14 go-to tools for Mac sysadmins

Mac pro Gerard Allen shares his must-have sysadmin tools for enterprise Apple deployments.

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What's in a Mac admin’s toolbox?

Former Apple employee Gerard Allen shared some of his favorite tools during JAMF Software’s user conference. Based in Ireland, Allen built his career helping companies integrate Macs into their IT environments. He worked for Apple for eight years during the 1990s, then started providing technical support and training to businesses. His consultancy, Stream Solutions, was recently acquired by Apple reseller iConnect. Today Allen is chief technologist and general manager at iConnect.

He's a big fan of JAMF Software's Casper Suite. "All the little bits and pieces I’d been bolting together, this answers it in one place. It's a single pane of glass. It makes everything come alive in a way that I'd been hacking things together to do for so many years. Overnight it revolutionized how I operated," Allen said of Casper Suite, which he’s been using for a few years. "But I can’t use it in insolation."

Allen supplements Casper with many sysadmin tools and utilities, some of which have been in his arsenal for years. Here are 14 of his favorites.

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Mactracker is freeware that keeps track of technical information about every Apple Macintosh computer ever made. Among the technical specifications it tracks are: processor speed, memory, optical drives, graphic cards, supported Mac OS versions, and expansion options. Mactracker also aggregates information on Apple mice, keyboards, displays, printers, scanners, digital cameras, iPod, Apple TV, iPhone, Wi-Fi cards and base stations, Newton, and Mac OS versions. "As soon as I know what machine I’ve got in front of me, I can find out what's the maximum amount of RAM I can put in it, what’s the latest version of the OS I can put on it, what expansion ports are in it. I've got the full capabilities of that machine – of every single machine that ever came out – at my fingertips, and that for me is huge," Allen said at JAMF Software's user conference. "I can't live without Mactracker."

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WiFi Explorer

WiFi Explorer by Adrian Granados ($3.99) is a wireless network scanner tool. Designed to diagnose and help troubleshoot connectivity and performance issues, it can identify channel conflicts, signal overlapping and configuration problems. "Figuring out how to get a wireless network up when you've got a mess – running around, looking for what channels are available -- WiFi Explorer has been absolutely fantastic. I use it everywhere I go," Allen said. "It's very clean, it's very visual."

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Angry IP Scanner

A free open-source, cross-platform network tool, Angry IP Scanner scans IP addresses and ports. It can resolve an IP address' hostname, determine its MAC address, scan ports, and more. Additional features include NetBIOS information, favorite IP address ranges, web server detection, and customizable openers. The program is written and maintained by Anton Keks. "This will do a scan across a bunch of subnets, and report back to you what IP addresses are in use, what IP addresses are free," Allen said. "It's a very simple tool but hugely effective."

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AutoCasperNBI is designed to automate the creation of NetBoot images for use with JAMF Software's Casper Suite imaging. Released at the JAMF user show, the free tool was created by Ben Toms, a senior infrastructure analyst at Pentland Brands in the UK and writer of the macmule blog. "It's a very, very powerful tool. For guys who use Casper on a regular basis and have to build out images, you'll understand where this is coming from," Allen said. "As we go forward, this will become more and more valuable to us."

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DeployStudio is free imaging software for OS X. It provides customizable tools for automating application installs and post-configuration tasks for large deployments of workstations, servers and cluster nodes. "I've been using it for a long time," Allen said. "It's a very beautiful tool for creating a NetBoot image, nicely written … an alternative to Casper imaging. It's something that I encourage the new guys to play with. Go explore it. It's another tool in the arsenal."

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Apple Remote Desktop

Apple Remote Desktop ($79.99) is Apple's OS X desktop management system for software distribution, asset management, and remote assistance. "This is the one that I can use with one hand tied behind my back and a blindfold on. I've just been using it forever," Allen said. "If you want to be the puppet-master … and monitor what's going on on your network and on your devices, this gives it to you."

"I'm praying for the day when it becomes available on iOS devices," he said. "It's one of the core pieces of my toolkit."

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AutoDMG from Per Olofsson is a tool that lets admins create clean, never booted OS X images. It takes an OS X installer and builds a system image, suitable for deployment with DeployStudio or Absolute Manage. "It builds out an installer DMG. You take your installer, and you drop it in, and it builds an installer package," Allen said. "Hats off to the guy, he's a god."

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Apple's Boot Camp lets admins run a Windows operating system on Mac hardware, temporarily turning a Mac into a Windows PC. Winclone is a tool from Twocanoes Software that creates a clone of the Windows Boot Camp partition for recovery or migration to another Mac. (Pricing starts at $29.99 for an individual license; professional licenses and support start at $99.99) If someone wants to move their PC to a Mac, for example, Winclone will transfer Windows, plus all the data and all their applications, to Boot Camp. "This is the only tool I refer to when I'm looking at Boot Camp images. What you can do is take a Sysprep Windows hard drive, and you can basically pull an image from that, package that up, drop it into your JSS [JAMF Software Server], and create your NetBoot image. It is literally as simple as one, two, three, four," Allen said.

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Automator for OS X is a scripting app from Apple that lets users define simple actions, through a point-and-click process, and then bundle them into workflows to automate repetitive and tedious tasks. "On a day-to-day basis, if I've got a need to do something and I know I'm going to need to do it 20 times, 50 times, daily, weekly, monthly -- just run up Automator. It does all the fuzzy logic behind the scenes, and it will give you the result that you need," Allen said. "It's something that I have found in the industry has been hugely under-appreciated."

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CreateUserPkg is a utility for creating packages to deploy Mac OS X user accounts. The packages create local user accounts when installed, and they are compatible with workflows that can install standard installer packages. The code is by Per Olofsson, creator of AutoDMG. "Very, very simple tool. It does exactly what it says on the tin. You put in the full name, you put in the short name, you put in the password, you put in the user ID, you set it as an administrator account, or a standard account, and you build out a package, and it creates a user pkg," Allen said. "Very, very simple, hugely effective."

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Lingon from Peter Borg Apps is a utility that runs things automatically by modifying configuration files for Mac's "launchd" system function. Lingon ($5-$10) can launch an app, start a script or run a command, for example. It can be scheduled to run at a specific time, and if an app or a script crashes, Lingon can automatically restart it. "It's a launchd creator," Allen said. "Very simple, very easy to use. It takes all the guesswork out of creating launch daemons and launch agents. It's something I use very frequently."

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Sublime Text

Sublime Text ($70) is a text editor for code, markup and prose. The Goto Anything features lets users open files with only a few keystrokes, and instantly jump to symbols, lines or words. With Multiple Selections, uses can make multiple changes simultaneously. "Everybody has their own flavor of text editor. I'm not going to enforce my flavor on you, I'm just going to point out that it exists," Allen said. "I love that it will give me a nice user experience, a good GUI. I love the fact that I can have stuff tabbed. I love the fact that it will understand what I'm typing and it will color-code it based on the language that I'm typing in. I'm sure there are 1,001 text editors out there that will do exactly the same thing, but it's my one."

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The free GeekTool app lets users display bits of information on a Mac desktop. Users can monitor MacOS X activity with /var/log/system.log or other files, for example, or launch custom scripts or commands, such as "df" to check space left on filesystems. Users can also create displays to monitor bandwidth usage, CPU load, and memory availability with tools such as MRTG or RRD. "This has been around the Windows world for years, but it's something that has never really existed in the Mac world," Allen said. "As a tech, it's lovely to be able to glance at a desktop and see the IP of the machine that you're working on, or the host name of the machine. It's these kinds of simple things. There are guys out there who have written geeklets that'll do all sorts of things -- bring up your calendar for the day, give you notifications, tell you how many mails you've got in your in box."

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Prey from Fork Ltd. is anti-theft tracking software for laptops, smartphones and tablets. Admins can remotely locate, lock, and wipe data from missing devices. For enterprises, the cloud-based device protection and recovery software includes features such as active tracking mode, automated deployment, and reporting customization options. (A free plan offers limited features; paid plans range from $5 to $399 per month.) "This is one I have come to love. It's a little bit controversial," Allen said. "Obviously if you're going to deploy out to machines, people are a little bit sensitive. Can these people track me? Will they know where I am? I've had this conversation with businesses in and around the practicalities of it. For me, the practicalities far outweigh the fear element."