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In today’s competitive market, having the right tool for the job is something that few service and support professionals can afford to take for granted.
Through years of experience, many information technology support professionals amass their own digital toolkits — collections of software and utilities either sanctioned or sometimes undocumented by their respective employers that become virtual residents on taskbars and system trays. The same way that duct tape works its way into the toolboxes of carpenters, plumbers and electricians everywhere, these digital tools can assist in your ongoing quest to keep end users productive and trouble-free.
“In this day and age of widely distributed end users and centralized support, tools that allow help-desk staff to reach out and touch the end-user desktop are vital to support-staff success and client satisfaction,” says Rodney Hopkins, network engineer for Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search and leadership consulting firm in Chicago. “The more tools an IT staff has that can allow them to be there without being there, the more time and energy can be spent addressing the problem at hand and ensuring results where they are most needed.”
The tools outlined here are reasonably priced or free, and they can help bridge the gap between support personnel and the information they must manipulate to help users onsite and in the field.
Virtually everyone in help-desk support has, at some point, needed to quickly and efficiently send a file — be it a software installer, an upgrade or a patch — to a client system. Although most organizations have Internet access, privileges to download files can vary from environment to environment and user to user. Many companies use Internet filtering software, which is incredibly useful in keeping systems safe and employees productive but also provides unwanted challenges when trying to move files, especially while logged in as an unprivileged user. Because most of these types of security products work at the gateway level, internal traffic may face far less scrutiny. This is where having an internal FTP server can really come in handy.
Serv-U is excellent for anyone who needs to transfer files without a lot of setup and configuration (or time in the system administrator’s office). This utility typically installs quickly and then automatically invokes a wizard, which asks a few questions about paths and user access privileges. When I use it, I create a generic user account and create recursive read-write access to an “FTP” subdirectory of the My Documents folder. That’s it. From now on, if I’m ever working on a client machine and need a file transferred to it, I can download it on my machine using my privileged account, save it to the FTP subdirectory, then transfer the downloaded file to the intended recipient using a few simple DOS commands.
Serv-U boasts valuable features, such as Secure Sockets Layer support, bandwidth throttling and Active Directory support.
Advanced IP Scanner 1.5 is a nifty utility that lets support technicians and administrators alike do quick and painless network discovery of all attached devices to any given subnet on a local area network. This tool can be absolutely invaluable if you need to connect to a client’s machine, but are unsure of its Universal Naming Convention path or are just looking for a new network-attached device that initially comes up with an undisclosed dynamic Internet Protocol address.
First, install Advanced IP Scanner, accepting all defaults, and then launch the utility, specifying the subnet you wish to scan. Advanced IP Scanner reports results of every IP address in the subnet mask, giving status on whether or not the client responded, and resolving NetBIOS and UNC names whenever possible. The Wake-on-LAN feature can power up remote PCs as well as shut them down, using administrative rights. This software is an absolute must-have for anyone who remotely supports PCs. Advanced IP Scanner is freeware from Famatech, authors of the popular Radmin multifunction remote-control software.
Anyone who administers file servers or needs to audit disk use on client machines will appreciate DiskData. It can track disk use on both local and mapped network drives, and graphically map out how applications use storage. DiskData’s Windows Explorer-like style lets systems administrators drill down through a drive’s directory structure in one pane and view either reports or charts, plotting out disk utilization in the other. DiskData also can export your findings in comma-separated value format for programs such as Excel and Lotus 1-2-3. By analyzing disk use, you will better understand the highest demand areas for system storage and actually see where resources are being most heavily consumed.
A relatively new feature offered in the latest version of DiskData is the ability to run it as a standalone executable — from a memory stick or a network share or any other location — without needing the privileges to remotely map the user’s network drive or local administrator privileges on the client machine and install the software itself. This makes it easier to obtain information with the fewest potential hurdles.
Edward L. Bailey, network administrator for Carrier Great Lakes, says that the Angry IP Scanner freeware does a great job finding rogue and forgotten network devices. He used it during a project to change the IP address schema for nodes at the six locations for his company, a distributor of Carrier heating and air conditioning products that has its headquarters in Livonia, Mich. Angry IP Scanner provided Bailey with a list of all devices connected to the Carrier Great Lakes network. A comprehensive listing was essential because any devices with the old scheme would no longer be able to communicate with the network.
“Once you change the router, the only option for turning on the old devices would be to physically visit the device, and one of our branches is two hours away,” he says. “The utility listed all the printers, the wireless access points and all other devices on our network — some things that we knew about and things that we had forgotten.”
Angry IP Scanner looks like a hacking tool to most antivirus, firewall and spyware detection tools. For instance, at Carrier Great Lakes, the Trend Micro antivirus software would automatically shut down the tool. “Angry IP’s port scanning looks like a hacker or Trojan horse to most systems. It runs like a scared rabbit, scanning every single IP address and any open port within the given IP range,” Bailey says. Although it’s not meant to be a hacking tool, it could be used that way. As such, it’s an excellent utility in the hands of the help desk to uncover any open ports and extraneous devices that end users might add to your business’ network.
CPU-Z is a compact freeware utility that lets you quickly gather information about a system’s core components — for instance, the processor type, speed, motherboard information and installed memory. CPU-Z, like DiskData, can run without being installed on the target system. With a double-click of the mouse, anyone in control of a given PC can get component information nearly instantaneously. Although CPU-Z is not a comprehensive hardware auditing application, it does offer a quick glance of what’s under the hood and gives support personnel a general idea of what they’re working with.
CPU-Z also reports BIOS versions (on supported motherboards), so that IT staff members can instantly ascertain whether a BIOS revision could be a relevant factor in solving the problem at hand. CPU-Z excels in its strength at reporting processor type and clock speed. Plus, CPUID updates the utility frequently so that it supports most new hardware soon after release.