Utility of the week

All about the useful utilities I use, updated weekly.


On Sat 8th February 2014, 10:38 Jonathan says:

KeePass is a password safe to help you remember passwords - mainly by making it so you don't have to remember them. Passwords are entered into the safe along with any other useful information and can be grouped and given appropriate icons. Although the grouping is useful (and the icons small but pretty) if I'm honest one of the most useful features is the search box at the top of the application. I have a number of passwords to keep track of and having to browse a database is a pain - it's a database so search it! (the same goes for Active Directory so Microsoft sys admins pay attention...)

People in IT, and now the government are encouraging the use of strong passwords but how is that defined? Contrary to popular belief, a strong password doesn't have to be hard to remember (although it can be) but as we're talking about KeePass, and don't have to remember passwords anyway, we can use one of its other features: password generation.

Based on your settings for length, character types and source information (e.g. your computer's MAC address) KeePass will generate a password for you. An example is 6iELm:zAq5c7f!Vd^7,T - that's got 127 bits of "quality" apparently. Simply copy and paste the password into the webpage you're signing up for and you're good to go.

With a tool like KeePass, which is free by the way, there's no reason not to use a strong password on sites you use. There's also no reason to use the same password everywhere anymore as you don't have to remember them! Give it a whirl and see how KeePass can help you. I've recommended it to a few people now and at least 2 of them are happily using KeePass as part of their day-to-day life.

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Subversion (SVN)

On Mon 10th June 2013, 21:20 Jonathan says:

Subversion (SVN) is a version control system for files, typically used where multiple people are working on the same files. SVN is used by many open source projects and companies worldwide to solve the problem of keeping many copies of a project in sync.

After creating an SVN repository (or "repo") using "svnadmin" it's necessary to "check out" a local working copy to make your changes, adding files and directories as required. Once files are placed in your working copy directory they're not automatically under version control so you have to add them to SVN.

In the event 2 people (or more) change the same file, which you only find out when you commit your changes, SVN will try to resolve the conflict by merging the 2 copies. In the event that's not possible human interaction is required to either merge files or discard one of them.

A feature that's got me out of a scrape more than once is "revert", immediately removing any local changes to a file and going back to before you started. Sometimes this is necessary when those late night coding sessions go wrong so for maximum effect I recommend committing often (otherwise it's very easy to lose a lot of work).

If you need a version control system, not just for source code, SVN may be the solution for you.

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On Tue 21st May 2013, 21:43 Jonathan says:

RunKeeper is a website allowing you to record your exercise, providing some social networking by sharing your success with your "street team". Numerous activity types are accomodated, from walking to hiking, using the gym and cycling. Data us entered by use of a mobile app and it's the Android app I look at here.

I first encountered RunKeeper on a friend's iPhone and was impressed at how our cycle routes were tracked by GPS and uploaded to the website for later review. In honesty, RunKeeper significantly contributed to my decision to get a smartphone. The Android app has seen regular updates and works faultlessly on my HTC OneV.

From the app's main screen you can start a new activity, specifying its type (usually cycling in my case) and define any routes you'll be using if you have those presaved. If using GPS for data entry it can be enabled from this screen (that option is in place of the start button until a GPS signal is found). Reviewing past activities is easy and is simply a case of selecting the "activities" tab and choosing what you'd like to review. Statistics and your route map are available to view from your device.

While logging an activity you can handily enable "auto pause" to avoid your statistics being skewed while you're queuing at a red traffic light. Audio cues are available to provide on the go details of your progress (pace details for the last mile for example) and to advise when the activity is paused. Personally I find these annoying more than useful.

An "elite" version is available for a modest subscription fee which provides access to additional statistics and features although these appear mainly on the website.

If you're looking for a Strava alternative this may be the app for you.

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Server Manager (Server 2012)

On Sat 11th May 2013, 13:19 Jonathan says:

Server Manager has been around for a while but has changed dramatically in server 2012 to be more like a Windows 8 app (the same GUI changes to 8 apply in 2012). On logging on to 2012 you're presented with server manager and its brightly coloured "flat" interface and if I'm honest I was initially left wondering how I was supposed to manage a server with this "thing".

The answer is you don't, instead you manage multiple servers with it, very easily. Installing role and features is a simple task still (and quite obvious being on the dashboard) but whereas previously you'd need to connect to each server individually and lose sight of others when you did so to install a role, sever manager simply asks which server you'd like to perform the install on and offers to reboot it too.

WinRM is used in the background to allow management so needs enabling on servers along with the relevant firewall exception. From server manager you can restart a remote server and invoke a remote PowerShell - this is denoted by a change to the PowerShell prompt, prefixing it with the name of the server you're connected to.

Server health details are shown on the main dashboard, any problems indicated by a count in red. It's worth knowing that when a server has only just booted it will show on the dashboard in red due to services set to "delayed start" - this resolves itself quickly. For ease of management, server groups can be created although these aren't global and only show on the server you create the group on. Groups only make sense for clumping together servers of similar function (e.g. file servers) - I haven't found another purpose for them yet. ServerManager also shows detected roles across the servers it's connected to giving an overview if specific services across the network.

Once you're used to it, 2012's server manager can be a very powerful tool and, my appreciation of PowerShell not withstanding, I'd probably use ServerManager for a lot of the initial configuration of a 2012 network. After the initial config I'm probably back to using the usual tools (these can be launched via ServerManager).

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ColorNote (Android App)

On Mon 25th March 2013, 23:18 Jonathan says:

ColorNote is a note taking application for Android that allows notes to be coloured, as you'd expect from the name. I'm not aware the colours are used for anything other than human differentiation although you seem able to name colours to create categories.

Notes can be linked together using two square brackets surrounding a note's name, much the same as MediaWiki uses for its markup. Reminders can be set on notes with alarms set making this app useful for noting someone's contact details and ensuring you remember to email them.

ColorNote provides two note types: text and checklists, the latter providing for occassions you don't need items in the Android tasks list (shopping lists as an example) or want to avoid them syncing to Google. Once checked, items remain visible and crossed through making for a clear list.

Notes can be backed up to the "cloud" or to your device's SD card and the app claims uploaded notes are encrypted using the AES standard, the same as "banks use to encrypt customer data". Notes can be sync'd across multiple devices via the cloud making this app viable for users of multiple android devices (e.g. a tablet and a phone).

Deleted notes are sent to the "trash can" so can be retrieved if deleted in error. Additionally, the app allows notes to be archived although thus seems to just be another "folder" within the system. ColorNote can be locked with a master password which can be used to lock individual notes too.

The app is free and at the time of writing (incidentally in Colornote) has no ads so is worth a look.

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ForensIT User Profile Wizard 3.6

On Sat 1st December 2012, 10:58 Jonathan says:

I performed an NT4 to Server 2008R2 domain migration earlier this year and a sticking point of the project was user profiles - the settings that make up a user's environment when they log in to Windows. People like things to look the same today as they set up yesterday and companies like to maintain productivity - i.e. they don't want their users recustomising their environment every day. Understandably, the customer wasn't willing to sacrifice the existing user profiles or productivity.

In theory the Active Directory Migration Toolkit (ADMT) is capable of migrating the user profile when you migrate a computer between domains; our tests showed otherwise and that was going to be a problem.

Enter ForensIT User Profile Wizard 3.6 which is an amazingly powerful tool. The demo of the software can handle migrating the currently logged on user's profile and the PC to a new domain, replicating that for every user of a computer (not to mention the time lost for logon/logout) would be very tedious. Purchasing the software, price varying depending on quantity, allows use of a powerful unattended mode enabling you to migrate all profiles on the computer along with causing the computer to join the new domain. ForensIT didn't stop there, however, and also make it possible for you to bundle additional scripts into the process plus all the required files can be combined into a single exe.

For our purposes, the exe was added as a logon script for a temporary user ("a", it's quick to type) and all we had to do was login as that user to every workstation and walk away, allowing User Profile Wizard to do the rest.

If you're involved in a domain migration I cannot recommend this tool highly enough. For the job it does it isn't too costly, especially given the time it saves.

Operating System: Microsoft Windows
Tested on: Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows Server 2003
License: Proprietry
Cost: Varies based on quantity

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PowerShell cmdlet: start-transcript

On Mon 26th November 2012, 14:38 Jonathan says:

.Ever heard the acronym CMA? It stands for Cover My Arse (not to be confused with the Biblical commandment not to covert your neighbour's ass) and is generally good practice when working on something - especially if that something belongs to someone else! If you've ever b een accused of breaking something simply on the grounds that you were the last person to touch a system then this cmdlet is for you!

PowerShell is powerful (as the name suggests) and you can manage a lot of server applications with it - an accident in an elevated PowerShell prompt would not go well. Start-Transcript will log every command you type, its output (including errors) to a text file so you can either prove you didn't break something or find out how you broke it and how to fix it.

So, when I start working on a server with Powershell the first thing I do is:
start-transcript c:\logs\DescriptiveLogFileName.txt
I then set about sorting out whatever it is I'm doing, creating user mailboxes for example. You may be thinking "if you're only running a cmdlet with the verb get there's no risk" - while that's true it's always best to have a complete log - not only will it help you work out why you were doing what you were doing it'll also save the results to a text file for you saving the additional need for out-file.

The transcript stops when you close the shell but to be tidy, issue:
to finish..

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Learn Windows PowerShell in a month of lunches by Don Jones

On Sun 18th November 2012, 13:42 Jonathan says:

.If you were reading this blog last week you'll have seen I was evangelising about PowerShell. It seems fitting, therefore, that I let you know what book I'm studying from - Learn Windows PowerShell in a month of lunches by Don Jones (published by Manning).

The author dives right in and explains his mentality is that you should be able to use what you've been taught immediately. Every time you finish reading about a command you have everything you need to know to get to work with it straight away; you don't have to wait until you've read more chapters to use that information. Personally, I find that very cool.

So far I'm 5 chapters in (admittedly not studying in my lunch break as that's become difficult) and already using PowerShell to get things done. After reading as far as chapter 3 I found I was at my desk in the office needing to get information from Active Directory. Following an Import-Module ActiveDirectory and a single line of PowerShell I had the information I wanted - much quicker than manually opening 200 objects in Active Directory Users and Computers and making a note.

I appreciate a book is not a utility but I'd certainly recommend picking up a copy. The other good thing about this book is that when you buy a copy you immediately get rights to the eBooks in whatever formats suit you (I'm using the ePUB for my Sony Reader and the PDF for my phone)..

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On Sun 11th November 2012, 13:21 Jonathan says:

PowerShell is Microsoft's new "do anything" shell which is a replacement for the decades old cmd (or for those of you also familiar with the old days of DOS and ther earlier Windows, command). The first thing you notice when you go to open PowerShell is that it takes a while to load before you can do anything. There's also the fact that it's white on blue rather than white on black.

So, what's this new shell all about? For a start you can use all the commands you know and love from cmd but sometimes they will behave differently - that's because some "commands" are aliases to powershell cmdlets. There are a number of cmdlets that come with the shell but these can be extended by PSSnapins and Modules. If you're a systems administrator I'd strongly recommend starting to learn PowerShell now as more and more products can be controlled this way (and sometimes the shell is faster or there's something that can only be accomplished with the shell).

Exchange, Windows Server, Sharepoint and Active Directory are just some of the products you can control with PowerShell and it's amazing how useful a PowerShell one-liner can be, especially when you consider we'd have used a lot more lines or VB to obtain the same result.

Take a look at PowerShell, it's built in to Windows 7 and Windows 8 along with the Windows Server 2008 and above server operating systems. Note you may have to add it as a feature.

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On Mon 20th August 2012, 20:47 Jonathan says:

Android Apps series

I bought a new phone recently, an HTC One V, and it came preloaded with HTC Car. I appreciate I'm on my bike most often when travelling from place to place but HTC car can come in handy when driving.

The most useful feature is the fact the phone screen doesn't power down while you're in the Car app - much safer than having to turn the phone back on each time you need to check something. The "home" screen of the app gives big icons for some commonly performed tasks when driving - phone, music, navigation, internet radio - and there's a big clock mid screen so you know the time.

Some of you may be thinking "phone? You can't use your phone while driving" (in the UK). When Car launches it automatically activates your Bluetooth with a view to locating a bluetooth headset / car kit. The "phone" icon itself presents a list of recent callers and a reasonable sized dialing pad. I've only dialed a call from the app once and I picked the person from recent calls so I can't comment on the dialer.

Navigation is provided by Google Maps Navigation which is actually quite accurate. See a future post about that.

Music and Internet Radio aren't things I've used, maybe at some point in the future.

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On Tue 15th May 2012, 18:12 Jonathan says:

When dealing with a full harddisk it's often easier to sort through files when you know the location of the space hogs and SequoiaView highlights these nicely. Installing the small application is quick (as you'd expect) and given it doesn't take up much space won't skew your results. Using SequoiaView is simple: run the application, cancel the automatic scan, enable colour (otherwise you just get a lot of grey squares), type the path of the folder or drive to analyse and press enter. Once the scan has completed you'll be looking at a colourful collection of rectangles.

Different colours indicate different file types and you can filter based on file type too if that's easier. A bigger rectangle indicates a bigger file (nice and logical) so it's easy to the see files causing you a space headache. Right clicking a rectangle will give you a helpful menu with the option to browse to the file among others.

For a quick tool it gives a lot of information. The downside is you'll sometimes get "access violation" errors although these don't appear to affect the results or crash the program.

Operating System: Microsoft Windows
Tested on: Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows Server 2003
Cost: FREE

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Trinity Rescue Kit

On Tue 1st May 2012, 13:00 Jonathan says:

Trinity Rescue Kit is a Linux Live CD which is a staple of my post incident response toolkit aside from merely being a useful live CD. I appreciate this blog is called Utility of the week and a live CD is somewhat more than a utility but hopefully you'll let me off.

When booting from the CD you'll be presented with a number of options to allowing you to jump right in. Generally, however, I choose the default setting enabling me to choose options from Trinity's menu once it's loaded. Once booted, you'll be presented with a text based menu which you navigate with your keyboard's cursor keys. Options here range from sharing all harddisks as Windows shares to resetting Windows passwords or bringing up additionally trinity clients. Trinity also has the ability to clone computers making it a potential replacement for Clonezilla.

Most often I'll be using Trinity to reset the administrator password of a Windows system where the user has forgotten the password (or we've taken on a customer from another company and there's no note of the administrator password). Occassionally I'll be sharing the harddisks of a damaged / infected computer to harvest important files before using the live CD to scan the computer's harddisk for viruses (up to 4 virus scanners which update themselves before proceeding).

I've barely scratched the surface of what this live CD can do and would highly recommend keeping a copy in your toolkit. If you find the CD useful, please consider donating to the project.

Operating System: it's a Linux live CD
Tested on: Windows XP, Windows 7, Linux instances
License: Sysinternals license
Cost: FREE

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VLC Media player

On Tue 24th April 2012, 12:30 Jonathan says:

VLC media player is a free cross-platform media player capable of playing a wide number of formats including encrypted DVDs. The interface is minimalistic but provides buttons for standard playback functions (play, pause, fast forward etc) and offers a media library.

Predominantly, I use VLC to play DVDs when in Linux. VLC is, however, also capable of showing TV from a compatible TV card and media can also be streamed to other VLC clients (particularly useful if the World Cup is on and your company only has 1 TV aerial and lots of employees wanting to watch over lunch).

For me, VLC's greatest feature is its ability to play a wide variety of formats (DVDs, MOV, MPEG, AVI, Flash, MP3, OGG etc) meaning I'm rarely caught at a loss with a stray video or audio file.

Operating System: Windows, Linux
Tested on: Windows XP, Windows 7, Gentoo Linux, Ubuntu Linux, Sabayon Linux
License: GNU GPL v2
Cost: FREE

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Sysinternals: Autoruns

On Wed 18th April 2012, 20:07 Jonathan says:

Autoruns is a Sysinternals tool that shows each of the programs that run on startup/login on a Windows computer. True to Sysinterals' form, the executable is small so downloading won't max your bandwidth quota and installing won't blow your harddisk.

Once launched the tool takes a moment to collate information, finding what starts when and what category it falls into. The everything tab does exactly as you would expect and lists the contents of all the other tabs. Drivers are shown (which can be useful if you want to temporarily prevent a specific driver from running) along with print monitors, services, scheduled tasks and other applications.

To stop an item from autorunning is a simple case of unticking the checkbox next to the item. To permanently remove the item from the autorun list, delete exists in the context menu.

Some may be thinking "there's an autorun tool built into Windows, msconfig". While msconfig is a powerful tool it doesn't give half the options of Autoruns. Autoruns also gives a full picture of the environment.

Operating System: Windows
Tested on: Windows XP, Windows 7
License: Sysinternals license
Cost: FREE

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On Wed 22nd February 2012, 16:09 Jonathan says:

Apologies, I dropped the ball somewhat but here is the promised post about Cacti.

In my previous post I discussed Smokeping and how it can help monitor your network / DNS resolution times / Internet speed etc. Generally, one tool doesn't do everything and often they're complimented by others and Smokeping was no exception, it's complimented brilliantly by Cacti (and vice versa).

Cacti uses the SNMP protocol to monitor network devices - switches, printers, servers - and then produces a funky graph that shows how different variables change over time.

At a number of customer sites I and a colleague have installed Cacti to determine bandwidth usage. It's not uncommon for a company network to have a 1gbps backbone but before deciding to pay out thousands for bigger backbone it would be beneficial to see what the usage is. If nothing else, this may justify (or obliterate) the IT department's business case for the cash.

When monitoring switches, Cacti can produce a graph for individual ports and use a variety of units (mega bits or mega bytes per second for example). Each graph shows the data in and out of the port, in your chosen unit.

Now, this is when using Cacti with Smokeping comes in handy. Cacti was showing that a switch disappeared at certain times of the day - the graph would simply have a gap in it. At first thought, this absense of data "clearly" indicated the switch was going offline for a period...all of them were! If you consider the chances of a regular switch shutdown across a site you'll no doubt conclude it's unlikely they all go down regularly. Looking at the smokeping graph for the same period showed that during the "outage" there was a high ping latency and 95% of all network traffic was being lost; presumably Cacti's responses were being lost in that 95%.

Cacti will also monitor disk usage over time; useful if a server suddenly goes offline due to low disk space - you can see if there was a sudden surge or if data had been growing gradually. It'll monitor whole hosts of other things too and the community produces a number of templates.

Operating System: Linux, possibly others
Tested on: Gentoo Linux, Ubuntu
License: GNU GPL
Cost: FREE

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