Windows System Administration: Documentation, Automation and Must-Have Utilities

Want to stay efficient, effective and relevant in the eyes of IT budget watchers? Get a leg up on Windows systems administration with these tips and tools.

If there is one thing most administrators wish they could have more of, it would be time. In these harsh economic times, the first victim of budgetary rationing is often the IT department, therefore it becomes increasingly important to be effective and exceedingly productive. Indeed, effectiveness is the antidote to slashed budgets: more than ever, an administrator’s methodology will decide how he or she will be able to weather this economic downturn.

Rather than delve into the otherwise extremely interesting topic of time and time management, in this article I’ll focus on some methods, methodologies, and mechanisms that could aid in making you more effective by taking advantage of tools and procedures that are readily available - and won’t give the guys in the budget department a heart attack.

The focus is exclusively on Windows (Server) systems, and you’ll find links at the end of this article.

Documentation, documentation, documentation

Yes, it’s that important.

While writing documentation often may seem like it’s keeping you from performing other tasks, in the long term documentation is going to save you a whole lot of time, trouble, and potentially even a help you save face. Documenting should start immediately when you are thrown into a new and unfamiliar environment: map out the network (even when a full network map is already available, it never hurts to do this), delve into the server setup and settings, and get all credentials you could ever need (and then safeguard them with your life, of course).

Luckily, there are plenty of tools available to help you with this sometimes gargantuan task: Network Notepad, for example, is a free alternative to Visio for mapping out a network, and comes with some handy extras such as clickable links. Even a simple Word document works wonders for what I’ve come to refer to as an IT Repository.

Don’t be afraid to share this information with management, either; small- and medium-business owners are especially impressed by this kind of thing. Keeping vital information like this to yourself under the impression that you can memorize all of it or, even worse, that you’re irreplaceable, is not only unethical, but also a sure-fire way to find yourself wasting time down the line. If you have to ping one of your own domain names every time you need its IP address, you’re not being very productive - information like this is readily available and, in this case, a Post-It note with the information on it hanging from your monitor will not make you look ignorant.


This brings us to the ever-important question: at what point do you automate something?

One might argue that a procedure that only takes place once does not need automation, but that misses the point that one does not know that said procedure will never (have to) take place again. Small business owners have a tendency of wanting various reports, one even more exotic than the last: I have found that automating the process (of acquiring such reports) is almost always the best solution.

Even though the requester may have to wait a little longer for his or her report, the next time a similar report is needed, his or her wait time will be drastically reduced. Something that is only needed every once in a while and can easily be done manually often still benefits from automation (if only to save your successor some time and trouble).

The tools, they are a-changing

While the traditional command prompt (cmd) is an excellent shell to get something done quickly (Run -> cmd -> taskmgr is still my preferred way to bring up Task Manager), anything more complicated will benefit greatly from PowerShell. Integrated into Server 2008 and available as a separate download for previous versions, PowerShell takes a hard new look at shell scripting, and the result is impressive.

Tightly integrated with the .Net platform (and thus object-oriented), PowerShell is a must-have for any administrator wanting to automate his or her daily tasks in a consistent manner. Frans Koch’s book is excellent (and free!) and offers a great primer in PowerShell use (with excellent examples on using PowerShell with AD, SQL, and .Net).

Many system and network administrators swear by the same tools they’ve been using (and often with great results) for years. Keeping your head in the sand is never a good idea, however, though, and this attitude may keep you from discovering something new(er) that may fit your needs even better.

The right tool for the right job

Windows Server (and especially 2008) comes with a plethora of built-in tools to make administration easier, but there’s plenty more where that came from (Redmond, that is): Blake Handler’s Live blog has an excellent listing of free Microsoft tools. While some, if not most, of the tools listed won’t need introduction (the SysInternals tools should be on every administrator’s shortlist), others are gems in the rough. The list of over 150 is bound to yield a surprise or two. I discovered Terminals, a multi-tab Remote Desktop tool through this list and haven’t looked back ever since.

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