Microsoft's best free server tools for IT admins

10 valuable free tools for getting the most from -- or forgoing -- Microsoft's server line

"Free" is a term rarely associated with Microsoft offerings, especially at the server end of the spectrum. Exchange Server, SQL Server, SharePoint, Hyper-V -- IT admins know functionality comes at a price. More surprising, however, is the wealth of server tools Microsoft offers for free, some of which can, in the right contexts, provide an adequate substitute for the paid versions of Microsoft's more intriguing server products.

Of course, by and large, Microsoft's free server tools are aimed at offering value to paying customers. Keeping customers from straying has provided Microsoft great incentive to deliver some very powerful tools for free. Many are invaluable assets for administering Microsoft's paid products. Others provide a free entry-level solution for large IT organizations to begin experimenting and small IT organizations to implement. All are well worth checking out. To help you get started, we have compiled an overview of the 10 best free server tools Microsoft has to offer.

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Top free Microsoft server tools: Hyper-V Server 2008 R2

We all know the value of virtualization, and Hyper-V as an add-in server role for Windows Server 2008 is becoming a well-established method for providing server virtualization within your Windows environments. But did you know Microsoft offers a free version of Hyper-V called, simply, Hyper-V Server 2008 R2? This is a stand-alone product that contains only the hypervisor, the Windows Server driver model, and virtualization components, resulting in a small overall footprint. Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 offers all the key features, including host clustering, live migration, large memory support, support for up to eight processors, and more. Some features are missing, of course. Application failover and guest virtualization rights are two notable features that will require moving to the Standard, Enterprise, or Datacenter versions of Windows Server. That said, there is ample room for this free version of Hyper-V to become a significant contributor to your IT environment. Testing and development, branch office consolidation, and hosted VDI (virtualized desktop infrastructure) are just a few of the ways you can leverage Hyper-V Server in lieu of Windows Server.

Download: Hyper-V Server 2008 R2

Top free Microsoft server tools: Remote Server Administration Tools

Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) are an excellent choice for IT pros who wish to manage servers environments from their desktops. The toolset comprises two categories of tools, Role Administration Tools and Feature Administration Tools. Role Administration includes tools such as the Hyper-V Manager snap-in for managing Hyper-V on the server or a remote system.

Feature Administration gives you access to tools like the Failover Cluster Manager snap-in and the cluster.exe command-line tool for administering failover management. If you've installed Support Tools for Server 2000/2003 as ADMINPAK.MSI, you will find the tools included within Server Manager on Windows Server 2008 systems. You can add these tools to Vista or Windows 7 by searching for RSAT downloads from Microsoft and then installing them on your systems. After installing the tools, you will need to enable them through the Programs and Features | Turn Windows features on or off.

Note: The tools do not install on all editions of Windows Vista or Windows 7. For example, with Windows 7 you need to run Enterprise, Professional, or Ultimate edition.

Download: Remote Sever Administration Tools for Windows Vista

Download: Remote Server Administration Tools for Windows 7

Top free Microsoft server tools: SQL Server 2008 R2 Best Practices Analyzer

Microsoft's Best Practices Analyzer (BPA) for SQL is a real time-saver for IT admins and even DBAs. The tool scans your system, reporting back all configuration settings, complete with very clear markers as to which settings should be adjusted to align with SQL best practices as outlined by Microsoft. Prior to BPA, tuning SQL settings to achieve the ideal configuration was strictly a manual affair. But with BPA, admins receive automated feedback on their configurations, including annotations of critical configuration errors. But SQL Server 2008 R2 BPA doesn't just tell you that something is wrong -- it gives you the needed information and links to help you fix the problem.

Download: SQL Server 2008 R2 Best Practices Analyzer

Top free Microsoft server tools: SQL Server Migration Assistant

Microsoft offers two Migration Assistants helpful for bringing an existing database into SQL: one for MySQL, and one for Access. The SQL Server Migration Assistant (SSMA) for MySQL will help you migrate any MySQL 4.1 and higher database to SQL 2005/2008/2008 R2 and SQL Azure, enabling you to convert your MySQL schemas to SQL Server schemas, upload the schemas to SQL, and migrate your data to the new SQL database. The Access version does pretty much the same thing, converting Access database objects to SQL database objects, loading them into SQL, and then migrating the data. One nice feature to the Access SSMA is that you can continue to use Access as your front-end application through links from Access tables to SQL Server tables.

Download: SQL Server Migration Assistant for MySQL

Download: SQL Server Migration Assistant for Access

Top free Microsoft server tools: Active Directory Migration Tool 3.2

With Microsoft recently dropping support for Windows 2000 systems, the need to migrate existing Active Directory forests has become paramount for most organizations. Active Directory Migration Tool (ADMT) 3.2 provides an easy-to-use inter/intra-organizational migration toolset to help you migrate or restructure existing AD forests. This free, fully functional tool enables you to migrate users, groups, service accounts, workstations, and servers between domains in the same forest (intra-forest) or in different forests (inter-forest). ADMT 3.2 also performs security translations and can move SIDs, passwords, local profiles, and more. The most recent 3.2 version also supports Windows Server 2008 R2.

Download: Active Directory Migration Tool 3.2

Top free Microsoft server tools: Exchange 2010 Deployment Assistant

Whether you're deploying a brand-new Exchange 2010 installation or upgrading from Exchange 2003/2007, Exchange 2010 Deployment Assistant will be a lifesaver. This free Web-based tool simply asks you a few questions about your current environment, then offers a list of deployment steps. It sounds simple enough, but the steps include full explanations, clear instructions, and links to overviews on what you are doing and why. The deployment assistant is so good that admins have recommended Microsoft make more of these types of tools available for every product it creates.

Download: Exchange 2010 Deployment Assistant

Top free Microsoft server tools: Exchange Remote Connectivity Analyzer

If you've ever deployed an Exchange server and needed a way to test your remote connectivity without jumping through hoops, this is the tool for you. Whether you want to test mobile connectivity, Outlook Anywhere connectivity (aka RPC over HTTP), auto-discovery, or simply your server's ability to send and receive email, the Remote Connectivity Analyzer will assist. Choose the test you want to run, supply some necessary information, and off this Web-based tool goes. If your system fails the test, Exchange Remote Connectivity Analyzer (ExRCA) will report back what failed and why. What is amazing about ExRCA is that you can drill through the layers to see exactly what failed, as well as resolutions for your particular problem within Exchange.

Access: Exchange Remote Connectivity Analyzer

Top free Microsoft server tools: SharePoint Foundation 2010

SharePoint Foundation is the latest version of SharePoint Services, a free subset of features for SharePoint Server. Don't be fooled into thinking "free" here means severely lacking in features. Yes, the Standard and Enterprise versions of SharePoint Server offer more, but if you look at what SharePoint Foundation includes you'll be impressed. All the key features, including team workspaces, wikis, blogs, document libraries, and more, are free with Foundation. Those new to SharePoint will find SharePoint Foundation a great way to get familiar with Site features, which are essentially equivalent to those offered by the SharePoint Server paid version. Where SharePoint Foundation comes up short is on heavy enterprise search features, as well as the ability to reach into external data services such as Excel, Access, and Visio. Companies interested in the social networking and media side to SharePoint will also want to look beyond Foundation. Still, SharePoint Foundation eclipses its predecessor WSS v3 in functionality and is a solid choice for those looking to collaborate for free.

Download: SharePoint Foundation 2010

Top free Microsoft server tools: Lync Server 2010 Planning Tool RC

If you've ever attempted to deploy Office Communications Server or any of the communications server Microsoft has introduced over the years, you know how easy it is to get in over your head, thanks to a tremendous amount of new verbiage, an overwhelming list of new server types to learn, and no short list of new telephony features to master at each turn. Microsoft's Lync Server 2010 may reduce some of the stress, providing an easier deployment, but what will really relieve the stress is Lync Server's new Planning Tool. This free tool asks you a series of questions about your organization, as well as the Lync Server features you wish to deploy, and then provides you with a set of topology plans to make the deployment happen. You can even export your topology to a file that you can use to import into your Lync setup for an even easier deployment.

Download: Lync Server 2010 Planning Tool RC

Top free Microsoft server tools: Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit

This agentless tool reaches out into your environment to inventory all your systems via networkwide automated discovery. It can also perform a variety of worthwhile tests, to yield SQL usage information, for example, or to assess a Windows 2000 Server migration. But where Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit (MAP) proves most helpful is in its ability to inventory systems and assess Windows 7 and Office 2010 deployment options in your environment. MAP can also provide server virtualization scenarios to assist you in determining ways you can consolidate your servers with Hyper-V.

Download: Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit

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