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Stay safe with free IT tools on live systems

Sometimes you just need any help to fix the problem in your IT deployment. It's okay to download free IT troubleshooting tools, as long as you think through and monitor the choice.

Some free IT tools solve small, but annoying, problems, and do so with minimal risk. But stop and think before clicking Next, Next, Finish on an app that might fix an ongoing issue.

The variety of IT tools ranges from freeware to open source, free or incentivized trials and fully paid options, all meant to solve a litany of issues in a deployment. There are several factors to consider, as well as risks and benefits, when selecting low-cost or free IT tools. Using a product without a drawn-out evaluation and test approval process isn't always the answer -- even if it will put out a rampant fire you've been fighting on overnights all week.

Before you start looking at third-party tools to fix an IT problem, talk to the vendor associated with the systems having the issue. You could be dealing with a known bug, or make the company aware of a new bug. Getting the vendor involved means that the support team fixes the problem for you or will give you an idea of how to fix the problem. The vendor also can estimate how long the fix could take -- knowing this could help you decide whether or not to look for an external tool that addresses the problem.

If the vendor can't help, it's time to seek a third-party tool. Often the next decision is whether to choose freeware, open source software or a commercial tool. Here are some guidelines on what each category entails.

Freeware vs. open source vs. paid software

In general, your noncommercial options encompass open source freeware, closed source freeware -- where the code isn't freely available -- and open source paid software.

Freeware is, as its name implies, free in the sense that you don't have to pay to use it. Free IT tools can also be open source, meaning a tool's source code is freely available to read, change and use. This doesn't, however, guarantee that the software that's packaged from open source code is free. IT operations teams can grab open source code and use it for free themselves, but this will require more work than downloading an executable.

Freeware is often made on a smaller scale than open source platforms, often created by IT pros who faced a similar specific problem. Because of this small scale, there can be several issues with the software: a higher chance of bugs and issues, a lower likelihood to be patched and maintained and a good probability of unknown or unchecked code that would run on your company's production servers. Closed source freeware could also contain malicious and unwanted code, including malware, adware or any other unwanted software that introduces exploits.

Open source software is less likely to have these issues, but they can still exist. The responsibility rests on the community to offer its knowledge and time to review and improve the source code and then submit changes to create an updated version.

Paid or commercial products require an IT pro to buy or license the tool. Commercial IT software is often considered safer than freeware. Generally, the creator or distributor is a registered business and makes money from the sale of the tool. It's unlikely that the source code is open; however, it's also unlikely you will encounter any malicious code. If you experience any problems with the software, you have a supplier to notify, and they have a vested interest in improving the product.

Software installation and monitoring

When you've pinpointed an IT operations tool that addresses the problem and matches the budget and requirements in terms of security and support in the live environment, check into a range of factors and features before you install it.

  • Reputation: Can you find other IT pros, in forums for example, who have successfully used the software?
  • Reliability: Install the software on a test system to ensure it does what it is advertised to do.
  • Trustworthiness: Did any strange or unwanted programs show up in the server's application manager or have you seen any unexpected processes running after installation?
  • Resourcing: Does the tool have a visible effect on CPU, RAM or disk drive use after installation that could hurt the server's performance?
  • Long-term use and documentation: Once you understand how the tool works, look at whether it's feasible to maintain full time. Does the tool make registry changes that remain after uninstall, for example? If you can't understand what the tool is doing at a high level, troubleshooting will be more difficult than before, so spend more time researching the original problem.

After making sure all these factors check out, you're ready to install the software on live systems. Be sure to follow all standard change management practices with documentation, an outage window -- if necessary -- and a back out and recovery plan. Back up all systems involved and note all possible changes -- however small.

Monitor any system the tool affects. Check that the tool is performing the tasks it should and be sure to communicate with other staff about its purpose and maintenance needs. Depending on the need, IT pros can use tracing and debugging tools, such as Wireshark, Process Monitor and Fiddler, to detect any potentially malicious or unwanted activities with the tool. At the very least, ensure that firewalls are in place and watch for any new or different traffic. This tool is now a live part of your IT deployment.

There's always a risk associated with installing third-party commercial or free IT tools, but ensuring you choose the best option for the job and monitoring its performance can mitigate most issues.

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This was last published in July 2016

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