8 little-known technologies that instantly make Microsoft shops run smoother

Any efficient IT shop today, Microsoft-centric or not, has a never ending need for good management tools. The collection in this blog covers a lot of territory, solving issues that arise from group policy management, training, password policy, collaboration, remote connectivity, managing your infrastructure, managing the new Server 2008 core and even opening and editing documents from anywhere. What these tools all have in common is that they will make your Microsoft shop immediately run better -- meaning they don't require a lot of fuss and muss to install or manage. Like several of my other lists, I focused on technologies that are not already well known names in the industry. (Note: Want to see the screen shots of these tools in a hurry? Check out the slideshow of these eight tools.)

As usual, I won't keep you in suspense. The eight tools in this blog post are ...

1. PolicyPak, (page 1) 5. Open VPN (page 3)
2. ClipTraining, (page 1) 6. Excito Bubba Server (page 3)
3. Password Reminder Pro, (page 2) 7. Windows 2008 Server Core Configuration (page 4)
4. Hiveware for Word, (page 2) 8.Open IT Online (page 4)

Now, onto the list ...

* * *

PolicyPak

Everyone knows Group Policy is great at controlling thousands of Windows' settings. But controlling the thousands of applications that run on Windows, and their settings, hasn't been easy. Enter PolicyPak. PolicyPak Software leverages Active Directory Group Policy to ensure application compliance and to help manage your application's settings. PolicyPak has two editions and offers preconfigured PowerPaks for some common enterprise applications. But the real power comes with PolicyPak Professional with its PolicyPak Design Studio (PPDS). PPDS enables administrators to create their own configurable PolicyPaks for any third party or corporate in-house software. PolicyPak Design Studio enables administrators to drag-and-drop their way to a customized UI (usually made to match the UI of the application they want to control.) This customized UI can then be leveraged by other administrators in the company to manage corporate applications (without needing any knowledge of how the target application works).

PolicyPak's motto is cute, but the message is powerful: "What you SET is what they GET." PolicyPak's claim-to-fame is that it will quietly re-apply any application settings changed by the user (with the settings established by your IT department.) PolicyPak can ensure that applications' security features are always re-established to your set standards, even if users try to wiggle around them. This is a huge boon to those concerned with security, control and compliance issues on the desktop.

PolicyPak has a free Community Edition enabling administrators to create and use their first PolicyPak right away. Then, as needed users can upgrade and grow into the software to create more PolicyPaks to manage more applications.

PolicyPak

ClipTraining

I have blogged about this company before. (Disclosure, this company was founded by a buddy of mine, but there's a reason he's my buddy ... he's a smart guy with great ideas.). ClipTraining is a task-oriented video training tool. I have seen other products and, as I was an early adopter of ClipTraining, I think this start-up just blows away the competition. The newest updates to the company's training library (which is coming soon) will include the ability to track end user training and will include self tests for users to check their knowledge. A new feature called “ClipNotes” will let users quickly check what the clip will teach. But wait, there's more. ClipTraining has also added closed captions to clips. You can see a demo of the changes at http://www.cliptraining.com/demo/flvcc.html. Co-founder and director of clip production (and my buddy), J. Peter Bruzzese, is a 15-year veteran in technology education. Peter has also spent the last nine years speaking and writing on technology. Tim Duggan the co-founder and director of sales and marketing has worked for the past decade in both the education and corporate sides of technology.

The folks at ClipTraining believe that technical education can be broken down into smaller more workable portions for the end user. They also have the philosophy that technology training should not be painful. As Peter likes to say “When a person has a choice of root canal or sitting in a training class and they choose root canal that means we need to improve our teaching methodology.” In addition to the library, ClipTraining offers the opportunity to have custom clips created for your organization. It was in this way that I first worked with ClipTraining. My firm was moving away from using Goldmine as both a CRM package and e-mail client. Many users had not worked on Outlook as an e-mail client since Office 97, so we needed training for users to understand what new features would be included in the newest Outlook release. ClipTraining was the only company willing to customize the training for what our users needed. Turning a “cookie cutter training” from a two-day broad stroke overview into a four-hour pinpointed study, saved us lots of time and money.

ClipTraining

Password Reminder Pro

This is another tool that I wrote about (see here) just a few weeks ago on A Better Windows World. In fact I came across this tool as I was researching this list but liked it so much, I wrote about it right away. But it's still worth including on a list of tools that instantly make a Windows shop run smoother. Sometimes being an IT administrator means that we need to perform time-consuming tasks that numb the mind rather than challenge it. That is one reason why I like this tool so much. Password Reminder Pro provides a means of monitoring expiring passwords in your organization and managing these simply.

Using e-mail reminders to prompt users that their passwords are about to expire, Password Reminder Pro makes itself far superior to the Windows messenger service, which goes largely ignored by most end users. This means that passwords go largely unchanged until the time when the IT department needs to become involved. This tool also provides a reporting feature that gives you a bird’s eye view of your expiring passwords. This may not seem important until you have half of your organization locked out of the network when you walk in on a Monday morning.

Hiveware for Word

Hiveware for Word is a start-up that provides a simple peer-to-peer plug in for Word documents. This tool allows you to collaborate on documents in real-time without the need for an entire backend setup. Hiveware allows two or more users to work together on a single document. Each paragraph that is being edited is “locked” until the changes are completed and replicated among all contributors. I discovered this tool from a colleague who found it by speaking with the reps at Tech Ed, so as of this posting the product is not available for general release. But keep your eye out for it. It is a product that provides simple collaboration across the Internet without the entire extra component usually employed (SharePoint, GoToMeeting, etc.) if you need to collaborate on Word documents quickly and easily that Hiveware for Word is a product worth a look.

(Note: Want to see the screen shots of these tools in a hurry? Check out the slideshow of these eight tools.)

Open VPN

Do you need a secure means of managing or working in your organization, but you cannot afford the price tag of the commercial programs? Perhaps the complexity of most VPN solutions makes you shy away from them. Open VPN could be your solution. It uses an open source client, is deployed easily and provides support for various authentication methods including certificates, smart cards and two-form factor authentication. Open VPN uses a terminal console to setup and configure the VPN tunnels. The latest version (2.1) includes support for Windows Vista (32 & 64 bit), and includes Open VPN GUI for Windows, which makes managing the VPN tunnels easier. Open VPN is a great solution and is an open source project that continues to be built upon. Future versions will include further developments for SMB and enterprise class clients.

Excito Bubba Server

The Bubba Server packs a lot of punch in a small form factor, smaller than your average external hard drive (4.5 x 1.8 x 7 inch). A Web-based management console makes it easy to setup and manage. Excito offers models with and without hard drives and the newest model Bubba Server II allows you to connect external SATA drives to expand storage capability or create disk redundancy.

The product is great as an affordable disaster-recovery solution. I should point out that it relies on Linux, and this is a list for Microsoft shops. But you can install virtual server software and create your VMs that replicate your entire network -- all to a server that will fit in your backpack. Another great use for the Bubba Server is to use it for media files (perhaps a ClipTraining portal) or even to host audio and video files for your home. The Bubba Server makes a great home server that is compact and expandable.

(Note: Want to see the screen shots of these tools in a hurry? Check out the slideshow of these eight tools.)

Windows 2008 Server Core Configuration

I know many admins were excited over the idea of the Windows Server 2008 core server. Some of that excitement cooled off once it was found that the entire configuration is done in a command line. The Windows 2008 Server Core Configurator is a tool that allows you to use a GUI while creating script-based commands in the background to control all the functions in the Server 2008 core.

Windows 2008 Server Core Configurator is another open source tool that is sweeping across the Microsoft community. With over 6,000 downloads in a very short time frame and users having nothing but nice things to say, this is a great tool for those early adopters of Windows 2008. The current project release is version 1.1 with version 2.0 in beta now with new features and improvements being added. Windows 2008 Server Core Configurator is one of those tools that can save your sanity while you get used to dealing with the new command line configuration in Server 2008 core server.

Open IT Online

Have you ever needed to open a document only to find that the office did not have your version of Word processor software. Or perhaps you were at a conference using the hotel computers to try and edit your slideshow before a big presentation. If so, the cutely named Open IT Online could be for you. It is a Firefox extension that allows you to open documents, spreadsheets, presentations and even image files, regardless of where you are or even what platform of productivity software is installed on the computer.

The extension allows you to open and edit the files anywhere, anytime. Open IT Online provides a cross-platform, portable and highly available solution for handling all your documents. Open IT Online has support for Google Docs, Google Apps, Zoho and ThinkFree for document editing and also supports Snipshot, Bilder Editieren, Picnik for images. Open IT Online also works with Firefox versions 1.5 to version 3.

No matter what your circumstances are or what your environment looks like, these tools will go a long way to make your Microsoft shop look, work and feel better. Employ the ones that fit for your Microsoft shop and, please, let me know of others that have made your Microsoft shop A Better Windows World.

(Note: Want to see the screen shots of these tools in a hurry? Check out the slideshow of these eight tools.)

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