch of PDF books you can download direct from Microsoft if the aforementioned books are not enough for you to tame PowerShell.

You may be thinking there’s undue focus on PowerShell here but really it’s such a useful thing to know and will ultimately save you loads of time and effort so it is well worth getting to grips with.
[CommitCRM Review]

Linux Books

UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook – This has been one of the top Linux/Unix admin books for a long time and despite being huge and packed with technical info, it still manages to remain surprisingly readable. Unfortunately one of its authors, Evi Nemeth, disappeared at sea a year or so ago so I don’t know if there will be another edition. Having said that there were three other authors involved so hopefully they can get the job done and avoid crossing any stormy oceans, remote mountains, war zones or busy roads in the meantime!

RHCSA/ RHCE Red Hat Linux Certification Study Guide – if you’re planning to become Red Hat Certified, this book is essential reading. It covers pretty much everything you need to know to pass the tests – note that Red Hat tests are practical, hands on labs, rather than just multiple guess type things so you really need to know what you’re doing and this book will help you get there but of course you still need actual systems to practice on.

General Sysadmin Books

The Practice of System and Network Administration – another classic sysadmin book, this time by Thomas A. Limoncelli (and others). Unfortunately the last published edition was 7 years ago, however the fundamentals and practices are pretty much the same at the higher level so it’s still well worth having. An update would be nice though. The information here applies to Linux, Windows and other OS’s as well and is, as the name implies, about the sysadmin practice as a whole, regardless of platform.

Given that sysadmin books tend to be hefty tomes, it would perhaps be advisable to start with Time Management for System Administrators by the same author, Thomas A. Limoncelli, otherwise you’ll never get anything done!

Update: The Practice of Cloud System Administration is also now available and although I personally haven’t read it yet, since it is also by Thomas A. Limoncelli & crew, I suspect it is sure to be worth having. (technically now there are 16 books on this list but it’s too late to change the title!)

Computer Security Books

Security is a hot topic these days and whether you have dreams of joining Anonymous or a secret three letter agency or just want to know what’s what so you can understand the security guru blogs, these books will help.

Metasploit: The Penetration Tester’s Guide – a popular and powerful framework for pentesting, if there’s one ‘hacking’ tool you plan to learn then this should probably be it. Grab yourself a copy of Kali, read this book and unleash your Metasploit kit! (ethically of course)

The Hacker Playbook: Practical Guide To Penetration Testing – this is a very highly rated book, well regarded by those working in security, which pretty much shows you how to do the pentest, step by step from A to Z. Even if you never plan to actually do pentesting yourself or for your clients, perhaps you will be hiring a pentester or outsourcing to one so with this book you will gain the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions. It’s also a fascinating insight into the practice of hacking.
[Security Scanning Tools]

Computer Networking Books

Sure Mr Universe might say you can’t stop the signal but if the network is down, so is the signal and all the servers are unreachable and the critical business of uploading selfies to Twitter will grind to a halt – clearly networking is important!

Computer Networking First-Step – there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes which keeps us all connected and the selfies flowing and this book covers all the basics of networking so you will have a sound base upon which to build your networking expertise. If you’re planning on going for CCNA and the like, this would be a good place to start but even if you have no such certification intentions, this is just stuff you need to know.

Networking For Dummies – it may be a dummies book but that doesn’t mean it’s no good! Of course if you’re a network engineer, this stuff is way too basic for you (I hope!) but for those whose primary focus is or will be on other areas of IT and just want to get some general knowledge in this field or those who are just starting out and may later go on for more in-depth networking knowledge, this is a decent book to get the very basics covered. If you’re providing tech support to home computer users, this book probably covers most of their needs but for more complex environments you’ll be wanting more.

Network Warrior – when you’ve got your CCNA under your belt, it’s time to head into the datacenter and breakfix stuff which is when you’ll be needing all the Network Warrior skills this book will teach you. Be aware though it is CISCO centric, but other than that it’s great.

PC Repair Books

Fixing PC’s of some description is of course one of the more common tasks for a technician and there are a few decent books that cover this field.

Upgrading and Repairing PCs – now in its 21st edition, this book pretty much sets the standard for PC repair guides and should be on every techs bookshelf!

CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide – if you’re planning on going for the A+ certification, this book will help you a lot. It is somewhat on the large side with 1200 pages so will keep you busy for a long time and covers pretty much everything you need to know to get A+ certified which is a good start for anyone looking to get into the PC technician field.

Of course there are other great books to be had and Amazon has them all (including those above) but hopefully you will find these 1516 useful. If you have any other recommendations, feel free to let me know in the comments!

Update: by popular demand I’ve added direct links to Amazon for each book!

Text Editors – My Favorites for All Platforms

Text EditorsThere isn’t a day that goes by in this industry without the long suffering IT technician  reaching for a text editor of some description to edit a config file, fix a bit of HTML or read through a ReadMe file or some other form of text document. They exist on every platform, many on multiple platforms, they range in complexity from the  simplest click & type such as Notepad on Windows, to the powerful but requiring magic incantations to use, such as VI on Linux/Unix.

Like many other techs, I use a variety of text editors depending on job requirements and the platform I’m currently working on.

When on Windows I naturally use Notepad quite often and I doubt there’s a PC user on the planet that hasn’t used it at some time. It does basic text editing adequately and sits on every Windows machine. For a quick edit job on a plain text file, it’s fine.
[15 Essential Books]
When I’m working on a Linux server I will always use VI. It is not quite as difficult to use as it may at first seem and you can usually get by with just a handful of commands. On the command line, nothing beats it (unless you’re an Emacs fan). For those who like to be on the cutting edge there is also VIM – the VI with extra stuff.

On a Linux desktop I usually go for Gedit for basic text editing. Gedit is the default editor for GNOME desktops and so in that way is basically the Linux/GNOME equivalent of Notepad on Windows.

For more complex projects, particularly code editing of various types, my editor of choice is Bluefish which is great for developers and is available for free on just about every platform these days including Windows, Linux, Mac, Solaris and more. It has built-in support for many different languages and even quick generation of code for common functions/statements such as ‘Select All with Left Join’.

Back on Windows machines, a great alternative to Notepad is Notepad++. It is very popular and with good reason – it has a slick GUI, supports PCRE, WYSIWYG printing, macro recording/playback, tabbed interface and much more. Also on Windows, for a modest fee you can have (and many do have) TextPad which offers a free trial version so you can at least see if it suits your requirements before forking out any cash.
[CommitCRM Review]
Most of the above editors are available free or at least included with the OS but if you’re ever in search of yet another editor, free or paid, there’s certainly no shortage to choose from!

What are your favorite text editors these days?

 

Firewall Tutorials – how to setup everyone’s favorite excuse for things not working!

Firewall TutorialsWe’ve all been there, something is broken and you’ve gone through everything you can think of, checked all the configs, installed and reinstalled, googled and binged and it just wont work.. and then it dawns on you.. maybe it’s the firewall? Well of course it is, it (almost) always is! So in the (probably futile) hope of heading off future firewall blaming, here’s a collection of handy firewall tutorial guides for various platforms…

Linux/Unix Firewalls

IPTables

On pretty much every Linux box these days you will find iptables installed by default but it’s not exactly user friendly when it comes to configuring, however it is certainly worth learning the basics before heading for the easy(ish) front-ends mentioned further down this page. So here are some general iptables guides for you to wrap your brain around:
[Security Scanning Tools]
From the CentOS wiki we have this very useful getting started guide.

If Ubuntu is more to your liking, they too have an excellent ‘how to‘ guide for iptables.

If you still need more then you can find a load of useful iptables examples on nixCraft.

Besides the vanilla iptables there are a number of scripts/addons out there which provide a simpler interface and/or extend the functionality or at the very least simplify the creation of much more advanced iptables configurations.

CSF – A Stateful Packet Inspection (SPI) firewall, Login/Intrusion Detection and Security application for Linux servers.

CSF is popular with cPanel servers (and other web based server management panels) but certainly doesn’t require one and it does quite a lot of useful stuff besides just creating iptables rules.

How To Install and Configure Config Server Firewall (CSF) on Ubuntu

Basic CentOS / RedHat 6 Server Hardening / csf install / epel install
[Antivirus Tools for Techs]
Firestarter – a graphical interface for quickly configuring firewall rules and settings. No longer in active development but still a fully functional graphical interface to make your iptables life easier.

Firestarter from the Ubuntu wiki.

A Quick Tutorial from the official site.

UFW – Uncomplicated Firewall is the default firewall configuration tool for Ubuntu which is designed to make working with iptables simpler, even on the command line. For those who prefer a graphical interface there is also Gufw.

UFW Guide

How to Install and Configure UFW – An Un-complicated FireWall in Debian/Ubuntu

Shorewall – a gateway/firewall configuration tool for GNU/Linux.

Configure Firewall Using Shorewall Under RHEL / CentOS

How to Shorewall on Debian

pfSense – an open source firewall/router computer software distribution based on FreeBSD. pfSense is generally installed on a full computer to make a dedicated firewall device. It comes with a web interface and all the features you’d expect from a firewall device.

Getting Started

Building a pfSense Firewall

pfSense on Reddit – yes it even has its very own subreddit.
[CommitCRM Review]
Windows Firewalls

Windows Firewall from start to finish

How to Install Comodo Firewall

Getting started survival guide for Comodo Free Internet Security Premium Version

The Complete Guide To Set Up and Use ZoneAlarm Firewall On Your PC

Hopefully you will find the above guides useful and no longer have to blame the firewall when things go wrong. (blame SELinux instead 😉 )

 

Essential Firefox Add-ons for IT Technicians

Firefox addons for IT techniciansFollowing my previous article about Chrome extensions for techs, here is one for the Firefox fans. Some of the plugins here are the same as those on the Chromium but not all. So if Firefox is your browser du jour, check these out:

Cliget – this is a super handy plugin which creates curl and wget commands automatically which you can use to download files from web links that would otherwise not work outside the browser (due to cookies, useragent and referrer). In other words you can use this to download files directly to a server instead of having to download to your PC first.

IPvFox – this addon will show you all the ip’s & hosts that content is loaded from on the page being viewed and will indicate if ipv4 or ipv6 is being used.

HttpFox – this one will monitor all the http traffic traveling between your browser and the server, so you can see things like cookies, http headers, query strings, POST params and the response body.

DNS Flusher – use this to reload the brower dns cache when changing the ip/host mapping to see the effect immediately.

Clippings – Saves and manages your frequently-entered text which you can then easily paste into web forms in Firefox or in Thunderbird messages.

FireShot – easily take screenshots of web pages with this addon. A bit like Snagit but only browser based.

SQLite Manager – a great addon which allows you to manage through your browser, any SQLite database you have on your computer.

PassIFox – use this to integrate your browser (Firefox and Chrome) with your KeePass password manager.

Not actually a Firefox addon, but still Mozilla, Enigmail adds PGP message encryption (using GnuPG) to your Thunderbird mail client.

If the above is not enough to power up your browser, there’s loads more to be found in this collection!

Hopefully you find these useful but if you have any suggestions for more handy browser plugins or addons for techies, let me know!

If you’re a Chrome fan then perhaps these extensions will be more to your liking.

Essential Chrome Extensions for IT Technicians

Chrome Extensions for SysadminsThe web is everywhere and there’s unlikely to be an IT technician anywhere in the world that doesn’t rely on it for many things, from research to marketing, communicating to accounting and much more. The primary means of navigating the web is of course the humble browser, an essential application which has progressed somewhat since the early days of Mosaic to the all singing, all dancing power tools of today.

A key feature of the modern browser is of course ability to extend it through the addition of an ever growing array of plugins, extensions, add-ons or whatever they are called by the browser you prefer to use. In this article I cover some of the most useful Chrome extensions for IT technicians…

Elastic Wolf (also here) – if you use AWS services on a regular basis you will find this plugin very useful as it allows you to manage your resources easily through a simple interface and also quickly switch between multiple AWS accounts.

VNC Viewer – from the makers of RealVNC (ie. the company that invented VNC technology) comes this excellent plugin with which you can access and control a remote computer (many platforms are supported) as if you were sat in front of it. Amazingly you can do all this through the browser, all that is required is that that the target computer has VNC installed.

RDP – when you need to remotely access a Windows machine, RDP comes in handy and this plugin implements RDP through your browser. You can run it on Linux, Mac, Windows etc and you can even have multiple connections open in parallel.

SSH – at first glance this sounds a bit dodgy, using SSH through a browser, however it is actually not dodgy at all and this particular extension was developed by Google themselves and of course is Native Client meaning it is sandboxed code running natively on your machine.

Mosh – this is an interesting project which I only discovered recently and you can read more about it here. Basically it makes SSH connections over unstable networks, such as wifi or mobile (the name actually derives from MObile SHell), much more stable and less laggy. It’s a drop in replacement for SSH itself and works really nicely although does require installation on the server side as well.

Shodan – a great utility which provide all sorts of info about a hosted site including what ports are open on the server which a site is hosted on when you visit it.

Is it Cached? – need to know if all your CDN and caching mechanisms are actually working when people visit the site? This plugin will let you know what is cached and what the http headers show.

IPvFoo – when you visit a site this plugin will show the server IP address, along with a summary of IPv4, IPv6, and HTTPS information across all page elements, scanned in real-time from the data stream.

FlashBlock – Not strictly speaking a sysadmin plugin, this one makes life easier for everyone by blocking all those annoying flash apps on a page which could otherwise cause mayhem in the browser.

If you use Opera and miss all those fancy Chrome extension you’re in luck! You can install Chrome extensions in Opera with this.

Hopefully you will find these browser plugins for sysadmins useful but stay tuned for part two which will cover Firefox add-ons for IT technicians!

My Favorite 5 LiveCD’s for System Rescue & Maintenance

LiveCD RescueRecovering a system which has crashed or otherwise fails to boot is a task which every technician will be very familiar with and it’s never a fun time for the owner of the uncooperative machine or the tech tasked with attempting to revive it. Fortunately there are a number of so called “Live CD’s” around which make recovery and other maintenance tasks relatively easy and needless to say, no IT technician should ever leave home without one (or several) along with something to actually run it on!

Commonly, LiveCD distros come with a range of useful technician tools such as diagnostics, forensics, benchmarking, antivirus, disk recovery, security tools and more to help the admin successfully complete whatever critical tasks need to be done to get the system running again or at least to safely recover the data stored there.

Linux is one of the more popular choices for LiveCD’s but there are others including for Mac, Windows, BSD and other Unix systems and even one for Amiga if you happen to have an old Amiga machine that needs some attention. These days, despite the legacy name “Live CD”, most such distros also work just as well on flash drives, dvd’s or hard disks and being able to install a fully bootable OS on a tiny USB stick is always useful!

Knoppix

One of the more popular LiveCD’s around is Knoppix and in fact there are many others around which are based on it, such as Hiren’s which is mentioned below. Knoppix is based on Debian and was first released way back in the year 2000 and has had frequent releases since then. It works well with a very wide array of hardware. It also has over 1000 tools included which should be enough to keep anyone busy and hopefully you will always be able to find the tool you need for the job at hand.

Hiren’s BootCD

Hiren’s is an extremely popular one and, as previously mentioned, it is based on Knoppix which in turn is based on Debian. It includes Mini Windows XP amongst countless other Windows & DOS utilities making it great for accessing and fixing troublesome systems running Windows.

Ultimate Boot CD

The Ultimate Boot CD is another popular choice and it works great for repairing Windows and Linux systems and is in fact based on Linux like so many others. It features a good selection of tools to cater to most technician tasks for system recovery.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu has been a popular choice as a desktop Linux OS for a good few years now and one of the reasons for that was their creation (and even shipping to your house) of a CD with which you can install the OS or even just run it directly from the CD itself. This LiveCD mode is actually the default and certainly helped encourage people to give it a try since they wouldn’t have to risk actually installing or ruining their existing system to do so. The Ubuntu LiveCD is still popular today and they also provide a helpful page explaining how to use it for various recovery tasks.

WinPE

For a purely Windows solution there is WinPE which stands for Windows Preinstallation Environment and is actually a slimmed down version of Windows itself which can be used for system recovery and deployment.

If the above list of Live CD’s does not satisfy you, there is a nice long list of alternatives here which covers just about all the important ones – of course there are probably countless others made by those who fancied having their own custom LiveCD and you could also roll your own as well, using tools like Live Linux or YUMI if you really feel the need.

Google Apps versus Exchange

Google Apps versus Exchange ServerAn IT business, like any other business these days, depends very much on communication over the internet. Customers need to be able to email you for support, potential customers need to be able to reach your sales staff, employees need to be able to reach each other whether they are in the office or on the road and everyone needs to know when, where and with who things are happening. All this communicating also depends on other systems such as knowledge management, calendars, contacts and collaborative business tools of one kind or another.

A long time staple for handing all (or much of) this in businesses everywhere is Microsoft Exchange. But we’re in a new age now and the buzz is all about “Cloud” and “SaaS” and so now we have Google Business Apps seeming to provide a viable alternative to Exchange – but is it up to the task or is Exchange still king of the hill in the Google Apps versus Exchange showdown?

What does Google Apps bring to the table?

Google Apps is of course all hosted entirely on Google servers and so that means (in theory) that it will be fast and always available from anywhere… except when it’s not! Of course it is rare for Google to have an outage but it does happen now and then and when your business depends entirely on Google you could be out of luck at the worst possible time. There’s not much you can do when that happens except sit back and wait for Google to send their crack team of PhD wielding engineers to turn it off and on again, or whatever it takes to fix it. As an IT service provider, your lack of access and control over something so important may not look good to the customers who pay you to manage all their IT and blaming Google may seem like passing the buck.

However, while downtime of your cloud hosted critical business apps is annoying, it should also be noted that by their nature it means they handle all the tricky technical stuff to keep it online and fix it when it’s not online and to update it with new features, bug fixes and security patches. You don’t need to worry about that, you have your business to run and you’d rather not be spending precious time fixing in-house mail servers when they crash (which they likely will eventually) at customer premises or even your own.

Another potential worry when using Google Apps (or any Cloud based service) is the lack of control over the data, as opposed to the systems. Everything you have, all your or your customers critical business data, is on servers owned and managed by someone else. What happens if they lose it? Or get hacked? Or decide to shutdown that particular service you rely on? What if you or you customer want to leave, can you get that data out and will they delete it fully afterwards? These are important issues and Google is of course well aware of it. In theory they will delete your data eventually, in theory they wont get hacked or lose your data through system failure (or human error), in theory you can trust them. In practice – that’s just something you will have to consider and decide for yourself if you can accept and if your customers can too.

Being web based and Google in particular, you can at least expect it to be relatively simple to get setup with their Business Apps and managing it is fairly straightforward – you just configure your preferences and users through simple point & click forms and off you go – your clients may wonder why they are even paying you at all! No more hassles with managing the hardware or software backend. Of course there is a price for all this convenience – even though it’s Google you still have to pay for it, currently $5 per user per month, which is not really that bad, all things considered.

Additionally there is a plugin for Outlook which lets you integrate it with your Google Apps data so you get the best of both worlds.

If you go with the Exchange Server option you have perhaps more functionality (although you may not need it all) and of course full control over all the data as it all resides on your own hardware wherever that may be. You can back it up, you can move it around, you can shut it down, whatever you need to do you can do as nobody else has access (in theory!). All this also means you have to pay a lot more, in terms of hardware and other resources to properly utilize such features as clustering and high availability, to get the redundancy which comes as standard with cloud services, at least when the cloud services actually deliver what they promise.

The downside is that it may “shutdown” on its own or in other words it might crash and bring an entire business to a standstill. When that happens there will be no Google Ninjas swinging into action to save the day – it’s all on your own head and you’ll have to figure out what went wrong and somehow get it working again all the while everyone in the company is complaining and the pressure will be piling up, but that’s the price you pay (on top of the actual price you pay for the software) when you decide not to rely on the cloud. You have to deal with sourcing suitable hardware, installation, configuration, administration, upgrading, fixing, administration, upgrading, etc etc. For an IT business this of course shouldn’t present too much of a problem as it is what you do and naturally results in more billable hours which is generally a good thing – but you also have to consider what is best for your customers at the end of the day since they are not just paying you for fun.

On the upside, your customers may be more familiar with the Microsoft offerings and there’s a lot to be said for that as it can save a lot of time and effort with retraining and supporting users. Additionally pretty much every serious business application out there will integrate with Exchange, one way or another, if there is any possible use to do so. However it will cost more to buy and run an Exchange Server, along with all the “optional” add-ons which you may have to buy from Microsoft or a 3rd party, and chances are it will still be down more than Google Apps.

Muddying the waters somewhat is Office 365 which is basically Microsoft’s cloud based answer to Google Apps (and other cloud offerings) which gives you the familiarity and functionality of the good old self-hosted Exchange Server with the go faster stripes and coolness of the cloud and for a price which is in fact cheaper than Google Apps at just $4 per user per month.

Ultimately it is up to you and your clients which path to take, whether it be Google Apps or Exchange Server or even Office 365, and the decision may well be influenced heavily by what other applications the business depends on anyway. There are pros and cons to both options so carefully weigh them up for based on the specific requirements before taking the plunge one way or the other.

Asset Discovery Tools

automated network asset discoveryKnowing what hardware is connected to your (or your clients) office network is obviously good to know, for one thing if you’re charging clients by the number of assets managed you’ll obviously make more money with more assets! Another reason is security – you don’t want stray systems sitting around unsecured/unpatched waiting to be hacked.

Knowledge is power and so proper documentation for every asset is essential to ensure they are maintained properly. Manually keeping track of all the company IT assets might be ok in a very small office with just a few machines which can all be seen from one place but for anything larger, with many machines which can change frequently and new ones arriving all the time, automation is the name of the game.

Fortunately there are a number of tools which make the job of asset discovery or network discovery very simple and which provide data which can then be imported or integrated with asset management or PSA applications.

If you have 100k assets to manage (and your pockets are very deep) then you may need something ‘enterprisey’ such as IBM Tivoli or the HP Configuration Management System, or so their sales people will tell you anyway. For the rest of us there are slightly more down to earth and affordable alternatives, including ones for free.

Open-AudIT is a network auditing application which works with Windows and Linux machines and will find out exactly what is on your network. Data is stored in MySQL and can be exported to PDF, CSV and other formats and reports can also be generated if needed. The word “open” in the name is a clue – it’s all open source (and free!) so you can see what is going on in the code if you feel the urge to look inside.

OCS Inventory NG is another free application which will scan your network and produce a detailed inventory of every device found which can then be imported into other applications as required.

Long a favorite of script kiddies and hackers everywhere but also of course a very useful admin tool is Nmap. It comes with command line and GUI options and can quickly scan entire networks then output the results in XML format (or even a special script kiddy format!) so it can easily be parsed and imported elsewhere.

Automated asset discovery of one kind or another is also commonly included in network monitoring systems such as OpenNMS as well as various RMM services and these can be particularly useful if they also integrate with your PSA application.

Using the tools mentioned above makes it easy to keep on top of your IT assets and ensure the smooth running of the networks and hardware your clients hire you to manage.

Disk Cloning Tools

Disk Cloning ToolsCloning an entire disk is a very useful thing to do, to be able to generate a complete, exact copy of every bit of data stored on it at a particular point of time comes in very handy in several ways. It can be a tricky task to accomplish as it needs to be perfect to be useable but fortunately these days there are a growing number of excellent disk cloning tools, both free/opensource and commercial, which make the process of cloning disks relatively simple.

Although the term “cloning” is often used there are in fact a couple of variations and actually a “clone” is an exact copy of every bit so that it is identical to the original drive and can just be swapped with it allowing the system to work as normal as if nothing changed (which is true since it is an identical copy). An alternative type of cloning is called an “image” which is a snapshot of all the data on a disk which is all compressed into a single file and which can then be uncompressed onto a new location whenever required.

Once you have a clone you can then use it as a full backup to restore a system from or you can use it for rapidly provisioning new computers or servers which is extremely useful. Also a clone makes it very easy to upgrade a system or transfer to a new one and be up and running instantly with everything in place exactly as it was on the original.

Probably the first widely released tool for cloning was Ghost which was developed in 1995 and runs on Windows. It quickly became popular and was soon acquired by Symantec. It was however discontinued in 2013.

One of my current favorites is Clonezilla which is very popular these days and being free no doubt contributes to that popularity. It runs on Linux but can clone pretty much any type of filesystem including those used on Windows, Macs, Unix and of course Linux. Unlike Ghost it is still around and going strong. Particularly useful is its ability to run from a USB stick making it great for techs on the road to use it for full system backup and restores.

Macrium Reflect is a Windows based cloning application which comes in both free and commercial versions. Naturally the free version is somewhat limited compared to the much better featured commercial version but even the free one is a useful tool for home users, supporting the usual imaging and cloning functions.

Acronis True Image is a Windows based backup and cloning application which supports all the usual Windows filesystems but also Linux formats such as ext2/3/4 and others. It is able to backup a disk, even the main system disk on which the OS is running, while it is in use which is certainly a handy feature.

dd – it doesn’t get much simpler than dd which is a Unix/Linux command line tool. Cloning a disk is just a matter of running a command like this: dd if=/dev/sda of=/dev/sdb bs=32M and you can basically just reverse the order to do a restore. It can also pipe the data straight to gzip to produce a compressed image. Being Unix based means it also runs on Mac OS/X systems as well. Of course one has to be careful not to get the order of the params mixed up or you could end up with a bad day. It is also important to ensure the partition being cloned is not being used at the time since dd runs at the block level and knows nothing of filesystems which could easily lead to corrupt data on the clone.

Hopefully you found this short list of cloning tools informative but for a full list of disk cloning software check out this page on Wikipedia.