Stock your Windows administration toolkit for free

Effective and useful tools don't have to put a dent, or even a scratch, in your budget

I'm test-driving the freeware version of AVG's Anti-Virus 7.0, and so far my hat's off. Not only does it seem as up-to-date as Symantec, it's definitely got less of a dragging impact on system resources. Before you get your hopes up, however, the free version of AVG's tool is slated solely for single-PC home-oriented use. Business accounts still must pay.

That brings us to the latest whine heard 'round the datacenter: “Why does populating my IT toolkit have to cost so much? My boss just slashed my tires.” Well, actually, it doesn't cost that much. There are loads of free and highly useful IT tools running around wild on the Web. You just need to know where to look.

One fantastic place to start is with is JFFNS, an open source network-monitoring solution. The name stands for Just for Fun Network Management System. OK, the name doesn't inspire confidence, but we're testing it in the lab, and the software sure rocks. Not only does it do most of the core monitoring functions that something pricey such as HP OpenView  might handle, it does them without installing software agents at all monitored end points. It doesn't even require you to log in to the monitored device to run its scans, which may or may not bother some of the more security-conscious. I'd like to do a full review of this tool, which is the only way to get enough space to adequately describe its capabilities. For now, just know it runs on a Windows network, monitors most anything you throw in its path, and it's completely free.

If you're hungry for more free tools, head over to Sysinternals. Mark Russinovich  and Bryce Cogswell  don't seem to sleep much, but the bags under their eyes have been our gain for some time now, in the form of absolutely wonderful tools available from this site for no money down whatever. PSTools 2.12, for example, contains a series of useful command-line utilities that performs tasks such as listing processes on local or remote computers, executing processes on both local and remote nodes, and even doing things such as remote boot or shutdown.

FileMon 6.12 monitors all file system activity on a system in real time, and also has a time-stamping feature that records every read, write, open, and close event in real time -- handy both for audits and troubleshooting. RegMon 6.12 is another venerable freebie from Sysinternals that no IT administrator's toolkit should lack. RegMon shows users not only which applications are accessing the registry, but also the specific keys they're accessing, as well as all registry data being accessed. And all that in real time. For free.

Quest Software is yet another company with a beefy free tools library. Here you can find things such as Spotlight on Exchange (freeware version), which contains a patent-pending interface showing all real-time processes associated with Exchange Server health. Unfortunately, this tool is only free for six months, after which you'll be prompted to upgrade to the full commercial version. Quest's Object Restore for Active Directory, however, never times out and does a great job recovering deleted objects from the Windows Server 2003 Tombstone Reanimation process.

Finally, there's old Redmond itself. I've detailed several free tools available from Microsoft (Scriptomatic or SUS [Software Update Services] for instance), but here are several more. First, if you're running Windows Server 2003, you've got absolutely no excuse for not downloading the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit Tools. This is about 35MB of useful graphical and command line tools all designed specifically to make a Windows administrator's life easier. Other Windows server platforms have free Resource Kit Tools downloads, including IIS 6.0, which is an especially good one. These downloads don't include all the documentation you'll find by purchasing the Resource Kit package, but for the whiz kids in the bunch, the apps are often enough. Plus Microsoft has so many descriptions and mentions of these tools in its TechNet libraries that you often don't need the documentation in order to run them.

Microsoft also has other free tool downloads. One we're trying out now is Server Performance Advisor 1.0 . This is a diagnostic tool designed to do root-cause analysis on Server 2003 performance problems, especially for IIS and AD. So far it's proved useful, although not earth-shatteringly so in field testing. Sonar, on the other hand, has been a bit more useful, although that's undoubtedly because we're involved in a file replication project at the moment. Sonar.exe is a command line utility that monitors key statistics of the Server 2003's FRS (File Replication Service), including traffic levels, free space available, and file transfer backlogs. Anyone configuring FRS should have Sonar downloaded and ready, although it also needs the a few support files, including the .Net Framework and ntfrsapi.dll.

I've only scratched the surface of freebie tools that really work for Windows administrators. If you've got a few of your own, let me know, and I'll tell the world. In the meantime, don't immediately open your wallet when a new tool is required. There's often a free tool available that's just as good as anything that takes a bite out of the budget.