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Toolbox New Products for IT Pros
Greg Steen is a technology professional and enthusiast. He is always on the hunt for new tools to help make operations, qa, and development easier for the IT professional.
© 2008 Microsoft Corporation and CMP Media, LLC. All rights reserved; reproduction in part or in whole without permission is prohibited.
Video Screen Capture
My Screen Recorder Pro
Suppose you have a meeting in 20 minutes and still need to put together a presentation on the new system configuration. Or perhaps you find yourself going through the same application tutorial almost every day with different users. If this sounds familiar, here's a tip: check out My Screen Recorder Pro from DeskShare.
As the name indicates, this app lets you record the activity taking place on your desktop as a video, offering a great way to put together an impromptu presentation or reusable tutorial for your clients. My Screen Recorder Pro also supports audio recording, so you can provide narration along the way. (Hint: create a script or outline before you start recording.)
Creating a new video is straightforward. Select the region you would like to record—your full desktop, a customizable area of the desktop, a fixed portion of the desktop, or a particular application window—then click the Record button.
The application can record to AVI, Windows Media® Video (WMV), or Flash, so you will be able to distribute your results relatively easily and even embed your videos in Web pages or stream them for broader public use. You can also create an executable for your video for playing it locally on most Windows® PCs. The video is embedded within the executable, simplifying distribution and making playback extremely intuitive for the end user.
If your tutorial or presentation lends itself to multiple segments, you can stitch together several takes into one video. Or, if you need to do a bit of editing on the video, you can split or cut the recording to meet your needs.
Though the default configuration is generally usable, the application lets you tweak the frame rate, audio quality, and compression settings to best suit your environment. This is useful for addressing any size or bandwidth constraints you may run into. You can also create a recording using a simple time-lapse mode, which in effect allows you to compress long-running portions of your recording (such as a slow progress bar). Another nice feature is the option to change the mouse cursor for the recording and add mouse pointer effects to draw attention to the actions occurring while the recording session is underway. For example, you can enlarge the pointer or make rings appear around it whenever you click the mouse button. In addition, you can add a caption and timestamp to the recording for archival purposes.
For the sneaky, paranoid, or extra-cautious folks out there, My Screen Recorder Pro lets you schedule recordings, and the program can be run from the command line, giving you the option to discreetly monitor activities on a workstation. Finally, the application has built-in features for publishing your videos to an FTP site. When combined with the scheduler, this option can be useful for auditing purposes.
Price: $99 (direct) for a single license.
Create a presentation by recording what's happening on your desktop (Click the image for a larger view)
Hard disk defragmentation is essential for any Windows system. If you're like me, you are constantly adding and removing applications, features, and software updates. There are any number of disk defragmentation utilities to choose from—in fact, I covered one just last month. But defrag is critical and PerfectDisk 8 from Raxco Software is definitely worth discussing. Even though all flavors of Windows include a defrag tool, sometimes you need a utility that offers more precise control over the defrag operation. If so, take a look at PerfectDisk.
As you'd expect from any Windows defrag tool, PerfectDisk 8 can defrag FAT16, FAT32, and NTFS drives, and it also lets you defrag RAID drives. Available in desktop and server versions, PerfectDisk 8 is certified for Windows Vista® and supports other versions of Windows, including Windows Server® 2003 and Windows 2000. There's even a version for Exchange.
The company touts its SMARTPlacement technology, which attempts to organize the file structure on the disk for faster access speeds. For instance, on Windows XP systems, the SMARTPlacement technology takes responsibility for managing your boot and layout.ini files, ordering them in such a way as to decrease disk seek times on system startup. In addition to defragmenting an entire drive, you can also choose to defrag a single file, which is useful after downloading a large ISO file, for instance.
To tackle those stubborn system files you usually can't get your hands on while the OS is running, the application uses an offline mode that can run at the next system startup or, under the right conditions, the application can try to unmount the disk to run the defrag. Another cool feature is PerfectDisk's screen saver defragmentation mode, which allows you to automatically start defragmenting when the screen saver runs.
PerfectDisk also includes a command-line version that lets you easily schedule defragmentation through your preferred task scheduler, and enable remote execution through any system management agents you may have running on the system. For larger deployments, you should also go ahead and download the free PerfectDisk Command Center, which lets you remotely deploy, update, schedule, and configure the workstation application across the enterprise.
Price: PerfectDisk 8 Professional (for the desktop) starts at $39.99 for a single license. PerfectDisk 8 Server starts at $239.99 for a single license.
PerfectDisk offers a number of configuration options (Click the image for a larger view)
If your shop is running Cisco gear, you might want to pick up a copy of Gary Donahue's Network Warrior (O'Reilly, 2007). This book can be a valuable resource for a wide spectrum of readers, whether you're just getting started in the field of networking, you've recently received your CCNA certification, or you are an accomplished systems administrator looking to refresh your networking skills.
I particularly like that this book it is based on the real-world application of networking technology and that it gives you a quick reference to many of the common tasks you encounter in your day-to-day activities as a network professional. The book starts out on the ground level, defining exactly what comprises a network at its most basic. And it progresses into an overview of hubs, switches, VLANs, trunking, and the VLAN Trunk Protocol (VTP), as well as spanning trees with Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and Cisco System's EtherChannel technology.
Throughout Network Warrior, you get basic examples using Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS) and CatOS command-line interface (CLI) commands paired with the explanations of the methods and technologies. I like how the book gives a little history behind the current methodologies, offering some nice perspective along the way (such as why there is still a CatOS rather than just the IOS, for example).
The book includes a discussion of routers and routing in general where you learn about the fundamentals of routing from metrics to the administrative distances of the different routing protocols. You also get overviews of protocols, such as Open Shortest Path First (OSPF), Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), and Routing Information Protocol (RIP).
In the section on Cisco's Hot Standby Router Protocol (HSRP), the author delves into addressing availability and offers some basic configurations for protecting against downtime in your network infrastructure. That's followed by a review of the features and functionality of some of Cisco's multilayer switches, including the Cisco 6500 and the Catalyst 3750, and a discussion of some of the basic configurations you might encounter.
I found the information pertaining to the world of telecom useful. The book teaches you some of the lingo so you can avoid the smile-and-nod routine the next time they come to wire you up. You'll learn enough about Channel Service Unit/Data Service Unit (CSU/DSU), configuring DS3 connections, and multi-node frame relays that you can actually converse with the telecom techs.
There is a good section on security and firewalls, which shows you how to design and configure access control lists (ACLs), and covers authentication, DMZs, and specific PIX firewall configuration options. I like the succinct segment on firewall theory that emphasizes network mantras to work by such as "deny everything; permit what you need" and "security is a balance between convenience and paranoia."
The last section of Network Warrior provides insight into network design, covering the basics of common network infrastructure designs, such as a three-tiered e-commerce configuration and a collapsed-core network without a distribution layer, underscoring the importance of documentation and naming conventions.
Price: $44.99 list.
Manage File Locks
It would be nice if every application closed files correctly. Unfortunately, they don't. Sharing violations can be a real nuisance and finding out which process is currently locking a file can be even more troublesome. I don't know about you, but I hate closing down applications one by one, just to get control of a file. Fortunately, there is a free, simple Windows Explorer extension called WhoLockMe that can help.
Available for Windows NT®, Windows 2000, Windows Server 2003, and Windows XP, this app lets you know which process is currently locking the file of interest. All it takes is a simple right-click and a selection from within your Windows Explorer context menu.
WhoLockMe shows you the name of the process that is locking the file, its process identifier (PID), the path to the opened file, the domain and user of the process's execution context, and the full path to the offender. If you're so bold, you can choose to kill the process directly from the UI.
Unfortunately, WhoLockMe hasn't been updated in a while and it won't work on Windows Vista. Nonetheless, if you are running an earlier version of Windows, this app is a quick and effective tool for finding out who or what has a lock on the file you need to move, delete, or edit.
If you deal with Internet-facing applications or networks, you undoubtedly depend on DNS to help you manage them, keep things running smoothly, and allow outsiders to know where you and your apps reside. One toolset I find myself relying on when there's a DNS issue comes from DNSstuff.com. This collection of Web-based tools can be a great resource for troubleshooting and verifying your infrastructure configurations.
The site provides tools for domain, IP, hostname, e-mail, Web site, and general network issues—more than 45 different query tools that can help you do everything from validate your mail server configuration to check the speed of your DNS hosting. Sure, you can probably find the equivalents of most of these tools within your infrastructure already, but external verification can offer key information for troubleshooting. And you won't have to bug your buddy at the company next door to do a reverse DNS lookup for you.
One of the most powerful and comprehensive tools on the site is the DNSreport. Simply enter a domain name, click the button, and you'll retrieve a wealth of information regarding your setup. Each test line item displays a color-coded status, which is great for quickly scanning through the test results to check for potential problems. The report checks the domain's parent zones, showing you details like name server (NS) records and whether or not they send out the IP address as well as the host name. The report also checks potential security holes, verifying that your DNS servers are not open servers, that they all have identical NS records, and that they don't leak any "stealth" NS records in non-NS requests.
You also get some insight into your setup's availability as DNSreport tests for multiple name servers, public IP bindings, and missing name servers while checking for single points of failure. In addition, DNSreport checks your Start Of Authority (SOA) details, returning the SOA serial number, refresh, expire, retry, and minimum time-to-live (TTL) values, as well as performing a check on your MNAME and RNAME records.
The report's Mail Exchange (MX) record-checks validate reverse DNS entries and ensures that you do not have any duplicate records and that your records have valid hostnames. Further, the tool tries to connect to your mail server and verify items such as whether your mail server's hostname is in the greeting, whether it accepts abuse@yourdomain messages (as specified in various RFCs), and whether the SMTP server is currently configured as an open relay (and thus a magnet for spammers around the globe). Finally, DNSreport returns your www A record, verifies that all the IPs are public, and determines whether your CNAME configuration will cause an extra DNS lookup.
If DNSreport isn't enough, the site also lets you use one lookup tool to check whether a mail server is listed in a set of well known spam databases and another to find the abuse contact for a domain. You can do IP Whois lookups, traceroutes, and pings, as well as general DNS lookups and cached DNS lookups at major ISPs. You can even do NETGEO IP lookups, MAC address checks, and complete zone file dumps if you subscribe. All in all, this is quite a valuable set of tools.
Price: $3 per month for a single user membership (full access and unlimited lookups).
DNSstuff.com provides a whole set of handy monitoring tools (Click the image for a larger view)