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Toolbox New Products for IT Pros
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Microsoft. All prices were confirmed November 10, 2008, and are subject to change.
Simplify Source Control
If you think source control is just for your developers, you're wrong. As a system administrator, a version-control solution can be an invaluable tool, giving you revision control and differential visibility for your administrative scripts and text-based informational documents. And it provides an organized repository for any other type of file you might want to have on hand.
Subversion (SVN) is a well-established open-source and free version-control system that has developed a substantial, and very loyal, user base. There are a number of service providers who will host Subversion for you, enabling you to connect to your source-control tree from anywhere without having to worry about the infrastructure needs of the server. (And you can connect over SSL and password protect your repositories.)
If you aren't comfortable with the idea of having your scripts and documents hosted externally, no need to worry. You'll find numerous books and instructional how-tos to help you set up an SVN server in your own environment.
One of the issues that many users cite about SVN is that it doesn't have a very friendly or easy-to-use command-line interface. That is where TortoiseSVN comes into play for your Windows workstations. Dubbed as the "coolest interface to (Sub)Version control," TortoiseSVN gives you an easy-to-use, GUI-based Windows shell extension that is integrated directly into Windows Explorer so you won't need an additional IDE or application to manage your source repositories. You can work directly from your Windows environment.
Many TortoiseSVN users also like that it is community supported, open source, and free to use in any environment. It has a very active developer community and an update-notification process that lets you know when a new build is available. In addition, TortoiseSVN supports both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows natively.
TortoiseSVN, of course, has the usual check-in/check-out functionality you would expect from a source-control system. It's graphical UI also provides users with easy ways to perform branching, merging, and tagging within repositories. Icons provide visual cues when items are conflicted, need to be committed, and are newly added or deleted, as well as when they are up-to-date.
Another cool feature is the included Repository Browser, which gives you a view into a specified repository at a specific label or revision that works much like Windows Explorer. This allows you to get a quick at-a-glance view of what a set of scripts or documentation looked like at a particular release or time.
In addition to the Repository Browser, you also get two requisite tools for version control systems: TortoiseMerge (a merge tool) and TortoiseDiff (a diff tool). As the names suggest, these tools can help you merge or show the differences between revisions of a particular file or folder, respectively, within a repository.
If you don't currently have your administrative scripts and documentation under source control, I highly recommend you do so. This can save you from a number of hassles down the line. And when you are looking at version-control systems, you might want to consider the free, robust, actively developed, and open-source combination of Subversion on the back end and the TortoiseSVN client on your Windows workstations.
Simplify source control with TortoiseSVN
Measure Disk I/O
"Hmmm, that disk seems to be performing poorly," or "I wonder why it is taking so long to copy this file." Do these thoughts sound familiar? If so, you may want to take a look at Iometer. This is a free, open-source performance test tool, originally conceived and developed by Intel and later released to the open-source development community.
Though it hasn't been updated in quite some time, Iometer is still very useful for measuring disk I/O performance. The user guide supplied with the application is very thorough and will help you get up and running with the tweaked parameters you need to test your systems. You will, however, need a pretty deep understanding of I/O subsystems to really get the most out of Iometer's capabilities.
More than just a single CPU/single disk test tool, Iometer can spawn multiple workers to test multi-disk and -CPU scenarios adapting to fit whatever environment you need to test. And with its Network Targets feature, Iometer can also test remote systems.
There are two components to the Iometer application: the controller Iometer GUI and the Dynamo workload generation executable. Both of these components are also usable through the command line. Within the controller, you have the ability to spawn your worker clients to test out different disks and usage patterns on those disks and then to save those settings for reuse later.
To set up a test, you need to select your workers, drives, and access specifications. The documentation and references on the Internet will help you choose appropriate access specifications for different types of usage, such as desktop, database server, or file server. You're also responsible for setting the test time options (such as ramp up/ramp down times) and specifying the number of workers and CPUs to utilize in one that is run.
As your test runs, results are stored in a file that you can import into a different application for analysis. You can also click the Results Display tab to see simple bar charts of different statistics on the data collected, such as total I/Os or MBs per second, error counts, CPU utilization, and I/O response times.
If you love nitty-gritty information and need to analyze I/O numbers (or you are just curious about what kind of numbers your system can push out), you should check out Iometer.
Measure I/O with Iometer
Reboot Servers Remotely
APC Switched Rack PDU
As nice as it can be to escape the office and listen to the drone of the servers and HVAC at the datacenter, it's generally a good thing if you can avoid unexpected trips there. One common cause of these trips is a hung server. I'm sure you have been in this situation—you can ping the server, but you can't connect to it via RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol), WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation), SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), or the classic iisreset /reboot.
Instead of having to stop and head down to the datacenter or having to call the expensive on-hands network operations center just to power off the machine, you could just use something like APC's Switched Rack power distribution unit (PDU). The networked Switched Rack PDU line has a number of really cool features to help you remotely manage your gear at the datacenter.
First, after hooking up the device to your network via standard Ethernet cable and assigning an IP address, you can manage the device via SNMP, Telnet, or even via a Web browser. And since you are connected to a network, you can also download and remotely install new firmware for the device as it becomes available. Locally, you can monitor load on the circuits via colored LEDs and alarms; remotely you can be notified of those alarms via e-mail and check the loads via the management interfaces.
If you need a little more headroom on your circuits, you can define custom load thresholds. You also have the ability to control each outlet individually, turning off power to those that aren't currently in use. Or, if you need to, you can define the power-on sequence of the outlets, ensuring that devices come on in a predetermined order.
This is great for making sure, for example, your network devices come back to life before your servers or your domain controllers before your domain members. And, of course, you can cycle the power remotely for each outlet to unfreeze a stuck machine or device.
APC carries a number of different models to suit your needs, including the choice between horizontally or vertically mounted devices, different voltages and amperages, and the type of power connector you may need at your datacenter. Prices range from about $500 to more than $1,000 depending on the options you choose. Measuring the cost of a Switched Rack PDU against the time and cost spent on trips to a remote data center, a Switched Rack PDU can be a very good deal.
Price: Starts at about $500.
Reboot servers remotely with an APC Switched Rack PDU
Manage Compressed Archives
Compressed archives are essential. In the IT world they are indispensable for organization and saving resources. Since the release of Windows XP, you have been able to right-click on a folder or file and select to send it to a compressed archive. Likewise, Windows provides a built-in way to easily extract zipped files. But if you are an IT professional, you probably prefer something with a little more power. One great tool for working with compressed archives is WinRAR from RARLabs. This utility has been around for many years, and the company has recently updated the app with the release of version 3.8.
WinRAR is a 32-bit Windows version of the RAR (Roshal Archive) archiver. More than just the RAR archive file format, WinRAR also offers support for ZIP, 7Z, ACE, TAR, Z, CAB, JAR, ISO files, and more. So it will undoubtedly be able to handle nearly all of the compressed file formats you may need to work with. Furthermore, it can also handle and create multi-volume archives and self-extracting (SFX) archives.
The application integrates into Windows with a shell extension, allowing you to right-click on a file or folder and manage archives without first having to launch the application. In addition, you can easily drag and drop files and folders into archives, modify existing archives within the graphical UI, and password protect and encrypt archives in just a few clicks.
One particularly nice benefit of the RAR file format is that it supports a recovery record, which can help you recover a damaged archive. And, with multi-volume archives, you can also choose to create recovery volumes (or REV files) that enable you to reconstruct a missing or damaged file within a set.
Most of the features of WinRAR are also available via command line (obviously, you can't drag and drop), enabling you to use it in automated systems administration tasks, such as for managing log files.
Price: $29 (direct) per user.
Manage compressed archives with WinRAR
Greg Steen is a technology professional, entrepreneur, and enthusiast. He is always on the hunt for new tools to help make operations, QA, and development easier for the IT professional.