As many IT administrators have learned, some of the most useful products related to Microsoft's Windows operating system -- the ones that make their lives a whole lot easier -- don't cost a dime.
Many of these free tools come directly from Microsoft, some are open source tools and some are freeware from well-known developers. Others are simply Web sites that offer really useful services. When SearchWin2000.com asked experts to name some of their favorite downloads, many picked one or more of the 60 free tools developed by Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell, the founders of Sysinternals, a freeware site.
"These guys are the gurus," said Brett Hill, a Windows expert and president of IIS Training, a Boulder, Colo., consulting firm.
Russinovich and Cogswell are also co-founders of Winternals Software LP, an Austin, Texas, company that sells products a cut above their freeware counterparts. Russinovich started writing utilities in the mid-1990s as a creative outlet, never imagining the broad appeal of the resulting freeware.
Free does the trick in many cases
While free is good, it all comes down to what type of functionality an IT administrator requires. "If I can approximate what I need with a free tool, I'll use it," Hill said. "But if it is specific information I need that can be performed with a cost-effective commercial tool, then I'll buy that, though the need for that is rare."
Russinovich agrees that not every tool has the depth to handle enterprise requirements of large size and scale. The engineering effort that goes into freeware versus a commercial tool is considerably less, so the commercial tools will deliver far greater benefits, he said.
Microsoft makes the same argument. Its manageability experts often caution IT administrators to understand to the capabilities -- and limitations -- of its free patch manager (Software Update Services) compared to its enterprise management software, (Systems Management Server). If you require more than simple patching, you probably don't want SUS, company officials have said repeatedly.
With with 887,430 downloads alone on the third quarter of this year, SUS is the second-most downloaded free tool from Microsoft. The software maker's most requested free tool by far is Remote Desktop Connection for Windows Server 2003, which lets a user connect remotely to a system that has either Terminal Server or Remote Desktop installed. Remote Desktop Connection was downloaded 4,034,930 times in the third quarter.
A unique view of Windows
While Sysinternals can't match Microsoft's download numbers, it is still a hugely popular destination for IT professionals. In September alone, Sysinternals had more than 679,000 unique visitors who downloaded freeware. Most downloads are for tools that offer a view of Windows -- for system administration and troubleshooting -- that can't be found any other way.
The two hottest Sysinternals downloads are Process Explorer and Autoruns. Process Explorer shows administrators whether a particular file or directory is open and useful for handling DLL version problems. Autoruns shows administrators which programs are configured to run during system boot-up or login. Other popular tools are Regmon, a registry monitoring utility, and Filemon, a file system activity monitor.
Russinovich and Cogswell are planning to add search capability to some of their utilities in the not-too-distant future. For those using Process Explorer, for example, the search feature might help to locate a process name, he said.
Administrators can also look forward to new freeware called Process Monitor, which combines the features of Filemon and Regmon. Process Monitor should be out in "several months," Russinovich said.
Many other free tools for admins
Sysinternals and Microsoft aren't the only sources of free tools. Neil Chapman, president of NLighten Inc., a Raleigh, N.C., integrator, likes Ultr@VNC, a desktop remote control tool that works over any TCP/IP connection. The tool is great for connecting and managing servers in a remote data center, Chapman said.
"How do I connect to it?" he asked. "Some people use [Citrix's] Terminal Server. Some won't want to. VNC is another way to connect."
Howard Marks, founder and chief scientist at Networks Are Our Lives Inc., a Hoboken, N.J., consulting firm, is a fan of Process Explorer, but he also likes Quest Spotlight on Exchange and Object Restore for Active Directory, from Quest Software Inc., in Irvine, Calif. Spotlight on Exchange is a diagnostic tool for Microsoft's messaging platform that troubleshoots and resolves problems from a graphical user interface.
"Spotlight on Exchange is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise," Marks said. "It's got graphical alerts telling you when a server is sending more messages than it usually does, when a disk is full.
"It gives a quick 30,000[-foot] view, and if you went to Microsoft for this you would need [Microsoft Operations Manager]," Marks added. "That's a project to install."
Seeing a list of deleted users
Object Restore for Active Directory does something that people need done all the time that is otherwise impossible, Marks said. "When you delete a user, you don't actually delete the user, you just 'tombstone' the user. But there is no mechanism to show who has been deleted. This tool can reverse that.
"If you are like most organizations, the access control lists on your resources are so screwed up that if you deleted a user and created a new user with the same name, they may not have the same access as before," Marks said.
And there are plenty of other places to find good free stuff for administrators.
Susan Bradley, a Windows expert and certified public accountant at Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun Accountancy Corp., in Fresno, Calif., likes EventID.net. "This Web site captures information about your Windows OS," she said. "There are log files that let you know that everything is fine in the system. You can check anything in the event viewer."
The event database was originally initiated by Altair Technology Inc., a Troy, Mich., design and consulting firm.