You might imagine that the best place to go for improving your Microsoft server-side experience is to the mothership itself. In many cases, you would be right. But the truth is there are a meaningful number of open source tools that go above and beyond what Microsoft has to offer in support of Windows Server, Exchange, SQL, and SharePoint. Many of these alternatives provide -- for free -- more powerful capabilities than what you'd get with third-party retail products.
Microsoft itself has acknowledged this fact, facilitating the availability of open source tools for Microsoft admins through its CodePlex site. Microsoft, too, can be relied on for a few clear winners when it comes to free tools.
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All in all, it's never been a better time to experiment with open source tools in your Microsoft environment. From networking troubleshooting to security to performance analysis, we've compiled a list of the top open source tools for your Windows-based systems. Don't see a favorite? Feel free to highlight it in the comments below.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 1: Wireshark
Network troubleshooting is a real art, one that requires solid training and years of hands-on experience. But a tool like Wireshark helps ease traffic analysis, thanks to many powerful features. Just one look at this free software-based protocol analyzer's color-coding features and you'll see how its superior usability makes Wireshark a worthwhile tool for any Microsoft shop.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 2: AMANDA
Admins looking to ease the pain of backing up Windows-based systems should check out AMANDA, aka Advanced Maryland Automatic Network Disk Archiver. AMANDA provides the ability for an administrator to set up a single master backup server that can support both Windows desktops and servers over the network to a variety of media, including tape drives, disks, or optical media.
ZMANDA maintains and supports the freely available AMANDA, as well as ZMANDA Recovery Manager for MySQL. It also provides network and cloud backup services that it sells commercially.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 3: MailArchiva
Email archiving is front and center in Exchange 2010, thanks to the increase in compliance regulation enforcement across the industry. But for those who are not yet using Exchange 2010, MailArchiva provides a worthwhile means for bringing compliance to Exchange 2000/2003 and other mail servers, such as Postfix, Sendmail, Qmail, iMail, and Lotus Notes.
MailArchiva comes in both an open source and an enterprise flavor. To see a list of features and how the two editions vary, browse the MailArchiva site.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 4: Exchange 2010 RBAC Manager
Exchange 2010 RBAC Manager is a great tool for admins working with role-based access control and Exchange. RBAC Manager (aka RBAC Editor GUI) helps overcome the lack of a GUI tool to work with the new role-based administration side to Exchange, enabling admins to connect, whether or not you're a PowerShell master. The tool is written in C# and uses PowerShell behind the scenes to allow you to create and manage roles in your Exchange 2010 environment.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 5: Core Configurator 2.0 for Server Core
Offering a command-line version of Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 at installation was a great idea. With its light footprint, it allows a small attack surface as well. The only problem? It required administrators to crack open command-line books to configure their servers. This free tool provides a GUI method for managing tasks.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 6: AutoSPInstaller for SharePoint 2010
Anyone who has ever installed SharePoint knows that the SQL databases created are a mess in terms of naming, resulting in large GUID databases titles that are completely inconsistent. In contrast, AutoSPInstaller utilizes a variety of scripts to install SharePoint and makes sure database names remain clean in the process.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 7: OCS Inventory
If you need a cool tool for locating all the devices connected to your network and what software and hardware you have installed on your systems, then OCS-NG is the one for you. It requires you install the OCS client inventory agent on your systems; you can then pull all that information into a repository that's easy to visualize and search.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 8: UltraDefrag
UltraDefrag is a tool for Windows that can defrag system files, registry hives, and the paging file. It's continually updated to ensure improvements in performance.
UltraDefrag is fully compatible with Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, Windows 7, and all of the 64-bit editions of Windows. It's a valuable addition to any Windows environment.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 9: Nmap for Windows
Originally a Unix-only tool, Nmap for Windows has been an important security resource for Windows shops for more than 10 years. This security scanner and network mapper can also be used to perform network inventory, manage service upgrade schedules, and monitor host or service uptime. It supports Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 and 2003, Windows Vista, and Windows XP SP1 and later.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 10: Zenmap
Zenmap is a cool tool for mapping a topology of devices connected to your network. This security scanner works off of Nmap, providing an interactive, animated visualization of hosts on a network, configured in rings. Click on a host and it moves to the center of your network topology, giving you the ability to easily trace the host's various connections. With Zenmap, information regarding potential vulnerabilities becomes that much easier to pinpoint, ensuring your firewalls and routers are working correctly.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 11: PowerGUI
It's no secret that PowerShell is taking the Windows world by storm. It feels like a retro pleasure for many long-term admins who remember the command-line days. But for others, banging on the command line to administer systems can be a pain.
Those looking for a more graphical means of tapping into PowerShell should check out PowerGUI, a free graphical user interface and script editor for PowerShell. More valuable perhaps is the community built around PowerGUI, with its vast store of contributed scripts and libraries for administering your fleet.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 12: Performance Analysis of Logs (PAL) Tool
If you've ever had a performance problem but had no idea what metrics to collect or even how to analyze the compiled data, PAL is your friend. This open source tool helps read performance monitor counter logs and analyzes them for you, using built-in thresholds that relate to the majority of your Windows products, including Exchange, SharePoint, Active Directory, and more.
PAL has been tested on Windows 7 but should also run on Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2008 R2.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 13: ClamWin Antivirus
This open source antivirus solution is a valuable tool for security-minded admins. ClamWin supports Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows Me, and Windows 2000/98 systems, as well as Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2003.
The tool includes a scanning scheduler that you can use to configure appropriate scan times but does not come with an on-access real-time scanner. It also has the ability to integrate into Windows Explorer and Outlook for easy scanning.
Although it may not work as well as a commercial real-time option for virus scanning, ClamWin is certainly a worthwhile tool, especially for shops seeking a free solution.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 14: Virtual Router
Virtual Router is a nifty tool that turns any Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2 system into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Using Virtual Router, users can wirelessly share any Internet connection (Wi-Fi, LAN, cable modem, dial-up, cellular, and so on) with any Wi-Fi-enabled device. Laptops, smartphones, netbooks, wireless printers -- all can connect to Virtual Router just as they would any other access point, and the connection is completely secured using WPA2, the most secure wireless encryption.
Essential open source Windows admin tool No. 15: VirtualBox
VirtualBox is a must-have open source virtualization solution for any admin seeking to run guest OSes on Windows, Linux, Macintosh, or Solaris machines.
Using VirtualBox, admins can run virtual instances of a wide array of operating systems, including Windows, Linux, OpenSolaris, OS/2, OpenBSD, and even DOS. To learn more about the extent to which VirtualBox supports various operating systems as virtual machines, check out VirtualBox's guest OS wiki.