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On the road, under duress, or out in the boonies -- save the day with these essential IT troubleshooting and repair tools
MacGyver IT: 21 tools for IT heroes
When sensitive data and critical systems are on the line, the right set of tools is essential -- that was the motivation behind my original “MacGyver IT” tool recs two years ago.
That collection represented nearly three decades in the IT trenches. But like all battle-tested works-in-progress, my essential toolkit for supporting corporate, government, and academic IT has evolved. I still favor the free or inexpensive, spending a bit more on higher-quality tools in some cases to save frustration. But the past two years have found me slimming down my kit with lighter versions of the original tools and a few new items to whittle my backpack down to a less backbreaking weight.
After all, we IT MacGyvers are always on the go!
Roving Networks RN-240 Bluetooth Serial adapter
You just can't buy a laptop today with a serial port, but most enterprise network devices need you to perform the initial IP address setup via a serial console. While there are a slew of Bluetooth serial devices out there, the RN-240 Firefly from Roving Networks has been the only one in my kit for nearly a decade and appears here again for 2014. I can literally plug this into a switch, router, etc., and work outside the telco closet or across the room. Since it even works with my Nexus 7, I have lots of choices for hacking that initial config. Kudos to the others of this ilk, but having a serial dongle that uses regular old AAA batteries is super-handy.
Gefen HDMI Detective Plus
Not everyone needs the Gefen HDMI Detective Plus, but when you do, you really need it. This tool caches EDID screen resolution information between video source and display for HDMI video, thereby preventing the constant resolution-search dance of HDMI monitors when switching devices. It’s also invaluable when long DVI or HDMI cables cause you to lose resolution from your computers. You can set the resolution range through DIP switches on this device (download the full manual for DIP switch documentation) and your Blue-ray device or computer will be less prone to forgetting what the correct EDID resolution information should be. An updated version, not yet shipping, offers a software tool to set EDID information that should make life even easier.
Gefen 4x1 HDMI Switcher
This wonderful workgroup tool has become a favorite of my students. Because most modern platforms (including smartphones) support HDMI or DVI, the Gefen 4x1 HDMI Switcher allows my students to sit around a small conference table and rapidly swap between each other’s laptops and put them up on the shared screen. We’ve gone a bit further and grabbed a bunch of ultra-thin HDMI cables from the folks at Monoprice to keep the cable clutter down. We also have a bag of HDMI adapters for smartphones and tablets, along with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter plug for older Macs.
OpenGear ACM5004-E-i industrial console server
With RS-242/422/485 environmental/intrusion/smoke/vibration sensors all wrapped up in a superb and super-flexible system, the OpenGear ACM5004-G-I serial server gives me a chance to work on my gear remotely and is small enough that I can pack it in my kit. It can be a router, firewall, VPN, virtual serial port server, and a 3G router with fail-over from Ethernet, and most importantly, it’s Linux with all the flexibility Linux brings. Last year I had the RS-232-only version, but this year, because I’m doing a bunch of RS-485 (aka my solar system), I wanted the new version with serial bus capability for SCADA-type applications.
AOC E1649FWU or HP U160 USB-powered monitor
I’ve been using the AOC E1649FWU USB-powered monitor instead of my original AIR Display connection to my iPad. More and more enterprises won’t let me onto their WiFi, so I need a secondary display that doesn’t require WiFi. Based on Display Link video-over-USB technology, these USB-powered monitors provide that essential screen real estate I need to keep the manual open while working on a system. Despite being satisfied with the AOC, the HP U160 (pictured), with its folding cover and stand, is making me think about a change. Especially since I’ve retired my iPad in favor of a more pocket- and pocketbook-friendly Nexus 7 LTE.
Paragon Software Partition Manager
Paragon Software Partition Manager is one bootable CD tool I use all the time. Just being able to clone a drive in a laptop before it goes to repair has saved me all kinds of grief over the decades I’ve used this. Much easier to use that a Linux DD (drive duplicate), this software is also great for resizing and combining partitions onto larger drives.
Tableau T35u Forensic Bridge
I originally purchased these for computer forensics work, but write blockers are a great for working with irreplaceable data. It’s all too easy to get blurry-eyed late at night and mix up the model number of the drives you’re formatting, cloning, etc. To prevent goofs, I’ve spent the bucks on a Tableau T35u SATA write blocker. This can double as a writable USB 3.0-to-SATA/IDE interface if you’re willing to snap off a plastic access port and flip a switch. Run the Tableau query software when you need to make a forensic copy to verify and prove to the courts that you haven’t modified the original drive. The world has changed, and forensic disk copies have become an all-too-common task.
iFixIT ProTech Toolkit
Spudgers, spades, teeny-tiny torx bits, anti-stat straps are just a few of the insane collection of IT-oriented tools in the iFixIT ProTech Toolkit, all wrapped up in a great roll that slips into a backpack or computer bag. One of the most comprehensive kits I’ve ever seen, this even has those hard-to-find flat metal tools needed to slip under the case of your iPhone. The only thing missing is that stupid Apple Pentalobe screwdriver required for iPhones.
Antec Digital Power Supply Tester
I can’t tell you how many PCs I’ve worked on that displayed all the symptoms of a bad power supply, only to find out it had bad RAM or a bad motherboard. The Antec Digital Power Supply Tester has been updated to accommodate all the changes for gaming GPUs. Save yourself some serious grief (especially for family support issues) and spend the $39.95; your time is quite a bit more valuable.
Microsemi POE Tester
Power over Ethernet isn’t rocket science, but testing to see whether the source is an upstream switch or midspan power injector is still a hassle. You can carry around a VoIP phone or just slip a tiny Microsemi POE Tester into your kit. Plug it into the line and watch the lights.
Retractable cable collection
That rat’s nest of cables in my backback keeps hanging me up in TSA security lines, and collectively it’s quite heavy. This year, I’ve started swapping out cable coils for a smaller collection of retractables. Tera Grand offers a nice collection, and I’ve started with the 3-conductor power and the network (pictured) retractables. And the network retractable isn’t a flat cable that’s going to create crosstalk problems like flat cheap-os do. They claim CAT7, but I’m leaning toward CAT5e at best. I bought mine from Amazon, but I’m sure you can find them at any gear shop. (Note: TSA has said laying out these cables in a grid pack to keep them separate would mean way less hassles in...
There are screwdrivers, and then there are screwdrivers; I got my first real version from a friend at Servertech, who was giving away 9-in-1 Pocket Micro Precision Screwdrivers as tchotchkes. It has since become one of my constant traveling companions. What makes this a bit different is that all the bits can be stored inside the handle, and nothing about this has raised even an eyebrow with the TSA folks due to length or composition.
Megapro 15-in-1 screwdriver
The amazing Megapro 15-in-1 screwdriver was originally a gift to the Interop Team, and I’ve since bought dozens for my students, and every toolkit I own has one in it. Just having a big variety of heavy-duty bits in the handle has been a lifesaver. For tiny screws, I use the iFixIT, but for rack screws and bigger, I use the Megapro.
Fluke VoltAlert Voltage Detector
“Did you turn on the power switch?” has been a tech support joke for years, but knowing if the power outlet is even on requires the Fluke VoltAlert Voltage Detector. It uses inductance, so you can run it along a power cord and it will light up if power is flowing through it. It only works for AC power, but 120V or 220V both work fine. It really saved the day when I used it only to find a missing phase during data center installation.
MetaGeek Wi-Spy DBX Spectrum Analyzer
You would not believe how much RF there is in the air, especially at the 2.4GHz band that 802.11b/g/n uses. The MetaGeek Wi-Spy DBX Spectrum Analyzer has been a constant companion that has explained a huge variety of WiFi-related problems, and it is a tiny fraction of the cost of what I used to pay for luggable spectrum analyzers. I carry the DBX version around for 2.4GHz and 5.8gGHz vision, and with MetaGeek’s Chanalyzer app available for Windows and Mac, I swap it back and forth between my machines. Combine it with MetaGeek’s newest offering, Eye P.A., and you get superb wireless packet analysis.
Asus/Google Nexus 7 Android tablet
The utility of the Nexus 7 goes sky high with the OTG (On The Go = micro USB to female USB A) connector so that I can use a Linksys/Cisco USB Ethernet dongle to directly open a Web page to the network device and perform the initial device configurations. And it’s always nice to have a second trusted wired Ethernet device for troubleshooting. Note: To get to the cool Linux-like Android commands (ifconfig, ping, nmap, etc.) you'll want to root your tablet. You don’t have to make your own OTG cable; they’re cheap on Amazon or Monoprice.
JDSU SmartClass Fiber
Clean your fiber! I can’t stress this enough. As optical speeds skyrocket, so does the sensitivity to contamination on the fiber faces. Getting a traditional fiber microscope into a floorpit or patch panel is next to impossible, but the JDSU SmartClass Fiber tool combines fiber inspection with a pass/fail fiber-optic quality check system. This handheld tool will optically inspect your fiber faces and give you a pass/fail, reducing the cost of field-fiber inspection. Just being able to inspect the fiber without disassembling the patch panel is a huge time savings. See it in action at Interop.
US Conec OPTIPOP R refillable cassette cleaning tool
I’ve been using the US Conec OPTIPOP R refillable cassette cleaning tool for decades and I go through perhaps a six pack of refills every year. Every time you pull the trigger, it slides in fresh cleaning material. I use the MPO version since it doesn’t have slots; this way I can clean just about any fiber connector on the market today.
US Conec IBC ‘Click Stick’ in-place fiber cleaning tools
The JDSU guys introduced me to the US Conec IBC “Click Stick”, and I love them for it. Just being able to stick the tip into the patch panel and push the stick until it clicks is an amazing time-saver. Each time it clicks (like a ball-point pen), it drags a lint free thread across the fiber tip. They aren’t cheap ($65 to $85 each), and you need to buy different ones for each ferrule size (LC is 1.25mm and SC/ST is 2.5mm). See it in action at Interop.
Ultimate Boot CD Toolkit
Ultimate Boot CD Toolkit is the live CD/USB that I’ve been using up to now. This massive collection of utilities is way too long to mention here, but they range from partition managers to password crackers with network tools thrown in for good measure. The Ultimatebootcd.com site is exactly that, but if you’d like a USB version, check out the multiboot USB creator.
AirTame Wireless HDMI (not yet available)
OK, I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for helping out developing tech, and I spend way too much money on Indiegogo and Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns. So while this device isn’t in my kit yet, it will be once AirTame ships me my unit. This is a wireless HDMI adapter, and while the Chromecast and Apple TV are great for sharing my tablet/PC video; they’re both flawed devices. Only a small number of apps support Chromecasting, and the AppleTV is a bit big and expensive considering I use it only for sending video. AirTame promises something different: It’s a Chromecast-size unit that handles desktop extend, mirror, or duplicate to multiple screens, all with native OS software