back to article Readers' choice: What every small-business sysadmin needs

In response to a previous article, a number of readers have submitted their views on essential systems administration tools. A few responses stand out from the rest. Michael Wilkinson rightly rebukes me for not including hardware tools in the discussion, with the BOFH's signature cattleprod being first to mind. Malle-herbert …

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Like

the mention of the cattleprod

but then I love the sound of KZZZEEERT in the morning

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K
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Cool article..

El Reg should put together a communal list of these types of tools and recommendations .. Spiceworks is great, but El Reg is better ;)

2 Tools I can't live without

Microsoft RDCM - Brilliant Remote Desktop Manager, I've tried a lot of 3rd party tools, but they are all really slow.

SecureCRT and SecureFX - Excellent tools for working with Linux boxes and managing Shell sessions.

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A magnet on a stick ?

I just magnetized a couple of my screwdrivers, great for when screws fall

down into a spot you can't easily reach with your fingers...

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Re: A magnet on a stick ?

I think Trevor is referring to the magnets on a telescopic stick, which will extend from eight inches to about four feet - typically you use them when you are changing the rocker cover on your car and drop a bolt straight down the heatsheild of the exhaust manifold, just past a part where you can't get your wrist in.

I don't work on kit that inaccessible (most of my clients servers sit quietly on an unused desk in the corner - very small SMBs and SOHOs) but I agree with Trevor, those things are always worth having kicking about - even if it's just at home somewhere, so you can go back there (or come back with it the next day) and easily rescue said errant fixture.

They ain't expensive, and they are borderline magical in their ability to get you out of a fix. This one even has lights on it...

http://www.halfords.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product_storeId_10001_catalogId_10151_productId_778655_langId_-1_categoryId_165469

And I think I'll buy one tonight, as I seem to have lost my one after a recent house move.

Steven R

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Re: A magnet on a stick ?

That's amazing.

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Re: A magnet on a stick ?

Even if you're being sarcastic, it's still true. Magnets on a stick = always useful.

Even if it's just for clipping someone around the back of the head.

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Re: A magnet on a stick ?

Sarcastic? Hell no. Magnet on a stick + light to see WTF you're doing? I'm sold!

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Re: A magnet on a stick ?

I didn't go to buy one tonight as my debit account is empty. £1 overdrawn, that'll be a further £25 I'm never seeing again come payday.

Still, come payday - MAGNET ON A STICK MOFOS!

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..

Clearly, the only tool any of us need is Dan1980 then.....

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Cattle-prods, rubber hoses and Etherkillers are occasionally useful but when called in to do things at short notice I also like the magic piece of paper bearing the text which reads:

" I [legal owner of business X] hereby absolve [Y] from all legal liability for actions he/she undertakes while working on computer hardware/software located at premises [Z] and operated or owned by business [X]".

You get the business-owner to sign this before you start work, in order to prevent subsequent nastiness.

Only once have I needed to use my other line: "If we do this the way you want and we're caught then both of us could go to jail; do it my way and if caught only you go to jail. I think we're going to do it my way".

There is, alas, no convenient piece of paper that can get a small [or large for that matter] business out of an Anton Piller order at short notice.

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Angel

I was offered the advice that if asked to do something blatantly wrong you ask for it in writing, which would probably be an e-mail these days. Short of someone having a GPG key I wonder what the best way of 'proving' an email is, obviously you can copy-paste the text, forward it on, or with Outlook copy the message out to a .msg file, but would that stand up in court? Or is it just a case of saying "Do you deny saying this?" and reminding them what perjury is?

Icon - Trying to listen to my better ones

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IANAL

Apparently you can write such e-mails yourself as no-one will check.

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Pint

@WraithCadmus

<IANAL>In a civil matter, the opposing side didn't challenge the veracity of emails and they were accepted as facts. I did store them with headers.

To a lawyer, documents are the gold standard of evidence; if you have a piece of paper saying "X", then X must be true. OTOH rigorous calculations performed from raw data, which in reality is far harder to fake, is looked upon rather dimly. That's my experience in one case. And yes I am bitter.</IANAL>

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Information as a tool

One of the most helpful tools I carry round is a Kindle.

Manuals for all the "odd" software we use, reference books for everything, more or less a full copy of our helpdesk knowledge-base and most importantly, a few novels for when I am waiting for things to happen.

Yes, I know most of this is online somewhere either internally or externally but being as the "online" thing is frequently the problem and I tend to work in a lot of places with no wi-fi / phone signal it has proved it's worth many times.

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Anonymous Coward

Random live and learn story....

Today, I helped a client re-install their home network after moving. Naturally, they still had no Internet or VOIP connection even when it was ascertained that everything was plugged in correctly.

So we had to call the ISP..... but hey who still has their support number ? Nobody, that's who.

Went home, surfed for the number, mailed it to the client's office email.

Client called ISP from their office phone, had a phone call organized for next day and then left work early to meet me on site.

Naturally, the ISP didn't call on time.

When I checked to see if the email with number was still accessible from my smart phone, I discovered my mailbox hadn't fully synced, so had to drive 4 miles to the nearest free wifi, synced up and then returned with phone number.

Finally made contact, figured out with the ISP that the customer ADSL login was buggered and we made it all work again.

So my latest addition to my phone contacts list is: phone support numbers for all of the major ISPs.

The other tip is to ask the customer before a visit whether or not they still have their ISP's login account info and setup docs.

Trivial, I know.... and anonymous for obvious reasons.

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Nirsoft

Nir Sofers collection of great little recovery, hacking and exploit-y tools (which - word of warning - most AV software really doesn't like - disable before using, disconnect from the network, etc) are wondrous. PST password recovery, outlook account settings, etc. All at your fingertips with this little collection.

http://www.nirsoft.net/

Honestly, I use the MailPV (mail password/account viewer) at least twice a week on customer laptops, where they can't remember/find their mail passwords.

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Tricorder ...

I can't do without my rooted Android phone running Fing - it's the first thing I power up when something doesn't work. Add in Wi-Fi Analyer, an OpenVPN client and Terminal Emulator, it's the quickest way for me to check the basics. Oh, and I fully agree about saving the instructions - I convert to PDF and stick them on Dropbox, also running on my phone. I think of it as my Tricorder...

As for email, I have been running a 50 user version of VPOP3 on a (sucession of) windows box(es) for the past 15 years, and it hasn't missed a beat. Local. Cost effective. Straightforward.

Fully agree with the choice of Netgear, but I use a PfSense appliance as my firewall of choice.

BTW - Nice article, thanks.

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Using filehippo.com instead of download.com always makes my day a little better.

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USB - SATA and.....

..... a 2m USB extension cord.

You can then connect any HDD as a slave to a working machine in order to run diagnostics.

The USB extension cord is also particularly useful for charging your iPhone/Android while having a conversation.

Lan tester and tone generator. And velcro cable ties.

Mircofiber cloths - both for general cleaning and a specific glass one for cleaning flat screens e.g. Macbook Pro.

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The internet

The only tool I need. Can't say there are many places you can't get it. Bar inside certain government facilities.

Then its a copy of Backtrack, the oldest copy of Ultimate boot CD ever and a USB stick with liberKey and its full suite of portable apps.

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+!s for Fing and Nirsoft.

Trevor, thanks for 'coming clean' about what software and hardware vendors you use for small businesses. I'm having trouble understanding your accounting though.

You mention that many of the smaller businesses you support are working from home and typically have one user per location.

How is it cheaper to buy all the equipment you mention for each locality and pay the subscription for all the services you mention, than subscribing to Windows Intune with SA and Office 365 Small Business Premium (which is about to offer 1TB OneDrive per account)?

In my locality, it's £12.12 for O365SBP and £8.64 for Intune with SA, that's £20.76pcm for a fully managed OS (many people pay far in excess of that per month to watch Rupert Murdoch's crud), Office suite and anti-malware, remote support with Easy Assist, 1TB of storage space for cloud backups and collaboration, 60 minutes of Skype to landlines and a heap more.

To go your route, I'd have to sell a sync service, a backup service, Google Apps for Business, a Netgear UTM (I agree that Netgear make excellent products for Small Businesses) with the subscriptions for the filters and I still wouldn't have the latest Windows OS (some may say not a bad thing) or the latest Microsoft Office suite.

O365SBP also allows licensing on multiple devices per user, including tablets etc.

I just don't see how you're paying octuple the cost for Microsoft's cloud/subscription-based model when you total up your shopping list as the alternative.

I'm not pro-Microsoft or trolling here, rather genuinely interested in how you balance the cost given the above.

Regards,

b166er

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Honest truth? Because you're using Microsoft's utterly bollocksed costing. Here's a few considerationgs you haven't made:

1) First and most important: the ability to sweat assets when times are tough. Cloud doesn't give you that. When shit gets real and you can't pay even one month's subscription fee, there goes your whole business. Zero chance to recover.

2) Real boys don't replace everything on a two or three year cycle. Real businesses quite happily get 5 or even 10 years out of their IT investments. Do the sums, it ain't cheaper.

3) Dealing with multiple vendors isn't a problem. There's no advantage to "I buy all my shit from Microsoft" if the vendors you buy from are good, honest folks selling a decent service at a price people want to pay. Dealing with Microsoft is like playing whack-a-mole with an acid-coverred asshole-seeking spiked-dong. I'll gleefully use multiple vendors if the end result is "less having to deal with Microsoft licensing."

4) There are eleventeen squillion reasons that my clients want to keep a copy of their own data on-site. By "their own data" I don't mean a tiny amount of personal work that you might put into Sync.com. I mean "terabytes upon terbaytes of business data" that A) can't be stored in the US (or with a company that has an American legal attack surface) and B) is absolutely *vital* to the running of the business. Storing it all in the cloud is great...until you have to do a restore. Tried sucking 100TB through a Canadian ADSL connection? I have.

5) a $20K stack of computers and software gives me the ability to store ~35 usable TB of moderate IOPS data along with enough compute power to run about 200 VMs. $20K wouldn't let me run 200 VMs for a quarter on Microsoft's cloud.

6) There are services cheaper than Intune for management.

7) Nobody gives a rat fuck about "the latest OS." Nobody. It's not a thing. Do you understand what Microsoft DOES with every second OS? OR how about Ribbon Baring the nice little old lady? We do not want the latest and greatest. We want what works and we are familiar with. There is zero trust for Microsoft. Less than zero. The square root of spiky, ass-seeking acid dong!

Microsoft will screw us with a completely unwarranted and productivity-killing random change to software without warning. We want the option of buying that software, using it until it can't be used any more and then picking from amongst the best options. That may or may not include Microsoft, but I see zero benefit behind yet another layer of lockin (subscription) or subjecting my clients to a "rapid release" cycle they emphatically want no part of.

8) There is a thing called "an internet". You may have heard of it. It allows you to connect up multiple individuals to a central location. That location doesn't even have to be one you own. You can use these magical things called "co-location facilities" where you don't have an office of your own or "storage closets" where you do. Here you can place servers and connect them to that "internet" thing. VPNs and HTTPS do the rest; suddenly, your remote workers can connect just fine!

Holy pants, what an idea! It's almost like we've been doing it for the past 25 years!.

9) Service providers are a thing. I am one. Clients send their data to me, or run their data in my cloud. If it goes "squiggly lines squiggly lines" on them, then I can put the data on a hard drive, get in a car and drive it down to them. Oh, and I'm cheaper than Azure. By a lot. So's my Canada-local openstack provider, CloudA.ca. I use them lots too.

10) Microsoft allows only 5 devices per user. That's insulting. A lot of my clients do dev and testing. Put bluntly: they own more than 5 devices, or they change between them often. That leads to a lot of open source and a lot of "we're going to buy a per device hard license for this" and passing around between devs. Nobody enjoys installing and uninstalling trila versions every 30 days, and Microsoft's "we killed Technet because we love you" can eat a sack of spiky acid dongs.

I could go on for some time - I really could - but suffice it to say Microsoft's cloudy future is not cheaper. It's still way cheaper to run your own stuff. It will be for some time. And even when it's not on a dollars-per-lifecycle, it will still be cheaper to run your own stuff because you get the freedom to control your own destiny...

...and insurance against rent-seeking, especially when you need that insurance most.

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Joke

The spiky acid dongs...

Great name for a rock band !

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On the whole I get where you're coming from, and Microsoft's licensing is indeed bollocksed, but most 1 man bands I deal with don't work with multi-terabyte datasets, rarely over 100GB (something I always mirror locally with a NAS).

Your clients are paying you, presumably monthly, to look after their shit so what happens there when times are hard? Do they stop paying you for a while and risk their systems going to shit from lack of maintenance? If it gets that bad that you can't afford £20 bucks a month, then you're going to have real trouble paying for IT consultancy/support.

For a business of above 5 users, it might make sense, but for 1 guy running a small business, I think Microsoft's cloud is actually a fair proposition.

It sounds like your clients are way more demanding than mine!

Debate is good.

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"Your clients are paying you, presumably monthly, to look after their shit so what happens there when times are hard? Do they stop paying you for a while and risk their systems going to shit from lack of maintenance?"

Yes, and no. If the client can get a lower rate for helpdesk work from one of the others, those others can get the info out of the data escrow and we'll transfer a copy of the client records over. I'm not the cheapest in the city; maybe they can get what they need elsewhere.

If my client is in a spot of bother and I'm the current low bidder for the services they need - or they simply don't want another nerd touching their systems - I will agree to switch them from a regular monthly fee to a break/fix arrangement until things look up.

Maybe things never will look up and maybe I put in some work and don't get paid for it. Oh well. My job is the good of the client, it isn't to pull Redmondian tricks to keep a client "locked-in." I get clients in the first place because I provide service that says "when you need me, I'm there for you, even if that means getting out of bed to help." I don't burn bridges; if a client wants to take their business elsewhere - or just can't afford things for now - then I'll help them transition. I think you'll find that's a very Canadian approach to things, just ask the folks at EasyDNS or CloudA.ca.

As for "If it gets that bad that you can't afford £20 bucks a month, then you're going to have real trouble paying for IT consultancy/support"...that's a hugely prattish comment.

Let's take a 50-man company I work with as the basis, as I recently did the numbers for them. When you start adding up all the fees you'd need to cover cloud computing for all of their workloads the amount is closer to $1300/user/month. Running VMs in azure is fucking expensive. Then you'd have to ad din O365, EMS and a dozen other things and holy crap that starts adding up.

To contrast, I charge a company like that around $5000 a month, and that includes a reasonable amount of content creation for their marketing efforts from our video group. I also get from them a commitment to a hardware, software and services (for things like Sync.com) budget of about $2500 a month.

If this company went all Microsoft cloud they would be on the hook for $65,000 a month. Or about $780,000 per year. I ask of them about $7500 a month to ensure smooth operations, or about $90,000 a year.

If things go to shit for that company - and they have twice, to my knowledge - they can drop us to break/fix and defer hardware/software/services payment.The result is cutting the monthly costs to zero, but also removing any R&D and having to take over a number of maintenance jobs in-house.

This situation can't last overly long for them - they generally need to constantly keep evolving elements of their IT because adapting to new scenarios is part of the value proposition they offer their customers - but when they lose a major client it's an acceptable trade off for a few months until things normalize.

And that's just one client. I've done the numbers for about 5 in the past month alone where migration of their workloads to an all-cloud environment simply wouldn't be possible, given their income...let alone cost-effective.

Out of a stable of 43 current clients, I have only one that is "all cloud", and they're using CloudA.

Most of those clients aren't huge income clients. A lot of them are either break/fix with a small monthly retainer or they are folks who have in-house sysadmins and bring me in only for the architecture work every time there's a major change to be done. (My render farm clients are a great example.) Big money, but in a lump sum, no ongoing stuff.

Cloud computing isn't £20/user/month. One workload of cloud computing might be that low, but companies run dozens, even hundreds of applications. Even small businesses. (My own business is a 5 man company and we have 32 "critical" applications and 14 secondaries!)

If you are trying to say "use Office 365 because it's cheaper", then say that. Specifically that workload. Not cloud computing in general. My client base largely agrees with the idea of putting e-mail in the cloud; that's why so many of them use Google Apps. (Only 2 Office 365 clients left.) A lot more of them use hosted exchange or hosted Zimbra. Some choose to host it themselves.

But "the cloud is the cheapest solution to the needs of small business" as a statement that includes general workloads? No. Just fucking no.

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Trollface

Eat a snickers..

You're not you when you're hungry.

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Blu-Tac

For anything small that a magnet sneers at, or too delicate for rufty-tufty gaffer tape.

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Anonymous Coward

Great article

Anyone setting themselves up as a tech for SMEs would be well served by following this wealth of great advice.

I'd have put more emphasis on the use of Google tools for free office apps, email and free cloud backup but for can't fault your choice of tools for those who do want to run all their own IT.

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I have to agree about the cess pit that is "We can't afford it". It is just that, a cess pit from which the only way to escape is the shoot the customer and set fire to the chickens.

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Pint

Most useful thing I've had...

...over the last 15 years was and remains the Victorinox Cybertool. Has everything one needs to (literally) screw around with hardware. At one place, they used to call me the "walking toolbox" because I always had the right screwdriver/tongs/scissors/uninsulator/etc. in my pocket. Plus, it features a bottle opener... cheers :)

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Awww . . .

. . . thanks Trevor.

Personally, I thought my most important suggestion was the copy of Civ2 I keep on my USB stick!

After a particularly tiring 5-day (should have been 3-day) stretch setting up a new client and, with memories of bleary-eyed all-nighters rebuilding servers and weekends in barren business parks, I humbly submit my new top recommendation:

Muesli bars.

Supplement with some headache tablets and wash down both with a cold glass of water and 10 minutes of fresh air and then once more unto the breach . . .

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I forgot

Caffeine and nicotine.

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Re: I forgot

and when absolutely necessary:

alcohol.

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Re: I forgot

As when working on your car, alcohol is for after the job is done. Tea is the thing for the thinking, working man.

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Some more tools I found helpful

Female UPS Power Cable (mating with the power strips inside the cabinet) to a 2-way multibox with local power layout, great to recharge laptops and run either local hubs or DVD Drives (USB powered DVDs are, in my experience, bad at error correction on old CDs / DVDs).

One of every specification of cable (Serial, Power, Fibre) in your architecture, for troubleshooting purposes only (never to be given up EVER! as a replacement unit). Plus at least 3 x network cables, minimum 5 metres length.

3 or 4 Clothes pegs, for marking cable temporarily

At least 2 movies you own legitimately, in physical or digital media form, so when the external supplier brings the wrong part initially, you have something to occupy your time. Rotate on regular basis (Current selection: "300" and "Indie Game: the movie")

Headphones (see above).

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Anonymous Coward

Observium

It's like Nagios+iCinga+Unicorns on steroids, and it's completely free.

Best. NMS. Monitoring. Platform. Ever.

http://www.observium.org

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