Essential Tools in an IT Technicians Tool Kit

Technicians Essential ToolsBesides the ever increasing assortment of software tools which every IT technician depends on such as desktop, server and mobile applications and utilities of one kind or another, there are of course the physical tools from the simplest screwdriver to the latest electronic gadgetry which we all need to get the job done. Here I will cover a selection of those in my technicians tool kit without which I never leave the office…

First of all the old faithful, manual tools, the most important and most frequently used of which is of course the ubiquitous Phillips screwdriver. Needless to say I have a wide selection of sizes for this and of course the plain old flat head screwdriver which still comes in useful frequently. Being inherently lazy and this being the 21st century, of course I have an electric screwdriver with a rechargeable battery but naturally the battery has a habit of going flat at the worst time and spares are heavy so the old manual tools are always needed in the toolkit.

Also with the manual tools are needle nose pliers in a few sizes, wire cutters, cable crimp/cut/strip tools and because I am always dropping screws into the bowels of expensive servers and racks, I also have a magnetic pickup tool and even a little mirror and handy torch so I can see what is going on down there in those dark corners. A few bags of spare screws in varying sizes and types is also always nearby since people tend to “lose” those things (or more likely pilfered to use somewhere else).

Dust is the enemy and so a can of compressed air is always close to hand along with alcohol wipes to clean off any gunk which finds its way into places it does not belong.

Cables, cables, you can never have too many cables! Spare network cables, power cables, USB cables, SATA cables etc etc. Nothing worse than being in a datacenter off in some distant location installing a load of new servers only to find you don’t have a network cable for one of them! Along with a bunch of spares I of course have a few for my own use so I can connect my netbook or other device to the network or whatever else needs connecting to something while I work.

Speaking of connecting things, I also never leave home without a few flash drives containing essential utilities for testing, recovery, security, and reinstalling the OS if ever needed, as well as loads of documentation for everything I’ve ever had to work on (and ever might!). I always also have a few OS disks with me at all times – some on CD/DVD (along with a USB DVD drive) and some on the flash drives.

With regard to testing, there’s a good few gadgets around for this – cable testers, multimeter and more which can save a lot of head scratching when things just aren’t working the way you know they should but there’s nothing that can be seen with the old Mark I Eyeball!

Despite carrying almost every tech document ever produced since the Jurassic age, there are still times when I need to google something or check a doc online, so of course I need internet access. Usually there is somewhere around to plugin a network cable or a wifi access point I can use but there are times when neither is available so for those rare occasions I carry a 3G USB stick modem which can be plugged into various devices as needed, as well as having built-in 3G already on some devices such as a Netbook or iPad Mini Retina which is even better and of course a suitable data plan from my ISP. This 3G net access is a real lifesaver at times! For the really intrepid tech (with money to burn) there are also satellite modems such as those from Iridium which come in handy when you’re fixing a PC on top of Everest or somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean! I somehow just about get by without one of those fancy gadgets though.

Carrying all this hardware requires a good solid toolbox or bag (or in my case both) with plenty of compartments to keep everything organized and easy to find. There’s no shortage to choose from so pick whatever appeals. Personally I have a big heavy duty plastic toolbox with a small fold-up trolly to wheel it around, plus I have a grab-bag containing the absolute essentials needed for an emergency job which is a lot easier to lug around.

What are your favorite manual tools of the trade? What do you never leave home without?

6 Free Graphics Tools for the Busy IT – #4 will blow your mind!

Graphics ToolsA common trait for anyone working in IT services is the desire to tinker with technology and to figure out how to do things ourselves which often leads us to code our own tools and design and build our own web sites (for better or worse) and so chances are you will at some point be creating graphics of some kind to use on your site or even to promote your site or business.

Of course everyone knows about Photoshop which is probably the leading graphic design software around and has been for many years, but it doesn’t come cheap and for the occasional graphic it is bordering on overkill. Fortunately there are some decent free alternatives these days both in the form of downloadable apps and web based tools. Here are a few of my favorites..

First of all let’s bring out the GIMP (to steal a line from Pulp Fiction, as I’m sure many have done before) – this is a full featured, open source, free and really quite powerful image editing software which can do pretty much anything you want. However it does have something of a reputation for being hard to learn with a rather confusing interface at first sight although that has improved in recent years. Gimp runs happily on Linux as well as Windows, Mac and more. In case you’re wondering, “GIMP” actually means GNU Image Manipulation Program.

Inkscape is a great vector graphics editor which is also free and also cross-platform and uses SVG. Using Inkscape you can quickly draw shapes and sketch out your creations and so it is perfect for creating logos or web site graphics as well as all sorts of other graphical whatsits. The interface is relatively easy to figure out so you can be up and going pretty soon after installing on your PC.

Infographics are all the rage online these days and if you can create a cool looking graphic, social network glory awaits as it us sure to be shared millions of times just by virtue of its very existence. Ok the reality may not be quite so rosy but still they are quite popular and so well worth creating now and then to mix things up a little. Unfortunately creating infographics can depend on some level of artistic ability which many of us are lacking to say the least, but fortunately the task has been made a little more easy with the arrival of easel.ly. This is a cool web based service which is free and allows you to create pretty neat infographics using loads of existing templates combined with lots of drag & drop functionality so anyone can get to grips with it and churn out fancy looking infographics in no time at all.

If you want to create the next Avatar movie, Disney cartoon or 3D computer game then Blender is your tool. It is perhaps a little over-powered for whipping up a quick graphic for your website but if photo-realistic 3D imaging is something you like or need then you will have endless hours (or days/weeks/months) of fun with this. Amazingly, despite being so powerful, this is also a completely free tool which also runs on Windows, Mac and Linux! Be warned though, it is highly addictive.

Another web based graphics tool is PicMonkey which comes in free and premium (or Royale) versions and makes its super simple to quickly edit photos or graphics to enhance or add effects. Perfect for adding some funny text to a cat photo for instant internet stardom or for making the photos on your blog or site look like they were not taken with a ancient camera phone with grubby lens and after a few too many beers. The free version should be enough for the casual user but you can pay for the Royale (with cheese? I don’t know.) if you feel the need.

For many years now this one has been on my favorites list – Cooltext. It couldn’t be much simpler to use – select a logo or font, fiddle with some style params and out comes a logo or button ready to put on your site. It has a huge selection of fonts to choose from and it is easy to mix and manipulate them for the final image so you get something that fits your site. There’s not much more that can be said about it other than it is free and does the job.

The above tools should provide all the graphical magic you need for adding some pzazz to your sites, making cool logos, creating banners for your advertising campaigns or any other graphical requirements you may have.

5 Essential IT Tools I Use Every Day

5 Essential IT ToolsIn my day job of providing IT services to my clients I get to use a lot of different tools to deal with a wide array of issues, however there are some tools which I invariably use every single day without fail. Below I will cover 5 of my favorites, although there are indeed others but I will save those for another article!

Being a IT service business means I am providing professional services to many clients who have a diverse array of requirements, different types of contracts, services packages, prices, assets and more and trying to keep on top of all that is pretty much impossible once you go beyond a handful of clients. So it soon becomes essential to use a Professional Services Automation (PSA) tool and in my case I use CommitCRM, there are of course others but this one does the job well for a price I can easily justify.

I manage quite a few Linux and Unix servers as well as Windows boxes and so I am frequently connecting to consoles on those remote servers. Making connections secure is obviously important and the carefree days of unencrypted Telnet connections are long gone, to be replaced by secure shell or SSH. To facilitate these SSH connections from my Windows PC I use PuTTY which is a free application and very popular among Windows users. It not only does SSH but also Rlogin and even Telnet and is a very lightweight, easy to use application.

When you’re working on a computer it goes without saying that you generally need to know as much about that machine as possible so you can better diagnose issues, replace parts with the right kind etc. There are various utilities which provide such data, including those which are already bundled with the OS such as the Computer Properties and Device Manager tabs in Windows but there’s always room for improvement and on Windows I find that Speccy does just that. Information is power, as they say and so Speccy gives you that power.

Dealing with an enormous number of files of many different types, hidden away in obscure locations on your PC can cause immense frustration and time wasting when you’re struggling to find things or need to copy or move or compare or transfer or perform all sorts of other actions on those files and the built-in File Explorer in Windows can cause premature aging at times. Fortunately there are quite a few alternatives around these days and the one I rely on every day is Total Commander which is free and makes my day to day file management tasks considerably less painful without reducing life expectancy.

Of course it is pretty much unheard of these days to not connect to the Web and my days typically involve numerous web based tasks from Googling for answers to tricky tech issues or networking with other techs or reading the news, downloading updates, tweeting, facebooking, looking at funny cat pics and other highly important things of that nature. None of this would be possible without the humble Web Browser. In my case I use Firefox most of the time but I have been known to dabble with Chrome and Opera just to keep things interesting. The browser has come a long way since the days of Mosaic and there’s certainly a lot more to do and a lot more information on the web these days and that trend isn’t likely to change any time soon so the browser is surely one of the most important applications we techs rely on.

Which are your most used IT tools? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Firewall Management Tools

Firewall Management ToolsWhether you are a provider of general IT services, an MSP, or if you specialize in managed security services also known as an MSSP (which sounds cool but unfortunately doesn’t mean you are managing MI6 like M in a Bond movie), one of the major components of the security system you manage for your clients is going to be firewalls of one kind or another.

To quote Wikipedia, a firewall is a:

“software or hardware-based network security system that controls the incoming and outgoing network traffic by analyzing the data packets and determining whether they should be allowed through or not, based on applied rule set.”

Which means when you are managing a firewall you could be doing anything from fiddling with arcane configuration settings in a text file or command line, to clicking some big shiny buttons on a fancy interface with a smart wizard to make it all automagically work for you. These firewalls can be installed on a server or desktop PC, or can be dedicated appliances protecting your network in the office or datacenter.

Those which are typically installed on a desktop computer include apps like ZoneAlarm, Avast and AVG while commonly on a server running Linux for example you would likely be dealing with IPtables which is a whole lot of fun! Fortunately there are some wrappers for IPtables which aim to make it just a tiny bit less complex, for example CSF which is popular on CPanel servers (but doesn’t require it) and UFW which is widely used on Ubuntu and others of that ilk.

On the hardware side there is of course the big names you’d expect in this space such as Cisco as well as Checkpoint which does a nice line in firewalls for small to medium sized businesses, and Fortigate which also has a nice range from the entry level 100 series and on up to the big and expensive enterprise systems. I’m quite partial to the Fortigate solution and use it with a number of clients where suitable, for example in the datacenter protecting their servers or in their office protecting the corporate network. It’s easy to remotely manage with a web based interface as well as command line (ssh) and a VPN.

These days as with other aspects of computing, “The Cloud” has moved into the firewall arena as well in the form of Cloud Based Security Services such as that provided by CheckPoint and others and for a monthly fee your network security is handled for you or of course for your clients if security is not your area of expertise. If it is your area then the many MSSP tools around these days will be right up your alley.

With the prevalence of ever more advanced (while also easier to use) security scanning tools it is something of an arms race in the computer security world so you have to stay up to date with the latest happenings in order to fully protect your own systems and those you manage for your customers, from malicious hackers and script kiddies, not to mention a widening array of three letter agencies as well!

Accounting Tools

In any business there is the requirement to manage the company accounts, never a fun thing to do but absolutely necessary if you actually want to stay in business and don’t want the dreaded taxman breathing down your neck. The old way was to hire an accountant and possibly also a bookkeeper, either in-house or an external service, to manage the whole mess and you just had to send that shoebox full of receipts along every month or at the end of the tax year (typically at the last minute!) to whoever you hired for that.

These days though we have computers and “the cloud” and we (sometimes) know how to use them. Needless to say the advent of modern computers also brought with it computerized accounting tools which eventually matured enough to become useable by people that were not raised on a diet of Pi to 200 places. This is of course great for small businesses, particularly IT business because we (in theory) are smart cookies who know how to use a computer and can quickly learn any new fangled software that crosses our desk. The reality is not always like that though and accounting can still be something of a dark art even with such software.

One of the most widely used accounting applications is of course QuickBooks which has been around for a long time now and integrates with pretty much every other business application on the planet such as PSA’s, Quoting tools, Helpdesk apps, Time Tracking tools and on and on and is in fact the one I use in my IT business. In more recent times QuickBooks has also made the move into the Cloud, no doubt due to the increasing success and popularity of young upstart cloud accounting services which were snapping at their heels and now threatening to run off ahead.

Freshbooks appears to be very popular with millions of users and is available through a (somewhat limited) free version as well as a bunch of reasonably priced paid plans which also include “Awesomeness”, or so they say. They also aim to make the accounting process as painless as possible and it can be accessed from just about any device these days.

Xero is a slick looking system which they call “beautiful accounting software” – can accounting be beautiful to regular people and not just accountants? I’m not sure but they certainly give it the old school try. Not ones to be modest, they also claim to be “the world’s easiest accounting software” which I’m sure is highly debatable but they do seem to have a good reputation.

Zoho Invoice – is there anything that Zoho doesn’t do these days? At this rate they’ll soon progress to actually running every business out there so us biz owners can get on with more important things like sailing around the Mediterranean. They also have a free plan as well as paid and it is pretty much what you’d expect to find with a Zoho app in terms of look and feel and functionality.

Sage 50 (UK version here) has a loooong history, going back to the 70’s in fact which is practically prehistoric in computing terms, so by now it must be pretty!

Outright, now known as GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping, is as the name suggests an online accounting application now owned by domain registrar GoDaddy.

Intacct is not what I would call a budget system since the price for what they call “smaller companies” starts from just $400 per MONTH! Compare that with others such as Xero and Freshbooks which charge around $20 – $30 for the starting packages, workingpoint starts from just $9 and even QuickBooks (online version) starts from around $13 – quite a significant difference!

Whichever accounting tool you choose, you’re still going to have to invest some time in learning how it all works to get the most from it. Also if you’re in IT services (which you probably are if you’re reading this blog!) you’re going to want to make sure it integrates with your other business apps such as your PSA or Ticketing system. Many such apps these days are certainly working towards hiding the complexity as much as possible however proper accountants are not about to be put out of work any time soon, if anything they just have an easier time now sorting out the mess their clients bring to them!

Sales Quoting Tools

Sales Quoting ToolsWhen you are in the business of selling products or services, in this case IT services but the same applies to any other type, sooner of later you will quite likely need to create a quote of some kind to send to a potential customer (or even an existing customer for additional services) if you actually want to make any money that is! On the face of it, this may seem like a simple task – customer asks for price quote on a service you sell, you scribble something down and send it by fax or email, customer accepts it and sends back signed copy (hopefully), job done.

In reality it can be a lot more complicated than that, including multiple products and services with varying prices, discounts, markups, taxes and who knows what else. On top of that it may need to be worked on by multiple people and sent to one or more potential customers in a range of formats. All the details need to be logged and tracked so when the customer responds you know what exactly he or she is responding to and why you quoted what you did in the first place (to avoid that “what was I thinking?!” reaction) and of course when it was quoted and a host of other important points. On top of all that it will need to be integrated with your other business applications such as a CRM or PSA tool so you can pass the relevant data back and forth between as needed.

All this initially unforeseen complexity has given rise to a whole range of products catering specifically to this process and to press home that point they nearly all have “quote” in the name – Socket being the odd one out (what were they thinking?!) from those mentioned in this article. The applications follow the typical pattern these days of being either installable software, such as QuoteWerks, or web/cloud based such as Quote Roller.

Starting with the installables, there is QuoteWerks which is a very comprehensive quoting system that offers pretty much every possible quote related feature you could think of and then some. On the integration side it seems to have it all – many accounting systems such as QuickBooks and Sage 50, CRM/PSA systems such as CommitCRM (which itself has a quoting module) and Salesforce, a long list of distributors and various others. There is also an API to allow for custom integrations.

Moving swiftly on to the trendy web based quoting apps, there are quite a few to choose from here and as you’d expect from a web app they do tend to look very modern and flashy. But how do they measure up on the features front?

Starting with Quote Roller which looks very nice, with bright colors, fancy charts and all the usual features you’d expect from a quoting app. It also has pretty decent list of integration options with many billing systems, CRM’s, project management and others so it should be very useable for many people.

NM Quote is another web based quoting system but appears to have less options with regard to integration and is instead focused more on the core quoting function.

iQuote Xpress is more of a CRM, rather than just a quoting tool even if the focus is on quoting and sales. It is web based,covers the bases you’d expect and has various integration options. You can have your account setup there in “as little as a few days” they say but I’m not sure why it should take days rather than minutes to get started with a SaaS app!

Quotegine thinks quotes should be fun and tries to make them so while still being useful, you will have to try it to find whether or not you agree!

Socket, despite the non-quotey name, lets you “create quotes in the cloud”, so they say anyway. It features a nice simple interface and can even be embedded in your own site by pasting in a bit of javascript.

Whichever quoting system you choose you should ensure it can be easily integrated with your existing business applications and processes and can be learned and used by your staff without too much effort.

CommitCRM Review

CommitCRM PSA Review

is a type of business application known as a PSA, which for the uninitiated means Professional Services Automation. If you are in the business of providing professional services then a PSA is what you need to basically run the whole show. CommitCRM is a PSA focused on the IT services industry which is of course right up our alley, this being a blog about tools for IT services! This article ended up a bit longer than planned, mainly because it’s about something which I use and depend on so much. If you’re in a hurry, here’s the tl;dr version:

It’s good, it’s affordable, it does the job well and I recommend it.

There are a few other PSA tools around but CommitCRM is well worth a look at and in fact they offer a fully functional free download so you can “try before you buy” which is certainly a good thing, taking into account the rather significant costs typically associated with PSA (and other business) software. Having said that, this particular PSA is considerably more affordable than the others I’ve looked at and has served me well for a few years now.

Download & Installation

Installation is a painless process and can be done on a standalone PC (running Windows – this is not a here today/gone tomorrow cloud service) or on a server which can then be accessed by clients on other PC’s (the client installation in this case is just a shortcut to the server). It is free to download and use for a month at least (quick tip: officially the site says “30 day free trial” but after you login to your app and go to the help menu you can actually extend the trial for a while longer).  For testing the trial you can do a standalone installation on a laptop even. All you have to do is run the installer and select a folder… pretty simple really. When using it for real of course you would want to run it on a proper server or PC in the office. Upgrading too is always a very simple process.

Accounts

The accounts section is one of the key parts and is where I keep track of all my customers, employees, subcontractors, partners, suppliers etc etc.  basically anyone and everyone I want to stay in contact with (or avoid)! From here I have instant access to things like creating a new ticket for the account, adding an asset, making an appointment on the calendar, sending a message to one of the contacts, exporting data to Excel. I can also quickly create an invoice in QuickBooks and sync my contacts, tasks and appointments with Outlook. Pretty much everything you could ever need to do is all right there within a click or two which saves loads of time and is a massive productivity and efficiency booster. The whole thing is effectively the nerve center for my business.

Managing accounts is fairly self explanatory – click Accounts in the left column and it opens the accounts window. Here you can click New to add a new account, you can see in the list all your existing accounts and they can be sorted/filtered in various ways. Click on an account in the list and you will see a load of tabs for the different types of data you may add for the account such as preview, general/address, contacts, history, relations and more. You can customize the field names and even add your own custom tabs if you feel the need so that it really fits your specific business.Accounts

 

From the accounts window you can use the ‘more actions’ menu to quickly create new tasks, tickets, assets, history notes, charges and more which are then linked to the account currently selected.

Tickets

The tickets window shows all my tickets, as you’d expect, it also offers a ‘more actions’ menu similar to that available in the accounts window, which allows me to create various entries related to the ticket selected.

When a ticket is created by one of my users (or me/an employee) it ends up here in the tickets window. The ticket itself could have been created by the customer sending in an email or through the web site or by an employee directly in the desktop client if for example a customer phones in. So there are various ways it can happen and there is a series of steps, a workflow if you like, which a ticket usually goes through from here until resolution.

In the tickets window I can browse them all and update them, set or change due dates (which can be automatically calculated based on a Service Level Agreement, aka SLA), mark for dispatch to a technician, change priorities or whatever else and eventually mark it as complete.  I can also do things like create a quote based on the ticket and send off to the customer – no more rummaging around the office for a quotation form and faxing it off to a customer (or posting snail mail!), just click click click from a ticket to the quote and off it goes by email. The customer can even accept the quote online through the web portal! *ka-ching*

Also in the tickets window is the labels menu where I create and manage all my coloured labels used for assigning to tickets.  Once a label is created it appears in the list in the left column where I just drag & drop tickets to quickly label (or re-label) them to suit my preferences.

Tickets

A useful feature is the ability to define default labels so as I said before, when tickets are coming in from various places, email/web/rmm/etc, I can have them automatically labelled so I can see at a glance where they came from which really helps make the interface appear less cluttered and become even easier to work with.

There’s also an alerts server which handles the job of keeping everyone informed. In other words it notifies staff of new or updated tickets, and notifies customers about opened or closed tickets.  It can for example send an alert if the ticket priority is changed which ensures that my staff know immediately when a ticket has been updated to high priority. Exactly who gets what in what circumstances is all configurable as well so it’s not like everyone gets alerts for every ticket or every account, only the right people and only if they actually want to be alerted!

Dispatcher

Technicians can be easily dispatched to handle ticket related tasks with the integrated dispatcher and calendar which I find it to be an almost effortless process. To do so I only have to go to the dispatcher window and then drag any ticket from the list and drop it in the appropriate column for the employee I want to schedule at whatever time slot I want and that’s it, job done. The alerts server will even notify relevant staff of the new appointment. Setting the amount of time needed for the appointment can be changed by clicking and dragging the edge of any appointment. Moving it to another time slot or another employee only requires a click, drag and drop. There are tabs for daily and weekly dispatcher which show the columns for each staff member, as mentioned above, but there are also tabs for daily and weekly calender views and others for appointments and tasks so you can see where things stand at any point, what needs to be done, who is doing it, when it will happen etc.

Dispatcher

Using this dispatcher interface makes the whole process of scheduling appointments for all employees and managing their time, ensuring that tickets are taken care of and labor is charged for and much more, dead simple.

 

Assets

Like probably any IT service business I have to keep track of an ever increasing array of assets (and sub-assets) for my clients. This is where I store stuff about clients server configuration, routers, firewalls, printers, as well as tracking the different software they use such as Exchange, Office and QuickBooks and other such things which have all sorts of different data and configurations associated with them. CommitCRM provides a comprehensive asset management system so I can keep track of all that stuff, including things like warranty expiration dates and detailed configuration notes (basically a way to define and store custom data for assets), which is just as well because assets have a habit of piling up and being neglected if you’re not careful! Also the assets system keeps a service history of all past issues and resolutions related to the asset so you can always see what has been done with it before. From the assets window I am often generating tickets, tasks, quotes and various other things directly from the assets which makes it a hell of a lot easier to effectively manage all the routine maintenance tasks that I have to deal with for my growing list of clients.

 

Billing

Billing is without a doubt one of the more important aspects of any business and of any PSA which claims to automate business processes. CommitCRM provides a good way to keep on top of billing of various kinds (for example charges/fees for labor, expenses or products you may sell) and the contracts, accounts and tickets they relate to. You can quickly add charges from anywhere you need to throughout the application, for example from an appointment or a ticket. You can also start a timer and then convert that time to a charge at the click of a button. You can even add charges which are defined as billable or not-billable depending on requirements at the time or the type of contract you are working with.

There is built in support for several types of contract such as ‘block of money’, ‘block of tickets’ and ‘block of time’. So if I have a ‘block of time’ contract with a client for say 20 hours labor in a month then any time I add a charge for labor that number of hours is deducted from the contracted block. The labor charge itself is marked as not-billable by default in the case of a block of time while any charges for expenses or parts would be billable.

If you’re anything like me you probably have to charge for all sorts of odd things from one off product purchases or service (fixing or installing something for example) to recurring maintenance or some other kind of service. Being flexible enough to to deal with such things without messing up is decidedly useful and this PSA provides a solution for this.  It can produce billing reports internally and it can also seamlessly integrate with QuickBooks to send all your charge data there for accounting and invoicing purposes. There’s also an 3rd party mod for Sage 50 and it is also easy to export data to Excel for importing into other accounting systems.

Sales Management

Before you need to worry about billing your clients, you need to actually have some clients! Fortunately CommitCRM also provides a number of useful features for managing the sales process by means of the opportunities module and the quotes module. Whenever needed I can create a new opportunity for an existing account or create a new account in the process and store all the pertinent data such as type of opportunity, relevant contacts, amount of money involved, important dates, status (open/won/lost) etc. Once an opp is opened I can create tickets, tasks, contracts and more right from the opportunities window.

There’s a built-in quotes system which can be used to easily create quotes for sending to potential customers and through the web interface they can even choose to accept/reject the quotes so the whole process can be managed online and remotely. Using the quotes module allows me to instantly convert a won quote into a ticket, contract or charges, in fact I can even convert it right into a quickbooks invoice! The opportunities module also integrates with QuoteWerks so creating a new quote in QuoteWerks instead is only a click or two away.

Remote Access

Since IT services often involves visiting customer premises to do installations or repairs it is really essential to have a way to remotely access your PSA system while on the road. If you are a “one man band” you could perhaps bring your laptop with you with your CommitCRM installed on that. However for various reasons it is more likely you would be accessing it on your server remotely instead and CommitCRM provides several easy ways to do that – first of all there is the web interface which comes in both customer and employee flavors and has a mobile interface which works nicely on my ipad. This is what I prefer to do as I’ve pretty much always got web access these days via WIFI or 3G wherever I am so it makes sense to access my PSA through the web. When on site I can quickly pull up the ticket details, do the job and produce a service form in PDF format which can be signed right on the tablet and printed or emailed to the client immediately.

If you use the CommitCRM back-end SQL engine you can also use RDP or terminal services for remote access. So in general, wherever you are you should have no problem accessing and working with your PSA data whenever required.

Reports

There is a built in report generation system which includes a bunch of pre-made report templates for all the different sections of the PSA, such as Ticket Details, Technician Service Form, Account Charges, Contract Details and much more. I certainly don’t use them all but it is nice to know they exist. In most cases I use a customized template for each type of report I need and the report designer does actually enable me to make reports with calculations, QR Codes, customizable layout etc. Having said that there is room for improvement with the available calculations which could do with being a little more advanced but when I need something like that I just export the data to Excel and crunch the numbers there instead.

Reports

Integration

Being able to integrate with other applications and systems used in your IT services business is a fairly important feature for any PSA and CommitCRM doesn’t disappoint here either. It offers direct integration with popular RMM (remote monitoring & management) systems such as Continuum and GFI MAX,  as well as QuoteWerks, QuickBooks, Sage 50 (via a 3rd party plugin) and of course Outlook. I’ve used Continuum since back in the old days when it was called Zenith and the level of integration now with CommitCRM is great but I’ve heard from others in the field that GFIMAX is also decent. Outlook sync is also pretty great and I have all my staff sync their appointments/calendar automatically so they are always up to date.

There is also a full access API so you can easily create custom integrations with anything you want. All it takes is a little coding and they provide comprehensive docs for the API so it shouldn’t be too hard for any decent coder (which excludes me, although I do dabble) to get up to speed quickly.

Besides the above, CommitCRM also provides easy import/export functions for all the different sections so you can for example easily export ticket or charges data to excel where you can process it further or import into other applications.

Final Thoughts

CommitCRM has a new version released quite recently, one of many over the years so it is certainly actively being developed. It has been around for a good long time now, since long before I found it in fact and has matured into a comprehensive and stable system which my business now relies heavily on every day and I’m not sure how I would ever manage without it at this stage! They have always been responsive to my support requests and the buzz online seems to be overwhelmingly positive which is always a good sign.

In terms of pricing I find it very affordable and fair. I also like that all the pricing is up-front and transparent with no hidden surprises to worry about and I didn’t have to bother with (or be bothered by) talking with sales reps to get a quote.

While there’s always room for improvement (such as the aforementioned advanced calcs in reports), it is still a great app overall and one which gets better with every release and so gets the Tools for IT Services Seal of Approval! http://www.commitcrm.com/

Review of CommitCRM
Professional Services Automation (PSA) software for IT service providers.
Rating: 4.5 Stars

 

 

 

Snagit Review

Snagit is one of those apps you don’t know you need until you really need it. It does basically one job, a job that many other apps also do, but it does it so very well!

Fundamentally Snagit is a screen capture tool for Windows and Mac which is made by TechSmith.  Now you may be thinking “but I have photoshop or paintshop or gimp or just the printscreen button which magically takes a screen shot so I don’t need another! Well indeed you may have an app which takes screenshots but do you really want to mess about with the complexity of Photoshop just to make a quick screenshot of a web page or desktop app? Do you want to wait 10 long minutes to startup some heavy duty image processing app? I think not, time is money and if you’re providing IT services you want to be able to take a quick screen shot to send to a client or to produce documentation either for clients or your own use but you do not want to have to become a graphic artist in the process!

So in steps SNAGIT with its elegant simplicity. It sits unobtrusively in the system tray, ready to be used at a moments notice. Using it is trivially simple – select the type of screen capture you want, such as region, window, full screen, scrolling window, web page, etc. and then click the big red button and point at the thing you want to capture then click and you’re done. Now you will have your screen shot sitting in the Snagit application window ready for action. From here you can modify it with some handy tools..

Add an arrow and drag it around easily until you have it where you want.. click, drag, done.

Add a text bubble and drag the pointy bit to point to the area you want it to refer to.. click, drag, done.

Add some tasteful effects such as a drop shadow to make your screencap look a bit smarter.. click, click, done.

There’s a whole range of tools and effects which can be applied with a click or two allowing you to create professional looking screen captures with the least fuss possible.. it couldn’t really be any easier!

When you’re done, save it and click done so Snagit is ready for the next capture. You can also easily share it via Email, FTP, IM and open in external programs such as Word, Powerpoint etc.

And yes you can even take screencaps of Snagit with Snagit without tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.  See the proof here..

Snagit of Snagit

Not only does Snagit capture still images though, it can also capture all your screen activity to videos which makes it an essential tool for documentation and training.

Now the more observant amongst you will have noticed that Snagit is only available for Windows and Mac which leaves Linux users in the lurch, not to mention BSD users and those on other esoteric systems. However all is not lost since there is now also a version of Snagit for Chrome! This means you can now easily make browser based screen captures on Linux using Chrome. It may not be quite the fully monty compared to the desktop version but it certainly goes a long way towards that lofty goal and should satisfy the needs of many people.

If the Chrome version is just not enough for your needs you may find the Shutter Project does the job instead. Otherwise head over to TechSmith and grab yourself a copy of Snagit to solve all your screen capturing problems forever more.

Review of Snagit
Simple to use yet powerful screen capturing tool.
Rating: 4 Stars

 

Keepass Review – a cross-platform password management application

KeePass for secure password management

These days if you spend more than 5 minutes online you are sure to have acquired a variety of accounts on web or internet based services of one kind or another. Everything from email to social network profiles, discussion forum accounts, blog commenting, photo sharing, online banking and many many more.

All this online activity across a multitude of sites and services brings with it the issue of what to do with all those logins you are collecting along the way? Initially you may get away with just remembering the username and password for a single site or a small number of sites, but there comes a time when that is no longer a viable system, even more so as the old memory starts to fade with advancing age! A common “solution” to this problem is simply to use the exact same username and/or password on every site so you only have to remember one.. this does of course make life easier for you, there is no arguing with that. However it also makes life considerably easier for certain devious people with nefarious plans to ruin your day – they only need to guess or otherwise acquire your login for one site and they have access to ALL your sites which is clearly not a good thing!

Password ManagerFortunately there is a better and much more secure alternative – use completely different logins everywhere and use a password management application to store them all so you no longer have to remember anything other that the password to decrypt your password management database on your computer.

This is where KeePass comes in and saves the day. KeePass is another type of security tool which is pretty much essential these days, not just to those people working in the IT or MSP industry but for everyone online. Using KeePass you can store ALL your (very different!) logins including usernames, passwords, urls, comments and more, in a securely encrypted file on your computer.

Adding a Login to KeePass

Using KeePass is very simple – you create a new database (file) to store your login data and choose a password for that – you have to remember this one password otherwise you will be doomed when all your logins for everything else are locked away forever with pretty much unbreakable encryption! Alternatively yo could use a key instead of a password which saves having to remember anything other than where the key is actually located.

Then you just add new entries for each of your logins. You can add all sorts of additional data to go along with the basic username/password, so it becomes a very convenient database for all your online destinations. The app will allow you to enter any password you want but will also indicate the ‘quality’ (ie. how safe it is) to help you.

Secure Password GeneratorYou can also use the built-in password generator which can (if you let it) produce extremely secure passwords of the type nobody could ever remember, let alone guess, and which is after all one of the main reasons to use such an app. The “if you let it” bit means that you should let it select from special characters and the various other character sets it offers and also choose a suitable secure length for the password – the longer the better.. there will be exceptions though as some sites or services wont allow special characters in passwords or restrict the length so you will have to modify the password generator settings for such cases. (or tell them to fix their poor security policies.

Another useful feature of KeePass is that there are versions available for many platforms including Linux, Mac, iPhone, Android as well as Windows of course. This means you can copy your encrypted password file to your smartphone and have safe access to all your logins wherever you are. Another handy feature is the ability to sync the password file so that you can maintain a central pass file which all your devices sync with to save you the job of manually copying it around everywhere. There’s also a large number of plugins which extend the built-in functionality even further.

KeePass is a great security application which is simple to use, open source and also completely free so you have no more excuses to not be securing all your logins from now on – it’s finally time you retired that faithful old ‘12345’ password!

Review of Keepass
A free and cross platform password management application.
Rating: 4.3 Stars

 

 

 

Security Scanning Tools

Security Scanning ToolsHackers are everywhere these days, not just in the movies but in real life too, doing their best to wreak havoc for fun or profit or who knows what other reasons. So it is now all the more important to find the vulnerabilities in your computer networks and servers so you can patch them before the hackers find their way in. To that end there are a number of great security scanning tools, software and even hardware tools which every serious technician should get to grips with to become competent pentesters (it also looks good on your CV!).

Some vulnerability scanners are pretty much click & run and will do their thing then report back to you with their findings. Others are much more complex and you can develop your own custom exploits with them  allowing you to really attack a system even if it is not a standard setup.

While many hackers are what is known as ‘script kiddies’ who just run the pentesting scripts created by others, there is certainly no shortage of very skilled hackers that are more than capable of developing their own custom attacks and so you should make every effort to learn the tools which they use and learn how to defend against them.

Any sysadmin who has looked at logs for more than a minute (and what sysadmin hasn’t wiled away many an hour trawling through the logs on numerous occasions?) will be familiar with the endless stream of automated attempts at logging in to a server, whether by ssh, ftp, a web based admin panel or others. You can watch in real time as the hackers tool goes through all the usual patterns trying to find a way in and hopefully they fail because you have adequately secured your systems and/or they are looking for things which don’t exist on your system. They don’t just try guess passwords or scan ports of course, many are looking for sql injections or other weaknesses in popular web applications as they provide a very easy way in when left unpatched as they so often are.

Metasploit is one of the best known and most popular tools for pentesting as it provides a mature and highly advanced platform for exploits which caters to all levels of hacker.

IBM also offers security software in the form of QRadar Vulnerability Manager which they say “proactively discovers network device and application security vulnerabilities, adds context and supports the prioritization of remediation and mitigation activities.”  and is as expensive as it sounds. (as you’d expect from IBM).

On the hardware side there are some nice “toys” for security techs to play with such as those made by Pwnie Express – the Pwn Pad for example is a tablet customized for pen testers. It features an Android frontend and a Kali backend and is packed with hacking tools ready to run with the swipe of a finger. Of course you could just install Kali Linux (formerly Backtrack) on your own devices but it wont have the same catchy name as the Pwn Pad.

GFI seem to have their finger in every pie and security is no exception as along with managed antivirus, they also have Languard for “vulnerability management”, for a fee of course.

For a list of scanning apps you can check out this page which has plenty to assuage the desires of the most ardent hacker.

To learn how to use the many pentesting tools out there you can do a course such as Certified Ethical Hacker or those offered by various security companies such as Offensive Security (who also make Kali Linux).  Doing suitable training will naturally help you get up to speed far faster so you will be better prepared to deal with the cyber threats to your business.