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We mined Microsoft’s open source hosting repository to unearth 12 invaluable Windows admin tools -- and they're all free
Microsoft CodePlex gems: 12 open source tools every Windows admin will love
While it may seem antithetical to Microsoft’s image, free open source tools abound for Microsoft admins, many of which are hosted by Microsoft itself on CodePlex, the company’s free open source project hosting site.
The tools offered at CodePlex are diverse and often downright awesome. Whether you’re working with Windows, Windows Server, SharePoint, Exchange, you name it, CodePlex is a rich resource for filling out your Microsoft-based toolset -- and at the right price: free.
The following 12 CodePlex projects are some of the best, but the site offers thousands of others that can benefit IT and developer pros alike. Happy hunting.
Windows 7/8 USB/DVD Download Tool
With XP support ending April 2014, the time to migrate to Windows 7/8 is now. The Windows 7/8 USB/DVD Download Tool helps you create a copy of your Windows 7/8 ISO file and install it onto a bootable DVD or USB drive. Granted, network deployments typically offer faster means for image installs, but smaller shops may still go with a manual one-by-one deployment. Installing Windows from an ISO typically means booting up your existing OS and downloading an ISO-mounting solution (like Magic Disk) before mounting and installing your new OS. This tool makes that process much faster, so long as the system BIOS supports a USB boot and you change the BIOS boot order of drives.
Many IT admins work with multiple RDP connections every day. We may stick with what we have through the built-in Remote Desktop Connections tool or we can up our game through Terminals -- a secure, multi-tab terminal service/RDC that is much more robust and easy to use for multiple system management. Supported server protocols include Windows RDP, VNC, VMRC, SSH, Telnet, RAS, ICA Citrix, HTTP, and HTTPS. What I really like about the install is that Terminals finds my current RDP connections and automatically imports those into the tool, making it a snap to get started. The rest is fairly intuitive. Be sure to peruse the documentation to get familiar with Terminal’s more advanced features.
Performance Analysis of Logs (PAL)
Remember the days of yore when you had to memorize the top 10 performance counters to pass a Microsoft certification exam for your MCSE? Then the real world hit and you didn’t know how to really use performance monitoring to track down an issue because you weren’t sure which objects/counters to collect and how to analyze them. Well, the Performance Analysis of Logs tool, aka PAL, helps quickly analyze performance data using a PowerShell script. One of the cool features is that it has built-in threshold files for most known Microsoft products, such as IIS, SQL, SharePoint, Exchange, BizTalk, and Active Directory.
SharePoint Manager 2013
SharePoint Manager 2013 allows you to browse every site on the local farm and drill down to view every property. This SharePoint “object model explorer” also offers versions aimed at SharePoint 2007, SharePoint 2010, and Office 365’s SharePoint 2013 Online (which is not free). At first I thought this tool was more for the development side, and in most cases, I can see that being true. However, SharePoint blurs that line in that a SharePoint admin may wear many hats, rather than just pass off the server after install and configuration. The only caution: You’re working directly with your SQL database info (with no “undo” button), so be careful.
Squiggle is a fun tool for smaller businesses that may not have Office 365 with Lync for communication. It's a server-less LAN chat tool that is ready to use the moment you install it. In addition to being an IM tool for your LAN (or across multiple LANs if you need, although you’ll have to use the Squiggle Bridge for that), you can use it for file transfer, voice chat, and more. It also has chat and status history, emoticons, audio alerts, and tray pop-ups (that you can turn on/off), among many other features.
RamHook is a little different from the others in this list. It’s an open source keystroke logging application that provides the ability to capture and record all keyboard input to a file, and from my tests, it works pretty well. You can run it in hidden mode and upload the log file to a specified Web server. What’s odd, however, is that there are 0 ratings on the CodePlex site for this tool, but it has one of the higher download rates (currently 70K downloads). So, even if you aren’t looking to use this within your environment you may want to look for it being used by others.
Corefig for Windows Server 2012 Core and Hyper-V Server 2012
From the first release of Windows Server Core, I was eager to find a GUI configuration tool rather than rely entirely on the command line. Core Configurator was a godsend in that regard, and the same folks have now created Corefig for Windows Server 2012 Core and Hyper-V Server 2012.
This PowerShell-based GUI tool allows you to configure all the major server settings, including server naming and domain joining, remote desktop connection settings, network settings, firewall settings, Windows Update, and much more. Server 2012 is a little different in that you can swap the GUI on or off if you want to run in a hybrid mode. But sometimes you just need to make an adjustment fast, and using Corefig can help in doing...
Start Screen Button
Start Screen Button is so simple but so helpful, especially if you use RDP connections to your Windows 8 or Server 2012 systems and have to place your mouse perfectly in the RDP window to get the Start screen back. This tool places a little Start tile on your taskbar; just click it to get back to the Start screen. Download the tool, right-click, choose Pin to Taskbar, and you’re set. That’s all it does, and it is already saving me time with Server 2012 systems I have to configure with Exchange 2013. With Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2, this may not be needed, but for those of us running Server 2012 already, it’s an easy fix.
Hyper-V Manager for Server 2012 Core console using PowerShell Scripts
Hyper-V Manager for Server 2012 Core console using PowerShell Scripts is a combination CodePlex projects merged into a tool called PSHVM (PowerShell Hyper-V Manager). It can be used to create VMs, create vSwitches, remove/delete VMs, RDP to a VM, import VMs, and perform a variety of other VM management tasks. This is a pretty new tool but it’s one to watch because the 3.0 version (in development) is sporting a much better GUI.
ConfigMgr 2012 PowerShell Right-Click Tools
ConfigMgr 2012 PowerShell Right-Click Tools are PowerShell console extensions for Configuration Manager 2012 (aka SCCM 2012), and they’re quite popular among Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager admins. It’s important to note that there are different types of right-click tools. If you search, you can find SCCM Right-Clicks developed by Rick Houchins; however, the PowerShell version has put added to CodePlex by Ryan Ephgrave. Many of the same Actions and Tools are offered in the PowerShell version. There is also a Console Tools menu for devices, a Collections menu, and other unique items.
Windows Product Key Finder
Windows Product Key Finder does exactly what it says: It pulls up your Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 Product Key (I tried it on Windows 8, and it didn’t work). We’ve all had that problem when you need to reinstall Windows but cannot find your CD case (with the key). It’s an .exe file, so you just launch it and click “Find Key,” and it does its thing.
Finestra Virtual Desktops
A virtual desktop allows you to take your existing workspace and divide it up so that it appears as if you are working on multiple desktops. Finestra Virtual Desktops, developed by Z-Systems, includes some really cool features, such as an infinite number of desktops (limited only by system memory), a full screen management switcher, live thumbnails, per-desktop backgrounds, hotkeys for up to nine desktops, and much more.