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There's been a lot of questions centering on Software Tools for System Administrators. But I would like to know about any odd physical tools or techniques that you've used; Something that you never expected to be useful, but ended up saving the day.

I'll go first:

A Camera Phone.

An application server had a major power issue that borked the RAID. Many of the disks were offline. Before I took the plunge and forced disks back online, I took a picture of the RAID BIOS screen with my camera phone. Having the exact layout of the RAID stored safely in my pocket, I was able to reset the RAID, and reboot the server.

What odd tools/techniques have you used?

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closed as not a real question by Chris S Feb 26 '12 at 20:06

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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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

34 Answers 34

Paperclips: I've had to use paperclips to pick the locks on the front of a sun and dell server We've all used them to open a cd rom

HotPlug This thing is awesome. Want to move a server to the next rack over without turning it off? http://www.wiebetech.com/products/HotPlug.php

Blocks of wood The idiot before you not mount the server properly? The server too old to have rack mounts? Blocks of wood are your friend. It's ghetto, but works.

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wow, blocks of wood...you're right, that's pretty ghetto. You're still getting +1 for the hotplug, though –  Matt Simmons Jun 17 '09 at 19:11
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I've used blocks of wood to keep a UPS from crushing me while I mounted it in the rack. –  steve.lippert Jun 17 '09 at 20:03

A bent paper clip to pop open a CD drive.

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I started hanging them on the doors of all of our server racks - they're also perfect for getting at reset buttons that are recessed. People started asking what on earth paperclips were doing hanging from the doors until I explained. Now they agree it's a pretty good idea. –  Mark Jun 17 '09 at 18:47
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I keep one in my wallet at all times. Something no one should ever be without! –  Matt Simmons Jun 17 '09 at 19:09
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And today I learned how much more useful they are! Time to see if it'll pick a poweredge face panel lock... –  Kara Marfia Jun 17 '09 at 19:36

A Paper Bag: To breathe into when you discover that the SQL script you wrote wasn't actually mashing up the test database after all. Oh, and your backup system crashes and now you have to wait on the phone with tech support because you don't have a support contract.

Origami Paper: To pass the time when you're on hold with tier 1 tech support at said backup software vendor.

A Stress Ball: To help when discussing the problem with Tier 1 support after they finally answer the phone.

An Ice Pack: To soothe your aching fist after pounding it into the desk when you realize it took 90 minutes just to get handed off to Tier 2 support.

A Spare Cell Phone: After you throw yours into the ground when you get disconnected just as Tier 3 support answers your call.

An Account at Monster.com and Experience in Laying Carpet: =(

--

On a slightly more serious note, having a small refridgerator can be handy especially for putting crashed hard drives in to try and recover data.

Also, it's even better if your camera phone can take video. I take video when I'm messing with BIOSs and other things that I don't have time to simultaneously document while editing.

Cough drops and nose spray for extended stays in the dry server room.

A P-Touch Labeler to label EVERYTHING even if you're certain you'll remember which patch cables connect to the security cameras.

Fingernail clippers to remove the sheath from the 4 pairs of wires in a Cat5 cable.

Silver Sharpies for when you have to mark on something that has a dark finish.

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I would say the oddest tool I've had to use was a Putty knife to open a Mac-Mini (as directed by Apple).

Think Different!

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Been there, done that ^-^ –  Berzemus Jun 17 '09 at 19:01

Earplugs for longer actions in a noisy data center.

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A magentized paperclip on a string. I dropped a screw in a full rack once. It was w-a-y down there. I had a strong magnet stuck to my desk but it didn't have any way to attach a string to it. So I found a thicker paperclip and magnetized it after tying some pull-string to it. I g-e-n-t-l-y fed it down the left side of the rack in the space between the server rails and the cabinet door. It took some poking, but it found the screw I needed. It took a few tries before I could pull it all the way back to the top without dropping it again.

Delicate work. At the time I was swearing vociferously that I clearly hadn't played enough 'Operation' as a kid.

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+1 for ingenuity! –  Kara Marfia Jun 17 '09 at 19:55

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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I second the flashlight comments, though I prefer a headlamp over the minimag or such. Leaves your hands free.

I also find a click-style ball point pen to come in handy. Useful for straightening pins on VGA cables (when the pen is retracted), pressing reset buttons, and jabbing in your own throat when you find your file server has crashed and everything is lost.

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+1 for the headlamp...Found out how useful they were camping and just transferred use over to work.. –  Cube_Zombie Jun 17 '09 at 20:46

A good Minimag flashlight with fresh batteries is good to have when you need to peek inside a cabinet/server case/under a raised floor/etc.

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Or a cheap LED one that doesn't break the bulb when you drop it and has a nice long run time. Or a $65 fancy LED one with variable brightness from dim (8 lumens, and a run time in days) to blinding (215 lumens). But that's probably overkill. –  Ronald Pottol Jun 18 '09 at 3:30

Someone bought a very expensive scissor-jack that can lift about 300Kg to a height of 3m - a waste of money I thought - until we needed to fit 5 HP C7000 blade enclosures into one rack - boy it came in useful for that top one :)

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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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I used this much more as a helpdesk support person than an SA, but I always keep a push/pull spring hook in my toolkit. It's a hook on one end, and a sort of s shape on the other. Perfect for getting bent pins on connectors straightened out.

The only link I can find to one is this: spring hook - but it should give an idea of what it looks like.

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A good knife. Not a multi-tool, a KNIFE, as in something made by SOG, Cold Steel, or Boker. You'd be astonished at how useful it is.

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I once used office chairs in place of one of the fancy scissor-jack devices Chopper3 mentioned. I needed to relocate the UPS's in a rack, I do not know why they were half way up in a wheeled rack, but they were. I'd scheduled the maintenence window on a Sunday. My helper had a family emergency, and could not make it. I had my 9 year old duaghter with me. I could not manhandle the UPS to the ground by my self, and she wasn't strong enough. So I pulled the UPS out as far as I could on the rails, but a chair under it, and had her hold the chair while I lowered the UPS on to the chair. After resting and re-gripping, I lifted the UPS, and she pulled the chair out, so I could lower it the rest of the way down onto a set of blocks I'd brought to help hold the bottom UPS at the right height for the bottom of the rack. Then the remaining UPS's when onto the stack so they where roughly at the right heights as well.

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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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Absolutely vital: A dentist mirror for those tight spaces!

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In my server closets, I always put one of those cheapie push-on battery operated lights. It's great if(when) there's a power outage.

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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

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

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

(from coworker)

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

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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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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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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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What? Nobody mentioned the dippy bird in front of the photo-cell thingy that switches off the lights when you're not moving?

But ok, one thing that has been very useful to me until only a few years ago was a small coin (pick your nomination, mine was mostly a 1NOK coin simply because that's what I would have in my pocket, living in Norway). Because our Thinkpads had this nice screw for fixing the hard drive assembly that was designed with a head for just a coin like that. Works better than the Phillips or flathead screwdriver I have to use for newer models. Dammit, it was designed that way, and it was good. Thumb screws done right!

Oh, ok, and then there was the one time I wanted to extract the innards of a USB pendrive to put into an ASUS EEE and got (unplanned) help from my tumble dryer. Works sweet on that cheap glue holding the electronics in their plastic casings, better than the knife I tried at first ...

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