Antivirus Tools for Technicians

Antivirus ToolsThe curse of computers everywhere, even those not connected to any network, is the dreaded computer virus along with trojans, adware, spyware, keyloggers and all sorts of other types of nasty malware.. and some of them are very nasty indeed. For example the cryptolocker trojan which encrypts data on an infected system and demands payment of a ransom to decrypt that data, which many victims end up doing out of desperation and because the loss of income to a business due to not being able to access the data outweighs the cost of the ransom.

Malware most commonly affects Windows based systems but of course not only for technical reasons but also due to the fact that it is a more popular platform with users and so a bigger target for virus developers who don’t want to waste time developing for a platform with so much less potential for destruction and mayhem.

Linux on the other hand has relatively few issues with malware infections and in fact Linux antivirus software is not anywhere near as commonplace or in demand because it is much less often required. Which is not to say a Linux system is never infected with anything nasty – rootkits for Linux servers are also quite common and many a well known web based PHP app has provided a convenient gateway to a Linux server for a nasty rookit which then allows hackers in to the system to wreak havoc.

Somewhat related to Linux is Android and being extremely popular now makes it potentially a target for virus developers so of course antivirus developers are busy adding android antivirus to their tools to jump on that bandwagon early.

There are many antivirus tools to choose from these days, some that will try to prevent infection, others which will try to clean up an already infected system and some which do both. It is quite common practice to use more than one virus scanner as no AV tool is 100% effective at finding and cleaning infections.

Popular AV tools include AVG and Avast which are free (with a premium upgrade option of course) and the big names such as Mcafee,  Symantec and even Microsoft Security Essentials.

Other tools which are quite widely used include Malwarebytes, Combofix and Spybot.

A popular service used by many IT service providers is GFIMAX and not only does GFI provide an RMM service but they also have a managed anti-virus service which is based on Vipre and supports Windows and Android.

While most AV tools are software which must be installed on the PC, there are in fact some which are web based services so nothing needs to be installed at all. One such tool is  VirusTotal which will scan any file uploaded to their system and report back the ‘totals’. This provides a nice quick way to scan a file, for example a zip file or exe which you may have received or also to provide proof of virus free status (by including a link to the latest scan using a hash) for a file you may be sending to someone else. VirusTotal also includes an API so developers can easily embed virus scanning into their own apps or services.

Of course the last chance saloon when it comes to computer virus infections is the backup – hopefully you or you clients have working and recoverable backups!

Conferences for IT Services Professionals: the what, why, where and how.

Conferences for IT Services ProfessionalsAs we’ve said before, IT tools are not just physical gadgets that you can pick up and wave around the datacenter, they also include knowledge and connections or in other words – people. While there are many online communities for IT pros which we talked about in that  linked article, there are of course offline ‘meatspace’ places for meeting and greeting and learning and sharing. The infamous conference circuit is where the action is and there’s plenty of conferences to keep you busy all year around.

If you’ve never been to a conference you may be wondering what goes on there? How should you prepare? Is it worth the often not inconsiderable cost? Well the answers to those questions depends very much on what you are expecting to get from the event, what kind of event it is etc..  and yes you generally should prepare to some extent to ensure you get  the most out of it.

Excuses
For many people conferences are just an excuse to get a day or three away from the office to party in a fancy hotel in Vegas on the company expense account (and of course what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas). However besides partying there are actually other reasons to attend..  networking is a big one as it’s a great chance to meet potential clients and partners, thrash out lucrative new business deals and perhaps co-found what seems like it will surely be the next hottest thing, until you sober up the next morning..

Besides that, a good conference will be packed with informative sessions by industry experts and you can certainly learn a lot so don’t forget to bring a pen & paper (or tablet/netbook if you want to go all hi-tech 😉 ) and take notes!

Schwag
There will of course be schwag, or there should be as no conference could get away without the giveaway these days – the “schwag bag” is one of the key reasons for attending such events – we attendees need our free rubber stress balls, mouse mats, pens, hats, t-shirts, bags, badges, stickers, USB thingymajigs and assorted shiny things, all of course stamped with a company logo or domain name so you wont forget who provided the freebie sat on your desk or at the back of a drawer six months later.

The Events
So what does the coming year have in store for the prospective IT conference attendee? Read on for our current recommendations for IT services events..

If CISCO is your thing then you will want to be at CISCO Live which provides a working weeks worth of fun with routers. Whether you are a CCNA or CCIE or just want to get your hands on some Cisco schwag, this is the place to be.

HDI offers the ‘World Conference for Technical Services and Support’ which is attended by over 2000 people and lasts for 4 days, not including multiple pre-conference breakfasts and the like.

If you’re in the MSP line of work then you wont want to miss MSP World – you might even win $5k!

RMM service provider GFIMAX also has their own IT events around the world each year which are popular with MSP’s and IT techs.

Interop is yet another event worth checking out and as good an excuse as any to visit Las Vegas for a few days.

Gartner has events all over the place for a whole range of IT related themes so pick your poison and off you go.

Over in Europe there is the ridiculously large CeBIT conference (in fact the worlds largest IT conference) which runs for 5 days and features hundreds (if not thousands) of sessions and exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of visitors.

These days ‘the cloud’ is red hot so of course you’ll just have to head for CloudExpo in Europe if you want to stay on top of the game.

Also in Europe (UK to be precise), there is IPEXPO which bills itself as the the UK’s number one enterprise IT event. If that isn’t enough to tempt you – the whole event, featuring hundreds of sessions and hundreds of exhibitors, is FREE to attend!

If you want to get in on the latest tips, tricks and news from the search engine world then SMX is the place to be and they have events all over the world.

There are of course many, many more IT events including offerings from IBM, Microsoft, Citrix, Oracle, ASCII, CompTIA, Asterisk, VMware, SITS, HP, Parallels, Infosec, RSA, HostingCon, and not forgetting of course CES.

If you manage to attend all those and live to tell the tale – let us know!

So what are your plans for the conference circuit this year? Do you have any favorite events to recommend? Or any to avoid even? Feel free to comment below.

 

Time Tracking Tools

Time Tracking ToolsTime has a habit of passing by like sand through your fingers and as a freelance IT consultant, technician or MSP you are effectively leaving money on the table if you do not properly track ALL possible billable time. However what seems at first to be a trivial issue, logging some time worked, is often quite a bit more complex when you start looking into it more thoroughly. For example tracking work performed on multiple projects in parallel or by multiple techs working on the same project or on separate projects at the same time, etc etc. So clearly if you want to make the most of your time you need a solution which tracks the most of your time!

Fortunately there are many time tracking tools out there, which is hardly surprising since this is by no means a new problem, but these days with SaaS and Cloud services popping up everywhere and people working remotely from all corners of the globe, the market has spawned a whole range of new and exciting timer solutions which are not nearly as desktop bound as the old days and thus provide the flexibility that not only today’s IT workers demand, but the companies they work for, whether as a freelancer or employee.

Since there are many IT tools out there which are widely used and depended on by techs, such as a PSA, a fairly key feature requirement is the ability to integrate with those other tools where appropriate. Commonly this is done via an API either on the Timer side or with the other tool or even with both which would allow for a more complete and effective two-way integration.

In  order to be effective and actually be used, a Timer app needs to be simple to operate as well as unobtrusive yet always within easy reach. If there is even the smallest barrier or perceived inconvenience to use it then there is a significant risk that it will be forgotten and billable time will ultimately be lost forever.

Some Timer services go much further than just time logging and include project management and more although those then morph into different products that happen to have a timer function and so run the risk of breaking that ‘keep it simple’ rule required to be effectively used.

Some examples of Timer apps/services include:

Toggl

GetKlok

GetHarvest

Freckle

TimeTiger

TSheets

Replicon

PayMo

If you’re still in need of more time trackers to play with then this wikipedia article should provide you with plenty to keep you occupied – but don’t forget to log that time while you research them all!

 

 

Data Recovery Tools

Data Recovery ToolsSometimes critical data gets lost and no matter how much you wish, you wont find it behind the fridge, so what does the over-stressed IT technician do to recover his data and/or sanity? What data recovery tools are available to help resurrect that important missing data? Read on for the answers..

When you need to recover data it certainly helps if the computer it is on will actually boot up! If you’re stuck with a system that refuses to cooperate in this manner then what you need is a LiveCD (which could actually be on a usb stick) with which you can boot the recalcitrant machine and then (hopefully) mount the disks with your data. Popular Live CD distros include Knoppix (Linux based), WinPE (from MSFT and based on Win7) and Spinrite.

Many of these LiveCD distros of course also include various utils which you can use to diagnose problems and help recover your data, for example disk and filesystem checkers such as chkdsk for DOS/Windows, fsck and gparted for Linux/Unix systems and Disk Utility on OSX.

When it comes to actually finding and recovering the wayward files there are many options these days from free (but still good) to not so free (and sometimes still good) and some products which come with both options so you can try before you buy – assuming the free version doesn’t trash your data you might be tempted to pay for the premium version!

Among the options available for data recovery on Windows systems you can try the likes of Recuva, OnTrack Easy Recover, Total Recovery, Undelete 360, MiniTool Partition Recovery, Wise Data Recovery and even Norton Utilities.

On the Mac platform you can find such things as FileSalvage, Disk Drill Basic and Data Rescue 3, amongst others.

If your data is on a Linux system then you will find the imaginatively titled Recover Data for Linux and Linux Data Recovery to be right up your street.

If you’re still in need of more options then this page should provide enough to keep you busy for a long time. Feel free to let us know which data recovery tools you rely on.

When all else fails, it is time to reach for that ever reliable backup you made. You did make one right? You did also make sure to keep it up to date AND check that you could actually restore from it, just in case, right??

Mobile Tools for Technicians

Mobile Tools for TechniciansWith the advent of smartphones and then tablets, it is not only Star Trek engineers that get to have cool gadgets to help them with their technical tasks. Mobile tools for technicians are improving in leaps and bounds and there are now many to choose from which do just about everything you can imagine.

Being able to remote access a desktop from your mobile device is a very handy thing indeed and fortunately there are several apps available which allow just that. For example there is the mobile version of TeamViewer. There are several implementations of VNC and RDP and some, such as Jump Desktop that do both!

Connecting securely to your servers is something you will have to do plenty of and ConnectBot is a handy app for ssh’ing, Server Auditor is another similar app. If your mobile device doesn’t have a physical keyboard you may also want to install the Hackers Keyboard which provides easy access to all those tricky characters that only techs ever use.

Being able to login to servers and desktops and routers all from your mobile device is great but can you remember all those passwords? I think probably not! So another essential app is a password manager such as the great KeePass which is cross-platform so you can even use the same encrypted password file across multiple systems.

Being on call is no fun but getting an SMS alert in the middle of the night when a critical system is down is just one of those things you have to accept, however what good is it if you’re sleeping and don’t hear the little ‘new message’ beep? This is where  Klaxon comes in – it can filter your incoming messages and detect the important ones and then it will make sure you actually wake up!

Network testing tools are also typical in every technicians toolbox and for that you can use apps such as Wifi Analyzer, Fing which does ping, trace, port scanning and more, Ping & DNS which does what it sounds like, and there are plenty of others to suit your specific requirements.

DriveDroid is a clever little app which allows you to actually boot PC’s or servers from an image which is on your phone, basically turns your mobile device into a boot-up drive for other computers.

Moving files around is a common issue, clients often need to send you logs or other files and you may also need to send them files or send them to yourself from the road or office or wherever and Dropbox provides a convenient way to handle this task.

Being an IT technician often involves driving to client locations or datacenters in strange parts of the country and so you of course need to be able to find them  – Waze comes to the rescue with it’s GPS navigation app which shows you the way.

Which are your favorite mobile apps for techs?

 

PSA Tools for IT Service Providers

Professional Services AutomationAmong the key software tools used by MSP’s and IT service providers is an application known as a PSA which means Professional Services Automation.

There are a number of PSA tools around such as PacketTrap from Dell. Some PSA’s are aimed at certain types of service providers and some are more generic in nature, while others such as CommitCRM are more focused specifically on the IT services market. PSA software can be desktop or server based or sometimes even in the so called ‘cloud’ and in either case a mobile front end is a popular feature these days.

But what exactly is a PSA? What does it do? The precise feature set does in fact vary somewhat between the different PSA applications out there but core features typically found will include the likes of customer accounts/contacts (CRM), support ticket management and email handling, employee time logging and calculating labor utilization, an alerts/notification system, calendar/scheduling, contracts, billing, reporting, project management, asset tracking and more.

Another important feature in a PSA is integration with external systems which are commonly used in the industry.  For example integration with accounting software (ie. QuickBooks), remote monitoring and management  systems, etc. Such integration is often done using an API on one or both sides. An API in the PSA application also allows users to build custom add-ons and tightly integrate the PSA with their existing or custom systems, providing even more value and efficiency in workflows and business processes for those that choose to go down that path.

Using a PSA allows a service provider to work more efficiently, automatically assigning tickets and tasks to technicians, responding to client support requests in a timely manner, keeping tracking of billing,  generating complex reports on all aspects of the business, while having all relevant information easily to hand,  which combines to produce more billable hours for the company and also happier customers who are getting a better level of service.

Once a PSA tool has been properly implemented in a business it quickly becomes the core application or hub around which all others are built and integrate with. Customers, vendors, employees and even sub-contractors all interact with it in symbiosis. In effect it is the nerve center of the service providers business without which the company simply isn’t able to function to anywhere near capacity.

 

Deployment Tools

Deployment ToolsIn the IT services business there is one concept which stands above all else – automation. Nobody wants to be manually working on hundreds or even thousands of computers in a network or across multiple networks and regions  when the very thing which computers are perfectly designed for is automating repetitive processes. Realistically the only viable way to manage a large number of computers is with deployment tools which can automate the process.

In a small network it may well be possible to rely on manual updates, it may not be advisable but still it is doable. However it is not at all scalable and on a large network or collection of assets, whether they be desktop PC’s or Internet Servers and Appliances of various kinds, smart deployment systems are pretty much an essential requirement, not just for the business but also for the sanity of the IT staff responsible for rolling out the updates.

Using automated deployment tools significantly reduces maintenance times and allows a single person at a centralized and often remote location to manage extremely large numbers of assets which of course leads to much lower costs. However the cost reductions are not just as a result of less salaries to pay per assets managed but also in terms of reduced or (hopefully) eliminated losses due to malfunctions, downtime or even data loss caused by human error.

Humans are not machines and it is easy to forget to install something or configure correctly or update on time. An unpatched system is basically an open door with an invitation to passing hackers to come in and take what they want or generally wreak havoc, so timely deployment of security updates is critical.

Using deployment tools makes it much simpler to build and maintain standardized systems so instead of a crazy mix of software and configurations with every computer being different, they can all be kept the same,  or at least have a small number of standard configurations to work with, further reducing system management time and costs.

Thus by employing suitable deployment automation tools, the potential for human error is vastly reduced, IT efficiency is increased dramatically, security is maximized and reliability of all systems managed is much improved.

There are quite a few deployment solutions out there, from the RMM services such as GFIMAX  to the powerful configuration management and deployment systems like Ansible and which one is best is down to your specific requirements , experiences and of course personal preferences.

Needless to say, automated deployment of software updates to 10,000 computers is potentially risky so it is important to test deployments thoroughly before unleashing!

 

 

IT Community Resources

IT Community ResourcesTools are not just physical things which you put in a box, they come in all shapes, sizes, forms and even forums. The internet is all about connecting people so it comes as no surprise that there are many great community resources specifically for IT technicians. There are discussion forums, bulletin boards, social networks, groups, circles, tribes and more. An active community, packed with published knowledge and knowledgeable people willing to help, is itself an invaluable IT tool which will come to the rescue time and time again.

This article can’t possibly cover every such IT community resource online these days, there are simply too many but Google/Bing will no doubt turn up something that suits your particular requirements. However, below you will find some of the best of them with a bit of info about each..

Technibble is a community founded back in 2006 and aimed specifically at Computer Technicians (or those that soon will be, they say) and offers a wealth of expert articles, videos, kits and other resources as well as having active and very useful discussion forums. You can’t go wrong here if you’re in the IT services trade.

Serverfault is a great resource which is part of the massive StackExchange network of Q&A sites. Serverfault itself is for sysadmins and network admins and is a very active community.

DBA StackExchange is another good one from, well the clue is in the name, which is for database admins. But outside the StackExchange there are plenty of other places for the database challenged technician to get help such as dBforums.

SuperUser is yet another StackExchange community but this one is for “computer enthusiasts and power users” and provides plenty of info and answers for a troubled technician.

For anything Microsoft related there is of course Technet and MSDN which both have active forums which may, or may not, be more to your taste if you’re stuck with MSFT related tech issues.

Over on the infamous “front page of the internet” (as they call themselves), known to the rest of us as simply reddit you can find a whole bunch of IT related ‘sub-reddit’ communities such as SysAdmin, Linux Admin, Network Security, IT Dept, Tech Support and of course Tales from Tech Support. There are of plenty more to be found if you dig around the subreddits but this list should be a good place to start – just don’t go getting sidetracked with the ever popular cat pics though!

If you’re still not satisfied and want MORE communities for tech guys, then check out the aptly named Tech Guy forums and if you’re over in India then perhaps the Tech Gig community will answer the call.

As with many things in life, you get out what you put in – as a quick source of answers to tricky problems, the above mentioned communities will certainly come in handy. However if you actively participate in such communities and contribute your own answers to questions from others then you will certainly benefit far more in the long run and they will become an essential IT tool that will always be there when you need.

Backup Tools

Backup ToolsIf there’s one thing that keeps IT Managers and business owners awake at night it is the thought of catastrophic data loss, typically due to hardware failure but it could also be due to failed software upgrades , database updates, human error or even malicious hackers. So in order to sleep better it is of course essential to have good backup tools.

Backups can be done in many ways, even manually with a simple copy command, however manually created backups are not something to be relied on because it is only a matter of time before a backup is forgotten or it fails to include some essential data and you may never know about it until you need it and find your critical data is not there. You do not want that to happen! Proper backup tools which are automatically run on schedule and which make incremental backups containing data updates and additions along with periodical full backups with all your data are the order of the day. There are quite a few solutions which provide just this, as you would expect as backups are not a new thing, some of which are software you must install and manage, some are complex backup server systems and some are remotely managed services so you only have to deal with defining what and when to backup and the rest is done for you.

For Linux based systems a popular backup utility is rsnapshot which is basically just a Perl script that wraps around rsync and is run by cron every hour or at intervals you define. It creates the incremental backups as you would expect and rotates them all for you. Once configured it works well. It does of course depend on your own backup hardware and you need to make sure it is configured correctly and actually runs as and when required.

For a more ‘enterprise’ level backup system you could use something like Bacula which is an open source system featuring a linux/unix based server along with client daemons which run on multiple OS’s including Windows.

Once you have a backup system in place you need to know it is actually running and doing its job so you could use your monitoring tools to keep an eye on it and alert you if things go wrong so you can hopefully fix it long before you ever need to access your backed up data.

So called ‘Cloud’ backup tools are another option and there are many to choose from, quite a few of which depend on Cloud storage systems such as AWS (Amazon). Having your data managed and hosted by another company may be something you would need to consider carefully for various reasons from legal to security. Is your data secure there and do your terms of service or client contracts allow you to store data in such a way? There are undoubtedly benefits to using a managed backup service but make sure to do your due diligence before trusting your precious data to a 3rd party. Services for MSP’s to consider include Kaseya, Datto and GFI, amongst others.

Either way it is certainly wise to have more than one backup location anyway so your backups do not go up in smoke along with your primary systems!

Whichever backup tools you choose to use you also need to make sure that you can get your data back from your backups should you ever need to. It is essential to test that your backups are working and the right data from the appropriate snapshots is easily and quickly available – data recovery is just as important as data backup!

Which are your favorite backup tools? Let us know in the comments..

 

Monitoring Tools

Monitoring ToolsIt pretty much goes without saying that if you want to fix something you have to know that it is broken and if you want to prevent something ‘breaking bad’ it helps to know in advance that things are starting to go wrong. This is where monitoring tools come in to the picture.

There are various types of monitoring tools around which perform different tasks in different ways. Some will monitor your hardware or networks internally while others do remote monitoring of your web sites or public facing internet services. There are also some which do a combination of both and more such as SolarWinds.

For example if a disk fails in your RAID5 array it is not usually catastrophic because the RAID system is designed for such a situation, however if a second disk fails in that RAID5 array you could be in big trouble, depending on your setup. So knowing that a disk in your RAID array has failed allows you to replace it before the situation becomes critical and data is lost. A popular and well established tool for infrastructure monitoring is Nagios which is open source and has an active user and developer community around it.

Another example is when your website crashes or some part of it fails, a remote monitoring tool like ServerMojo can alert you via SMS, Email or sometimes even Twitter. A common situation is when a server or component of a web site is malfunctioning but still responding to requests on port 80 (or whichever port your service runs on) and so in such a case the basic test to see if a server is ‘alive’ is not enough, but fortunately monitoring tools can go further and check for specific text which should appear on a page, something that might be pulled from a database perhaps, and so if that text is not found then you will get an alert.

Some remote monitoring systems, Pingdom for example,  go further still and do what is known as transaction monitoring which means they will actually perform actions on a site, interacting with it and emulating a real visitor, not just clicking links but even filling in and submitting forms then logging response times and other data along the way which you can then use to easily locate and diagnose problems in complex applications.

Yet another type of monitoring tool is known as an RMM which means Remote Monitoring and Management and not only monitors your servers and other IT assets but allows you to manage them remotely. Obviously you can’t replace hardware remotely (with some exceptions) but you can certainly perform software and operating system installs and upgrades and keep track of the status of IT assets down to the individual component if required, such as monitoring disk space, memory usage, system load or checking for errors and warnings in logs.

RMM tools are popular with MSP‘s which depend on the ability to monitor and manage a large array of assets across many customer locations which could be anywhere in the world . Having advance or timely notification of problems or potential issues with clients systems is invaluable for the MSP and of course the client whose systems need to be kept functioning. Popular RMM tools these days include GFIMax and Continuum, amongst others.

Choosing the right tool for your needs can be a difficult task with so many to choose from, but in this interconnected age it is worth looking for those tools which provide an API for integrating with various other systems which an IT Services business often depends on so your data can be more easily moved around between systems and effectively managed to ensure maximum efficiency in workflows and ultimately profitability.