Ten Things that should be in Every SysAdmin’s Virtual Backpack

A good SysAdmin needs the right tools, both virtual and physical. As a front-line consultant, Wesley David will be providing suggestions for both in the next few weeks, and here he discusses of the essential software tools that every SysAdmin should have on hand at a moment's notice.

If you’ve read any of the “Ten Things that Should be in Every SysAdmin’s Backpack” episodes, your proverbial satchel is probably looking like a Christmas goose (that’s a metaphor for ‘stuffed’, not ‘plucked, greasy and on fire’). Perhaps you’re one of the few SysAdmins who can live a relatively sedentary lifestyle and you don’t need any of those physical tools. That’s all fine and good, but if you’re any kind of a SysAdmin, you certainly can’t avoid needing a well-stocked virtual backpack.

So, grab a few of those vendor thumbdrives that you got at the last user-group meeting you went to, and get ready for ten things that should be in every SysAdmin’s virtual backpack:

  1. Corrupt-File Repair Tools. It will happen, and it will only happen when the potential for people to be devastated by it is greatest. File corruption. It holds no allegiances and it takes no prisoners. The marketing department’s big PowerPoint presentation necessary to win over a major client. The accountant’s Frankenstein-ed Excel spreadsheet that tabulates the year’s tax withholdings. Your crankiest users’ PST archive files. They will all be corrupted at some point and you, the lofty SysAdmin, will be called, depended on and ultimately blamed if it’s not fixed within a few minutes. Especially those PST files since, in spite of Microsoft’s most strident warnings and the pleadings of all Windows-based SysAdmins, they will still find their way onto a network drive and commence corrupting like they just got elected to public office (PST files, not Microsoft *ahem*).
  2. PST Importer 2010. You can save the hassle of repairing corrupt PST files if you remove all PST files from your life. Any SysAdmin that works in a Windows environment hates PST files because they are compliance nightmares, support headaches, and a royal pain in a tender spot. If you have Exchange 2010, you can utilize PST Importer 2010 to scan your entire network for PST files, wherever they may be, and can import them en masse into their owner’s Exchange mailbox. Non-mail items are migrated too, and it even handles corrupt messages for you, no scripting necessary. Not only will your users be happier, but so will your liver once you stop needing so much Aspirin.
  3. A Network Scanner. Sometimes you just have to scan a subnet to see what’s going on. Other times you just need to poke an IP address with a TCP/IP stick to see what it does. Contrary to what you might be thinking, keeping a well featured network scanner need not cause the accounting department to have a conniption. SoftPerfect’s Network Scanner has features enough for most people, and Angry IP is nice and slim (and portable). If you read “10 Things That Should be in Every SysAdmin’s Backpack, Episode 1” (which will shortly be available on SysAdmin-Talk), my first suggestion was to have a netbook or some kind of portable computing device always on hand. With one of those, you can load up nmap, or even a much larger tool like SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset.
  4. IRC Client. Contrary to popular belief, SysAdmins are shockingly social. We just consort without the added burden of needing to recognize faces. IRC and instant messaging are prime ways for more than just socializing, however. They are often relied on when trying to solve a particularly thorny problem. Got an issue with loading a gem in a Ruby script? Hit up #ruby-lang on Freenode. Have an Ubuntu server with colic? Freenode’s #Ubuntu may very well have people willing to offer some suggestions. For Windows users, mIRC Portable is a fine option. For linux users, take a peek at KVIrc.
  5. Visual File System Mapper. Sometimes you just need to see what’s taking up so much space on a server or PC. WinDirStat (the spinoff of the Linux KDirStat that is now known as Filelight) will give you a visual representation of your file system, so that you can see odd trends and pockets of curious storage anomalies that you might not have been able to detect in other ways. Just be careful – you might find things that you wished you hadn’t, but I digress.
  6. Database Manipulation Tools. It’s a bad day if you have to hack a database from a portable device, but it’s an even worse day when you need to but don’t have the ability. Make sure to keep MySQL Workbench handy to install on a nearby PC, or even use “Database Browser Portable“. Perhaps you don’t even need to use it for full-fledged database hacking, but rather some serious CSV manipulation. The SysAdmin who does not have to mash CSV files around is not the true SysAdmin.
  7. A L33t text editor. No, not a text editor that parses l33t-sp34k – a text editor that is l33t. There is always a need to write scripts, parse scripts, search text and generally twiddle ASCII around. You will be a very happy SysAdmin for having something that’s more helpful than notepad.exe to clatter in. For Windows, Notepad++ is super, and it’s offered in portable format as well. For Linux, GVim Portable will do. If you prefer emacs, well…that’s your problem, not mine.
  8. GIMP Portable. I don’t know why, but for some reason I find myself using Photoshop for my job more than I think a SysAdmin should. I can’t explain it. It makes no sense to me. However, SysAdmins tend to be more corporate Swiss Army knives than strict technology workers, so perhaps it’s not as unusual as I think. In any case, I challenge you to put GIMP portable on a thumbdrive and not have a reason to use it consistently. If you don’t, well, at least it didn’t cost you anything (Unlike Photoshop).
  9. Process Explorer. This one is invaluable for a Windows based SysAdmin. SysInternals Process Explorer will tell you everything about each process running on our system. It will even tell you what the developer had for lunch on the day of the software’s release. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. If you are a Windows SysAdmin and have been living without Process Explorer, you have not been living. You’ve been surviving.
  10. Games. Yes. Games. There comes a time when there is no shame in playing games. Sometimes you just need to sit back and play some Tetris, or lob some grenades or play dress-up with Hello Kitty characters. Wait… forget that last one. Keep something amusing nearby to help relieve some stress or get your mind off of those flapping Nagios tickets that won’t shut up. There’s quite a list out there so take your pick. “Oh, Atomic Tanks, how do I love Scorched Earth clones? Let me count the ways using funky bombs and baby nukes.”

With those ten things safely stored on your “virtual backpack” you will be well on your way to being a happier, more fulfilled and better paid SysAdmin. Or at least you won’t have to worry about herniated vertebrae when you lift it, unlike your physical backpack after I got through with it. Fancy an ice pack?