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I'm wondering about tools that are powerful and that most system administrators either don't know about or don't use (but should).

For one thing, I like the possibility of finding out about a tool that is good and that I should be using - or at least, trying out. I also find that giving these tools their time in the sun (again) can be a positive, letting others know about the wonderful tools that are out there.

Thus, things like sudo, vi, emacs, dtrace, ps, and top are out. I have some ideas but I just hate to skew the statistics...

I'll just wait and see if anyone mentions my favorites.

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There are so many 'what tools' questions, do we really need another? – Zoredache Jun 6 '09 at 9:49
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I just have to ask: if no one's heard of a tool, then how will it get upvotes? – quux Jun 7 '09 at 2:52
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+1 for camera phone. They are also incredibly useful when working with someone over the phone to troubleshoot a problem and there is a long error message on the screen. I wish all remote hands people had/made use of them. – Mark Jun 17 '09 at 18:40
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I've used it to document lights on the front panel and ports on the back panel (in this case, of a DEC Alpha system). – Mei Jun 17 '09 at 23:18
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Please mention one tool per answer. – Cristian Ciupitu Aug 4 '09 at 14:18

74 Answers 74

I already mentioned this tool in another answer on SF.
sysv-rc-conf

DESCRIPTION:
sysv-rc-conf gives an easy to use interface for manag‐ ing "/etc/rc{runlevel}.d/" symlinks.

alt text

If you have ubuntu : sudo apt-get install sysv-rc-conf

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Big fan of the camera phone over the last couple of years for documenting consoles/error lights on switches/servers. My new favorite tool to carry in my backpack is a FLIP camera. I find it very useful for documenting wire racks/trays, or remote maintenance closets that I need to have a 'view' of from my desk while on the phone with a tech. Plus, it is great to document when someone in the office goes nuts.

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A vaccum cleaner ! It's always better when you can work in clean environment or remove all the dust that jam the cooling system.

We go this one : alt text

It looks ghostbusters enough so you don't have to be ashamed while working with !

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Absolutely vital: A dentist mirror for those tight spaces!

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I had a switch go down one night after a huge surge, I used some phone cable wire to bridge the connection. Hmm I still need to get that fuse...

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Ok, I am baffled no one has mentioned Duct Tape yet. I cant be the only person that uses duct tape to hold things together.

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Over the years, I've used the tip of my favorite mechanical pencil for all manner of poking and prodding - everything from reset switches, to RS-232 connector pins, setting dip switches. I've even used it for pulling jumpers on numerous occasions.

jumper Pentel Mechanical Pencil

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Ncat (part of Nmap 5) is a great replacement for Netcat, OpenSSL's s_client and telnet. I used it recently to test and verify an HTTPS connection over IPv6.

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HTOP as yet another TOP. For Windows; PortQueryUI as a replacement for NMAP.

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vnstat comes in handy - a little traffic monitor that gives output in the same way as vmstat, e.g:

> eth1
> 
>            received:       1.40 TiB   (48.4%)
>         transmitted:       1.50 TiB   (51.6%)
>               total:       2.90 TiB   since 20.11.08
> 
>                         rx      |     tx      |   total
>         ------------------------+-------------+------------
>         yesterday      6.15 GiB |    8.50 GiB |   14.65 GiB
>             today      6.98 GiB |    4.77 GiB |   11.75 GiB
>         ------------------------+-------------+------------
>         estimated      7.82 GiB |    5.35 GiB |   13.17 GiB
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A MagnoGrip (http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/tools/917f/). It holds onto screws and other small metal items for you. I tend to leave one stuck to the first cabinet in the room.

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DBAN

Excellent bootable CD (or floppy) for completely wiping the contents of a hard drive. I use it in two ways:

  1. Zeroing out a hard drive before installing or reinstalling an OS.
  2. Securely wiping a hard drive before shelving it or destroying it.

It's great, and it's easy to use. It runs in about an hour on most of the disks I have ever tried it on, it may require more time for terabyte-class drives, I'm not sure.

This is one example of a good tool that performs one function and performs it right.

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tcping

From the author: "tcping.exe is a small (Win32) console application that operates similarly to 'ping', however it works over a tcp port."

It's one of the best (OSI Layer 3+) ways to determine whether a host is powered on and connected to the network.

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dsh

Distributed SHell. With dsh you can perform a command via ssh on multiple servers. I find it quite handy when doing a lot of the same things on a serverfarm, at least when it's not complicated. For instance, doing a reboot of the whole farm is just 'dsh --all reboot'. I wouldn't recommend it for using it interactively. With dsh you can make lists of servers, like a list of all your webservers or all servers located in .uk, and only perform the action on that list.

ClusterSSH

Sort of the same, it spawns multiple ssh sessions and you can input in multiple sessions at the same time. It's extreme usefull when you've got interactive commands, like aptitude dist-upgrade. I found this very usefull when upgrading a serverfarm from etch to lenny.

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PuTTy connection Manager! Tabbed Putty!

http://puttycm.free.fr/

alt text

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I use this almost daily a good ol' leatherman tool for 12 years. (sorry can't post images )

It can cut cables, turn screws, cut cardboard, plastic and wood... Waaaay better than a swiss army knife IMHO.

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Did anyone mention sharpies? You can write on anything with them!

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Patience.

I know it sounds corny, but it takes a lot of willpower to just sit on your hands and wait or refrain from use of excessive strength (how many connectors have you destroyed due to losing patience and pulling harder?)

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Voice coil magnets taken out of dead hard drives. In case you don't know, these are very strong rare earth magnets. I use them for multiple things:

  • Wiping hard drives that are being tossed out that I don't have time to take apart. They're strong enough to wipe the servo tracks from the drive, making it essentially unusable.
  • Holding notes or wires in strange places: most of the magnets have holes in their backing plates that you can thread a cable tie through and they stick to any small bit of steel.

I've used CDs as mirrors to see behind boxes (usually desktops crammed under someone's desk) when I didn't want to pull them out.

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ratchet and webbing (kinda like a tie-down for a truck) to 'lift' servers high enough to place on shelves or racks.

cart/wheeled chair for a 'crash-cart' console when you don't have a Cyclades port for each server.

indoor/outdoor thermometer to check for periodic hot-spots suspected in the datacenter.

garage-style retractable power-cord located semi-centrally for when you need power but dont want to hunt under the floor for a receptacle/plug.

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Pipe Cleaners -- They are better than twist ties for tying off cables. They are longer, softer on the fingers, and color coded.

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Paperclip (other use) - if a system is hung (particularly on a single processor, single core, CPU) and you don't want to reboot it, and all else fails, shove a paper clip in a USB port. I've found this to create a fault that allows the CPU to handle user input.

Rubber band - our office has dozens of printers, many of which are connected locally to their computers for security reasons. The parallel cables often pop out ... tying a rubber band around them holds them in place.

Fist - a quick slap on a rattling AC unit, or even a spotty fax, is often all that is needed to keep it going until a Service Tech can arrive.

Old analog answering machine - we have a few analog lines coming into our data center for telecom system for backup purposes ... surprising how often Verizon forgets to reroute things when the T1 is down so we just hook up the old Record-a-Call so clients don't get a dead ring.

Awl - basically an ice pick. Will punch a hole through anything. We use them to destroy old hard drives, open up a machine with stuck screws, and other uses.

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Sledgehammer... for things that aren't working by around 4:45.

(from coworker)

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12" prybar I have used it for lifting stuck tiles, grabbing cable bundles just out of reach, drifting a half loaded rack over a half inch so it was squarely on the correct tile.

Vice Grips Handy for extracting mounting screws some other monkey stripped out with a power drill.

The little slim jim A piece of bent spring steel that has one end about 3mm narrower than a square rack hole. This little guy with a hook in the end makes setting clip nuts in and getting them out a dream.

Rubber Chicken, and a Sledgehammer. I menaced a recalcitrant server with them during a reboot late one afternoon after a long and hard day of troubleshooting a problem the vendor had NO clue about. It lead to the best moment of my day when I scared the crap out of my director by walking into my managers office where they were meeting returning the sledge. Director asks "What's the sledgehammer for?" I said "I used it to fix the ServerX," The best part was, that menacing the server worked (that or the 5th reboot as recommended by support with nary a config change...did the trick)

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+1 for proper use of Rubber Voodoo Chickens. For those who do not have such devices, they are an Appropriate Rubber Chicken Device, which is held neck in left hand, feet in right hand, and upon hearing the lament of users, is waved over the machine(s) in question, chanting, "Oh mightly rubber voodoo chicken, we beseech your rubbery quivering blessings upon this machine!" (followed by a reboot). Tends to work better than 50% of the time and the users are amazed, which has lead to an increase in the number of user-owned rubber chickens in the office. – Avery Payne Jun 18 '09 at 19:21

If you want a cheaper version of hotplug you just need a server with bonding and redundant power supplies =)

get your extension lead going to your new rack location and a network cable that will fill that length, plug them in then disconnect the localised rack power and network, move the server then plug back into the racks new network/power =)

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Here's my list of things I didn't see mentioned yet:

sticky stuff (like wall tack or putty) to pick up little bits in that fall into tight spots (little screws on motherboards)

non-oily lube (like teflon bike chain lube) for tight or frozen bolts on racked gear (esp. great for tight-back-of-rack situations where there's not much room to get good leverage)

strong knife, v. stiff putty knife, or very thin-tipped prybar for popping the head off stripped bolts. Drills work OK too but there's the vibrations and the metal shavings all over.

locking vice grips including small & needle-nosed. In some cases, almost as good as an extra set of hands.

velcro strapping not just permanent cable management but hold things out of the way in packed racks w/o creating tangles or rats' nests.

slim-edge rack tool for popping the rack nuts in and out. I keep several in my bag "just in case"...they are commonly included with new rack-mount hardware but not always and they rarely are handy when you have to move something months or years later. Saves me a lot of ripped up fingers. They are also often just right for depressing the lock-clip on a tight network cable (esp. one with a boot) or a lock-clipped fibre patch for those of us with stubby or snausage fingers.

another use for a cellphone: some (easy) way to light up the screen as a quick flashflight for checking stuff out in the backs of cabinets

Back in my desktop days, I had kept a handful of CMOS batteries in my bag. This was esp. helpful when dealing with labs and offices where the PCs were 2+ years old and resolved many "head scratchers" in short order.

++ paper clip...tape monkey's best friend when a robotic library is good and jammed :D

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Here is a few tools I have come across:

SYDI

Auto network documentation tool.

Orca

Messing with .msi files.

RichCopy

An advanced alternative to Robocopy.

ImgBurn

Best free burning software hands down.

PowerGUI

A nice PowerShell editor.

Your Brain!

A lot of people seem to forget they have one.

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Another set of tools I am surprised isn't used more - or heard of more - is Performance Co-Pilot. This is an amazing performance monitoring tool, and is available on a number of UNIX platforms. It is a distributed performance monitoring tool with historical recording and history recall - and with an amazing set of rules for alarms and so forth.

The rule engine allows you to do things like: notify me if 80% of the disks in the system are busy 90% of the time over the last 5 minutes; notify me if disk space grows at a rate of more than 1Gb/min; notify me if all processors are more than 75% busy during work hours; notify me of swap space used is increasing more than 5% per second for the last minute.

The tool also allows you to run the programs not only in real-time - even against hosts across the network - but also over an archive file acting as if it was in real-time.

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Swiss Army Knife.

I have two, a big one I keep in my desk and a standard one on my keyring (just remember to take it off when you go to the airport!).

It even saved my life (or at least bad trip to the hospital) one day when I was cutting through some 240v wiring our electrician swore was disconnected (but wasn't).

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Haha, well the story itself is a bit too long to post in the answer (short and concise is usually best), but here's the abridged version: Electrician swore that he had disconnected all the wiring in the room we were demolishing. We found a mains cable inside one of the walls that hadn't been removed (electrician was supposed to do this), and after confirming multiple times that yes, it was disabled, my co-worker left to get his pair of pliers, made out of aluminium. I couldn't be bothered waiting for him, so I popped out the knife, grabbed the mains line – Mark Henderson Jun 18 '09 at 0:49
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(it was two heavy guage cables, individually insulated) and ripped through it. There was a huge BANG, sparks everywhere, and my knife has a nice hole in the middle where the contact was made. Because the knives have a plastic shroud, I had a very small contact area (not that it would have mattered), but the main reason was that if I had waited for the aluminium pliers, which were not insulated at all, I would have just snipped right through both of the live lines simultaniously and there would have been no protection between me and the two active lines. We sued the electrician after that. – Mark Henderson Jun 18 '09 at 0:52

I've once used a butane soldering iron to reseat a flapping component from a PCB whilst in the field.

It worked, I might add. But I avoid repeating if possible.

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