15 awesome IT tools for Mac OS X

Handy troubleshooting and productivity tools for Mac-loving server and network admins

IT toolbox for Mac OS X
IT toolbox for Mac OS X

Wherever IT professionals gather, you can witness the rise of a new machine. Look through the windows of an InteropNet NOC, for instance, and it's clear that the Mac has become the darling of the networking crowd. After all, with good old Unix under the hood, Mac OS X makes an excellent network troubleshooting tool.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways an IT pro can put the Mac to good use. Allow me to share some of the networking, server administration, and other tools that I've collected over the years to help me do my job better.

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NetSpot
NetSpot

Wi-Fi is a fickle beast, changing its behavior at the drop of a hat -- or more accurately, at the drop of some plants, file cabinets, or other office furnishings. Doing a heat map (overlaying colors on a map to indicate signal strength) with a wireless survey tool is a must for predicting when and where you'll have Wi-Fi problems. Armed with that information, you can shift your Wi-Fi arrays to provide maximum coverage -- or at least be aware of when office arrangements may trigger trouble tickets.

Price: Free
Developer: NetSpot Team. Etwok, LLC
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6 or later

Chanalyzer
Chanalyzer

When I started designing mesh networks (DARPA SensIT project), I paid $5,000 for a refurbished spectrum analyzer. Today that same capability can be found in the Wi-Spy DBx USB spectrum analyzer and Chanalyzer software from MetaGeek. Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, it provides a clear, concise look at the garbage in the RF range known as the ISM band, and it's helped me track down several odd sources of radio interference living in and around the 2.4GHz range. This tool isn't free, but the MetaGeek website includes links to good free/inexpensive Wi-Fi tools as well as the commercial products paying the bills. 

Price: $599 for Chanalyzer 4 with the Wi-Spy DBx radio
Developer: MetaGeek
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6 or later

ZTerm
ZTerm

Mac OS X's Terminal app doesn't support serial ports without some serious tinkering. And while I often use USB-to-RS-232 serial cables, I reach for a Bluetooth serial dongle a lot more. (I love Roving Networks' FireFly, aka RN-240, which takes AAA batteries and pairs with my MacBook Pro.) This way I can even sit outside the cable closet for the initial configurations on switches and routers. ZTerm doesn't emulate tons of terminals (the VT100 family excepted), and it won't talk to certain devices, but it works great and Mr. Alverson asks for donations only if you like it.

Price: $20 donation or free download
Developer: David P. Alverson
Compatibility: Mac OS X (Intel or PowerPC)

Evernote
Evernote

When I add a new server to my racks, I use Evernote on my Windows Phone to snap a picture of the IPMI sticker, serial number, MAC addresses, insides, and location on the rack. I then add a short annotation to identify each shot and let it sync. Back at my Mac, I cut and paste the images into a more complete document and add PDFs of other supporting materials. I can also augment Evernote's search capabilities with specific tags. In the words of Albert Einstein when asked why he had to look up his own telephone number in the phone book, "Why should I memorize something that's so easy to look up?"

Price: Free
Developer: Evernote
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later

CoRD
CoRD

You get a fully functional copy of Remote Desktop when you install Microsoft Office for the Mac, but there's a better RDP client called CoRD. Trust me, having a side drawer to organize all your server links is a godsend, and CoRD smoothly conquers right-clicks using Shift-Ctrl-click. I only wish that CoRD could be protected with a startup password, especially since CoRD lets you save domain credentials. (Better to save your passwords into a vault program.) Note that CoRD does not support VNC or Apple Desktop protocol, only Windows RDP. And make sure to select "Allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop."

Price: Free
Developer: Dorian Johnson, et al (SourceForge)
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6

Hot-e-V
Hot-e-V

VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) is the soapbox you'll find me on most often, and key to the VDI promise is Microsoft's new and improved remote desktop control system called RemoteFX. Microsoft doesn't seem to like RemoteFX being described as the son of RDP, but it kinda is. The big difference is that RemoteFX allows for leveraging a graphics processor in the server. Unfortunately, Microsoft isn't providing a RemoteFX client for the Mac. ThinLinX's Hot-e-V, available for $14.99 in the Mac App Store, means that we Mac users aren't locked out of playing.

Price: $14.99
Developer: ThinLinX
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6 or later

TeamViewer
TeamViewer

TeamViewer is a cloud-based remote help utility that operates similarly to WebEx or Microsoft Lync, but doesn't require you to set up anything on the back end or jump through firewall modification hoops. And for personal use, it's free. Although there are lots of alternatives, TeamViewer is available for most modern platforms (iPad included) and is very easy to use. Just type in a few account numbers and a password to provide remote help to your users, your mom, or your children at college. Commercial usage is licensed by the number of simultaneous sessions and can be scaled up as need arises.

Price: Free for personal use, but scalable for enterprises
Developer: TeamViewer
Compatibility: Mac OS X, Windows, iPad, iPhone, Android

VMware Fusion
VMware Fusion

Try as I might, I still rely on some programs that run only under Windows. To handle these, I light up VMware Fusion on my Mac and run Windows XP, Windows 7, or Windows Server 2008, not to mention Linux and so on. I typically prototype my servers on my Mac first, then upload to VMware ESXi via VMware's vCenter Converter utility. A word of advice: VMware offers a free version of McAfee antivirus, and you should use it. This version is optimized for the VMware environment. Unlike the regular McAfee version, this version won't run away with all your CPU cycles.

Price: $49.99
Developer: VMware
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6.7 or later 

Chicken of the VNC
Chicken of the VNC

One doesn't live by RDP alone. Chicken of the VNC implements a remote desktop control program that comes in commercial and free versions for just about every major operating system on earth. Chicken is VNC pure and simple -- it just works. Oh yeah, and it supports SSH tunneling, which you can configure as part of server preferences for each server. My only gripe: Under most circumstances VNC wants you to be logged in to the target computer and running VNC in user space. If you log out, you've lost VNC. Follow these links to learn how to get VNC running at startup for both Windows and Linux.

Price: Free
Developer: Jason Harris (SourceForge)
Compatibility: Mac OS X

SplashID
SplashID

There are many password vaults available. I chose SplashID a long time ago to help me keep track of my 1,000-plus user accounts, the passwords for machines I maintain, and my personal Web info. The trick is I wanted something that would work on my Mac, my PC, my phone, my iPad, and a secure USB. While SplashID isn't all that yet, it's close. I can sync my desktop, phone, and an encrypted USB key, and I can email an encrypted file to myself for backups. If someone tries to break in, the system will scrub the database.

Price: $19.95 for Desktop only
Developer: SplashData
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.5 or later

Camtasia Studio
Camtasia Studio

Camtasia Studio is one app I'll never be without. I use it to capture PowerPoint presentations during symposia and lectures, and it's great for capturing online demos. The fact that it's also a darn good video editing tool cinches the deal. I use Camtasia Studio on a regular basis to create quick and dirty tutorials that teach people how to, say, make SSL-VPN connections. Because Camtasia can nicely combine other video sources and stills, it has become an indispensable part of my toolkit. The latest version even has the ability to insert a moving mosaic to blur out passwords or faces of people without model releases.

Price: $99
Developer: TechSmith
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6.3 or later

SnagIT
SnagIT

The Mac has a great set of keystrokes that will save screen captures (or portions of the screen) as fast as you can hit the keys. SnagIT can do all that, plus add graphical annotation, perform simple video capture, and automatically upload your images. An excellent use of SnagIT is to capture an entire Web page -- it scrolls the page down if necessary -- and save it for documentation. SnagIT and Camtasia Studio form a powerful combo, and if you buy them together you can save some bucks on the purchase.

Price: $49.95
Developer: TechSmith
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6.8 or later

iGlasses
iGlasses

The iSight camera is great, as is the noise reduction on the built-in microphone, but the lighting is rarely perfect. eCamm's iGlasses lets you tweak contrast, exposure, tint, and more, as well as make the effects available to programs trying to use the iSight. I've saved some presets for the places I do my videoconferencing (my desk, my easy chair, outdoors). I also use iGlasses to rotate the video on my external iSight camera (the old FireWire version) when I mount it to the underside of a shelf with the magnet. A bunch of other programs share similar features, but iGlasses has been my pick for years and it works great.

Price: $19.95
Developer: eCamm
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6 or later

VLC
VLC

Both the Mac and the PC suffer from the proliferation of new video formats. VLC is the do-all and end-all of video players -- I can't recall a single video file it wasn't able to play. Beyond handling obscure formats, I also use VLC to test multicast configurations, since it can stream not only to unicast IP addresses but also to multicast addresses. It's also a great way to set up a demo, because you can create a playlist of videos and have that list loop over and over.

Price: Free
Developer: VideoLAN
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.5 or later

Air Display
Air Display

I run Air Display on my iPad to use the tablet as a second monitor for my Mac, and it sure beats traveling with an actual monitor. If you buy Air Display for the iPad/iPhone ($9.99 at the App Store), the Mac side is free. The downside is that this second monitor must be on the same Wi-Fi network as your Mac. Although video can be jerky, ordinary application video refresh is pretty quick -- very acceptable for most applications.

Price: Free for Mac; $9.99 for iPhone and iPad
Developer: Avatron Software
Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.6 or later; iOS 4.3 or later