All prices were confirmed August 19, 2008, and are subject to change. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions at Microsoft.
Take Your Apps with You
As an IT professional, you probably find yourself moving from machine to machine a lot. And when you do, you also probably find yourself wishing you had your standard set of apps, tools, and documents at your fingertips. One cool way to meet those needs is to start with a launcher platform like the one provided by PortableApps.com. On its site, you will find the free and open-source PortableApps.com Platform as well as a number of portable apps that can run solely off of a USB flash drive, memory card, portable hard drive, or digital music player.
There is also a PortableApps.com Suite. This handy download includes a bundle of the available portable applications along with the base platform, all in one installer. There are two versions of the suite. Suite Light includes Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird along with ClamWin antivirus, Pidgin for instant messaging, the Sumatra PDF reader, the KeePass password manager, the AbiWord word processor, an audio player, and some simple games. Suite Standard includes all those applications, as well as the OpenOffice.org office suite, which contains Writer, Calc, Impress, Base, and Draw.
In addition, there are a number of other open-source applications that have been made "portable" on the site, including FileZilla for FTP, PuTTY for telnet and SSH, WinSCP for SFTP and SCP, PNotes and Task Coach for quick lists, 7-Zip for archiving, a command prompt, Eraser for wiping files, InfraRecorder for CD/DVD burning, WinDirStat for visualizing a disk's content, winMd5Sum for verifying files, and WinMerge for file and directory diffs. (Frequent readers of my Toolbox column might notice that I have covered a number of these apps in previous installments.)
There is also a very active user community, which is working on portable versions of such network utilities as WinPCap and Wireshark. (These two tools can really help with your administrative and troubleshooting tasks.) The forums even provide a place specifically for suggesting applications to make portable.
These applications are self-contained on the storage device you use. If they write to the registry or require any "off-disk" access, they should return everything to its pre-run state on exit. And you can run the apps without the PortableApps.com Platform—they are available wrapped in their own installers for doing just that. But, that aside, you will most likely want the features of the Platform anyway, and the Suite is a great place to start a customized environment that you can carry with you.
The PortableApps.com Platform is set up for autorun. Thus, when you insert your USB flash or portable drive into the Windows host machine, you will get the option to run the platform application. Once you launch the platform, a system tray icon appears. Clicking this icon pops up a menu that resembles the Windows Start menu. This application launcher provides quick links to all your portable applications along with links to document folders on your portable drive, an indicator of how much space is left on your drive, a backup utility for the documents on the drive, a search tool, and a link for installing new portable applications. You can customize this interface and choose one of more than 30 interface languages.
After playing with the platform for a while, you might become interested in how you can modify an application to make it portable. The Web site also has an active Portable App Development forum to get you on your way. All things considered, this is a very cool set of tools in a portable package.
PortableApps lets you take your tools with you
Troubleshoot Remote Systems
When you are troubleshooting application issues, giving product demos and tutorials, or just trying to understand a user's question, nothing beats sitting right down at the machine in question. But often that is just not possible. The next best thing is to use a tool to help you "be there" without really being there. TeamViewer, from TeamViewer GmbH, does just that.
This utility has a simple installation process, allowing you to connect to a remote machine quickly. There are four basic modes of operation supported by TeamViewer. There is Remote Support, which allows you to control the remote machine so you can troubleshoot, assist with operations and maintenance, and guide the user through an activity. Then there is Presentation, which lets you display your desktop on the remote user's system so you can demonstrate an activity or give a presentation. Another mode is File Transfer, which allows you to transfer files between the two machines without actually sharing desktops. And lastly, VPN, which lets you create an instant virtual private network between you and the host machine (this mode uses the TeamViewer VPN adapter installation option).
In terms of security, the application uses an RSA key exchange and 256-bit AES session encoding. The key exchange assures you that no "man in the middle" (including the TeamView routing servers) will be sniffing the data stream. In addition, when you connect to a Supporter session (the Supporter is the term used for the one hosting the session), a session ID and password is generated and the remote user must enter them to connect. In case you want to connect to a machine without a human at the other end (to manage your servers, for example), TeamViewer offers the option to be installed as a system service so you can still easily transfer files, use remote control capabilities, create a VPN, or even reboot your remote machine.
Another cool feature, especially if you plan to use the application for support or presentations, is the TeamViewer QuickSupport module (or Customer module). This is a relatively small executable that requires no software installation or installation rights on the remote machine to execute. The end user just has to double-click the exe file and enter the session ID and password, and then you can readily connect your session to the machine.
TeamViewer has some very useful configuration options. You can optimize the number of colors shared on the display, remove the remote wallpaper from the display, or choose to keep the Windows Vista Aero Glass enabled. And you can adjust the general quality/speed setting for your sessions. In addition, you can control whether to allow various features, including remote control, file transfer, VPN connections, remote keyboard and mouse input, switching control between the local and remote hosts, and viewing of the remote screen.
You can record sessions for later replay or auditing purposes. And if you don't want to route through TeamViewer's servers, perhaps due to your security configuration, you can choose to have TeamViewer only use LAN connections to route itself.
The Premium edition, which supports unlimited Supporter installations, also includes a Portable edition that you can put on a CD or USB flash drive in order to take the tool with you. The Premium edition also includes the TeamViewer Manager, which logs session details and allows you to store partner details, both of which are handy features for tracking, reporting to, and invoicing your clients. TeamViewer is also available for Mac OS X, and it supports cross-platform access so you can stay on your Windows machine while connecting to a Mac.
Price: Free for non-commercial use. Business edition starts at $699 for one Supporter installation. Premium edition is $1,399 and allows for unlimited Supporter installations.
Connect to a remote system with TeamViewer
End-to-End Network Security: Defense-in-Depth
Network security today incorporates multiple layers of proactive technologies to reduce exposure to incidents and limit the potential for breaches from inside and outside the network infrastructure. End-to-End Network Security: Defense-in-Depth (Cisco Press, 2007) by Omar Santos can help you navigate the ever-increasing complexities of defending your network.
Although this book is, for obvious reasons, partial to Cisco gear, it still provides a good deal of generalized security information, making it a good reference for any network professional or systems administrator interested in infrastructure security.
The book begins with an overview of network security technologies, from firewalls and VPNs to Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems and identity management. Then it details a six-step methodology for handling security incidents: Preparation, Identification (of security threats), Classification (of security threats), Traceback, Reaction, and Postmortem.
The book goes on to discuss a proactive security framework that uses a variety of devices and tools including IDS/IPS, NAC, AAA, SNMP, Syslog, and VLANs. Then it moves onto the Cisco defense-in-depth approach, covering wireless networks, IP telephony, data center security, and IPv6 security primarily as it pertains to Cisco's solutions for those areas of network security. The book ends with three case studies that discuss real-world small, medium, and large enterprise security solutions.
Price: $49.50 (direct).
Investigate Device IDs
Ever try to upgrade a system and end up with an unknown device or two whose descriptions tell you nothing other than "PCI Device" and you have no idea how to get a driver or figure out what the device is without ripping off the cover of your machine and digging around with a flashlight? Or perhaps you've tried to find out what the underlying chipset is on a known device. Well, one free service that can help is PCIDatabase.com.
This user-supported database lets you search by vendors and device names and IDs to find more information. Simply open up the Device Manager, right-click on the device in question and select Properties, pick the Details tab, and then select the Hardware IDs property. Here you will see a set of strings that contain a few hex values that are pre-pended by "VEN_" (for vendor) and "DEV_" (for device).
The site provides links to a number of useful resources to help you find out if there are any drivers available for the device you looked up (and, of course, don't forget to check the manufacturer's Web site as well).
Another cool feature you can find at PCIDatabase.com: if you look up a particular vendor, you will get a page that lists the headquarters address, phone numbers, applicable Web sites, contacts, the vendor's hex ID for PCI devices, and a listing of all the vendor's devices that the site knows about. And since the site is user supported, it also encourages you to add your knowledge to the mix.
Get vendor and device information on PCIDatabase.com (Click the image for a larger view)
Audit and Inventory Assets
CCS Network Inventory
Being able to find out what one of your client machines has installed in it or on it without leaving your desk can be quite a time-saver. And let's face it—tracking those assets over time is part of your job. Crow Canyon Systems can help you do those things with its CCS Network Inventory solution.
The application is an agentless inventory and auditing tool that scans your LAN for workstations—gathering hardware, software, service, and user information. Since CCS Network Inventory doesn't use a remote agent, your execution context needs RPC, Computer Browser service, Remote Registry service, file and printer sharing, and ADMIN$ share access to the machines you wish to inventory (just like most other agentless inventory products).
The application does let you use alternative credentials for its queries, which is useful when your scan spans multiple domains. After installing the application, you can scan an IP address range, use Windows Network discovery, import a list of machines, or manually specify a list of Windows workstations to inventory.
In terms of what CCS Network Inventory audits, it collects software details: what applications are installed, which hotfixes have been applied, what OS and service pack the machine has installed, and even what fonts are installed. In terms of the machine configuration, you can see what services and other processes are running, what folders are shared, drive mappings, environment variables, user accounts, scheduled tasks, startup commands, and what network protocols are running. And for hardware, you can see the details of attached monitors, printers, hard disks (and their sizes and partitions), CD and DVD drive information, processors, memory, and so on. In addition, you can set up custom scans for registry values, file counts (for example, who has the most mp3s), and free space on drives.
All this information is stored in the application's custom database and can then be used the data to create reports. CCS Network Inventory provides a number of built-in reports to visualize and transport the data for auditing and reporting purposes. If the built-in reports and query information don't include exactly what you need, you can use the built-in SQL Query Builder tool, which allows you to write and run a more detailed or specific query against the data.
Over time it is usually a good idea to take environment snapshots so you can see changes. CCS Network Inventory lets you see these changes by comparing two instances of the information databases. For example, you can compare the current scan to a scan taken a year ago to see how many workstations have switched to Windows Vista, how many have had their hardware components updated in the past year, or which users have continued to run unsupported software after you already warned them.
At the time of this writing, CCS Network Inventory doesn't fully support Windows 2008 Server, but it does support the other flavors of Windows up through Windows Vista.
Price: Starts at $235 for up to 25 nodes.
Manage remote assets with CCS Network Inventory
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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.