With the holiday season upon us, and sysadmins getting ready to travel or host friends and family, there’s one thing you can count on: you’re going to be someone’s IT support person this season. Rather than fight it, embrace it so you can be your family’s IT hero. Here are some tools to keep close by to help you resolve those pesky issues and get back to enjoying your hard-earned rest.
Grab yourself a small backpack or messenger bag and toss the following gear into it:
1. Compressed Air
If you’re going to be laying hands upon the machine, you know you are going to encounter dust bunnies the size of aardvarks. Having a can of compressed air with you will help you clear the dust without having a coughing fit.
I’d suggest you keep two types: screen wipes and anti-biological wipes. You never know what could be lurking inside that old PC case. It’s also hygienic to clean your hands with a wipe when you finish the job.
3. Post-it Notes
Good for taking notes and for dislodging various things from under the keys of a keyboard. Don’t leave home without them.
A multi-tip screwdriver, especially one with a magnetic tip, will really save you time. It can also come in handy for jobs that are not IT related.
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that there won’t be enough light for you to see what you’re doing. Carry a small LED flashlight with you so that when you have to crawl under that desk, you can see what you’re dealing with.
6. USB card reader
Grab one of those cheap multi-purpose USB card readers that has a slot for everything from MicroXD to CF, because you can never tell what oddball type of hardware Cousin Vinny might pull out and ask you about.
7. At least two large USB drives
You will want to have two large USB drives on hand. One which you can load with the tool we suggest below; you might consider making it bootable, so you can access an unbootable system to run scans or other tools. The other you can use to back up data from the machine that is having problems. If you need to format the machine, you’ll want to back up the data beforehand.
Bootable systems for full control
If the sick system cannot even boot, having a known-good image on USB or CD is a great way to tell if you have dead hardware or just a busted install. Ideally, you should have a copy on an USB as well since many machines today don’t have an optical drive.
Bart’s Preinstalled Environment http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder/ is a great tool for setting yourself up with a bootable Windows environment that will include the basic tools you are accustomed to. It’s a bit dated, but still usable.
9. Windows To Go
Of course, if you have a licensed copy of Windows Enterprise, you can create a Windows To Go USB drive http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/hh831833.aspx to set yourself up with a fully portable install of 7 or 8.1
10. A Linux Live CD
If Linux is more your bag of crisps, consider carrying a Linux Live CD or USB key. There are dozens of different live distros out there, but here’s a list http://www.livecdlist.com/purpose/rescue of 38 that are specifically built around system rescue capabilities!
You know that the machine your Uncle Bob has entrusted you with is probably crawling with bugs of the digital kind. Dust off and nuke them with these must-have tools.
Grab a copy of the very powerful, very free Malwarebytes http://www.malwarebytes.org/mwb-download/ and keep it close at hand to help disinfect whatever is crawling around that hard drive.
12. Spybot Search & Destroy
Spybot is another great tool for cleaning up machines that have been somewhere on the Internet that they probably should not have been, and picked up something that they definitely shouldn’t have. Get the free version from http://www.safer-networking.org/dl/
Utilities for further repair
There’s a pretty good chance that you will be asked to fix some error, be it hardware or software, or figure out why Aunt Betty keeps running out of disk space. Here are some tools to help you with this.
Check the hardware for errors using http://www.passmark.com/products/diskcheckup.htm which will work with all SMART capable drivers.
Maybe Cousin Eddie wants to clear his tracks before someone else starts looking at the ‘family’ computer. Grab CCleaner from http://www.piriform.com/ccleaner/builds and quickly sweep away the history and other tracks.
Is that 500GB hard drive out of space, and you have no idea why? Use WinDirStat from http://windirstat.info/ to quickly and graphically lay out everything that is on the drive, and find what is hogging all the space.
Carry a copy of Revo Uninstaller http://www.revouninstaller.com/revo_uninstaller_free_download.html on your USB key to complete any failed uninstalls, or to fully and completely uninstall any software that mom or dad accidentally installed by clicking Yes or Next without reading. The Pro version has a lot of great features, but the free version will do what you need.
There are other applications that we have found to be very handy. Consider adding these to your USB key.
Files are deleted. It happens to everyone. Whether a misbehaving app or one of the grandchildren killed the files, Recuva http://www.piriform.com/recuva is a great tool to bring things back from the dead.
18. File Recovery
File Recovery from PC Inspector is another great tool for resurrecting files. Grab a copy from http://www.pcinspector.de/default.htm?language=1.
19. Software updates
After you check for any missing updates from Microsoft, and ensure that their antivirus software is updating and scanning regularly, check the rest of their third-party software quickly and easily with Secunia PSI http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/.
Services to set them up with
And to keep things running smoothly, and make it easy to both exchange all those family photos and to keep in touch, consider setting them up with one or more of these programs.
One of the best ways to share files with others is through Dropbox. Set up an account here https://db.tt/Xu8CkJO to get an extra bit of space for free, and then set up a shared folder with each of your friends and family. You can easily sync and share folders between multiple machines this way, and not worry about whether a file is too big to email.
21. Google Hangouts
Google Hangouts is the easy way to setup a multi-party chat with text, audio, video, and app sharing and anyone can participate. Check out http://www.google.com/hangouts/ and set up a regular hangout for your friends and family.
With this small set of physical and digital tools, you’re set to handle almost any digital disaster that you encounter during the holiday season.