20 great Windows open source projects you should get to know
- 11 June, 2008 09:02
No one loves to pay crazy per-user licensing fees, not to mention 15- 22 per cent annual support residuals. (And no one loves the endless, mind-numbing meetings with non-technical financial folks trying to pry budget for these tools from their clenched fists.) So today we're going to discuss tools that are free. However, we are not naming them to this list of "great" tools simply because they cost nothing. These are some of the best lesser-known tools out there.
Of course, whenever we speak of great open source Windows projects we need to acknowledge the obvious players. These are the ones that have crossed over to the mainstream and have given paid software a run for its money. We all know them: OpenOffice.org, Firefox, MySQL, Xen, JBoss, and SugarCRM. These are what I like to refer to as the superstars of Open Source for Windows.
But you don't need me to tell you about the superstars. Instead, I have tested and compiled together a list of 20 great open source projects for Windows that will appeal mostly to the management and maintenance of your network. Some of these tools are just for the desktop and some are just for fun -- because happy IT folks are good IT folks. (They are not locking everyone out of the network while sneaking into the server room with a sledgehammer and ... oh, come on! Admit it, I can't be the only one to have had that fantasy!) But enough of my outlandish ranting.
The list that follows is organized by my own personal taste. The tools I think are really the unsung gems are first, with the ones that seem to be far more widely known are last.
Juice is a podcast receiver and falls into the category of "fun tool." The first thing that impressed me is its speed. The tool downloaded two podcasts (about 45MB each) in just under a minute. I enjoyed the fact that Juice also came pre-populated with some popular podcasts and the interface for adding your own favorites is simply cut-and-paste. The one thing that takes some work is getting it to work with Windows Vista. Vista is not supported officially although I did find a solution to the error message Vista gave in Juice's support forum. (It was a simple enough fix. I just needed to change the download directory to Documents from My Documents.) Two minutes and I was up and running. Juice is platform independent, fast, and easy to use. If you need something to bring you down from a stressful day and podcasts do the trick, this is a great tool.
No, this isn't the1996 movie with Gov. Arnold. I'm talking about a tool for the truly paranoid. If you're in IT, you ought to be paranoid at least to the proper degree. Eraser is a program that will dispense with sensitive data on your hard drive and do it according to US Dept. of Defense standards in overwriting the data using various methodologies to ensure it is not recoverable. I'm certain some IT guys wished they had this tool when they found out how "creative" their accounting departments were being on the earnings reports that led to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Eraser can be set to overwrite any unused space on drive. Alternatively, it can be used to delete particular folders, sub-folders, and files. Additionally you can set schedules and create several tasks that can run simultaneously. Right clicking on the tray icon allows you to disable scheduled tasks. Another cool feature is the ability to create a "DBAN" disk. This can be used to bulk erase systems that come off lease or that you donate to charity. (Note: it is illegal to erase the illegal activities of your CEO before the FEDS come to get him and you.) Seriously, this is a good tool. I could see myself loading this onto laptop users' systems and creating a folder called dump and then setting a schedule. I would instruct users to put everything they wanted to disappear permanently into that folder. Nothing more would be required on their part or mine.
This tool is a cool alternative to commercial imaging utilities like Ghost. Support is available for both Windows XP and Vista but there is a catch: only the client runs on Windows systems. The actual Web-based management tools need to run on Fedora or Ubuntu Linux. If you are purely a Windows person, I tell you to fear not. I downloaded a virtual machine version of Fedora 8 that runs nicely in a VMware player. The installation is easy enough and management was simple. FOG is, after all, a Web-based app. Now, I know I'm the guy that writes a blog called "A Better Windows World," but sometimes to get to a better place we need to play nicely with the other kids. With FOG, creating images and managing them is similar to using a product like Ghost or Acronis. Like all imaging software, it needs to be tweaked for your environment -- imaging is not a perfect science yet. So, if you need to tweak images no matter what software you use, why pay for a solution? Anyone who has more than 10-20 user knows how expensive this can get since most commercial imaging software is priced per host. So give FOG a try. You won't regret it. And maybe with the money you save, you can buy some other things your IT department desperately needs -- like more IT people.
This is perhaps one of my favorite open source tools. MRemote is a single tool to handle all of your remote connections easily and effectively. MRemote can handle RDP, ICA, VNC, SSH1, SSH2, Telnet, HTTP, HTTPS, RAW and Rlogin. What's fantastic about this tool is that you can set up a quick, one-time connection to a remote system, or you can save your connection profiles for future use. A feature called "smart size" allows you to shrink the workspace for RDP/VNC clients. This is a great feature for troubleshooting a remote client. Rumor has it MRemote may be leaving open source and going commercial. I'm torn over this idea. I love the fact that the tool is free and I can keep using my free version with no troubles right now. However, I can't say that this isn't something I would mind paying for in the end, especially if it continues to improve in the manner it has thus far. The ability to remote into all my servers, clients, Citrix sessions, Cisco equipment, Web servers, and whatever else I can't think of from a single console is worth the price. Nevertheless, for now it remains an open source tool and something worth checking out.
Technically this program has been around for quite some time, on the Linux scene anyway. I first saw GIMP back in 1999 when I was working for a dot-com. The tool's move over to Windows is a win for Windows pros in a very big way. GIMP or GNU Image Manipulator Program was created by two students at Berkeley in the 1990's. The software has a long and complex history and a horrible name if you ask me. That being said this software rivals commercial image editing packages and has an incredible amount of versatility. When I was at that dot-com, I supported a marketing department with three full-timers and an intern. All four needed image-editing software on their machines. It cost us over $1800. Compare that to GIMP, which is easy enough to learn and cost nothing. It has pretty much the same navigation and menus as some of the commercial brands. Features such as layers, brush types, color controls, and filters are available. You can even download plug-ins to enhance the editor even more. So, we have a tool that has a long history, has the stability and feature set to match commercial products and works, looks and feels like all the major packages out there. Really this one is a no brainer!
Paglo is an IT search engine designed to help you manage assets and software, monitor your network (even remotely), and receive alerts. The tool's developers even market themselves as the "Google of IT search engines." The ability to manipulate the data collected into reports, charts, and dashboards makes this a powerful inventory management tool. Paglo works by downloading and installing the Paglo Crawler to discover and report on assets. This information is then uploaded to a secure server and indexed to your own private portal. The powerful search engine ties it all together. For some the online aspect of this tool might leave you feeling leery -- think of your Hotmail account or online banking or even companies like Salesforce.com. But it's the 21st. century and we have just as much worry over the disgruntled mail room person who has access to lots of personal information as we do with our data in the cloud. Paglo is in beta right now and is accepting invitations to join it. If you can conquer any fears you might have of both open source and an external, cloud-based hosting service, this is a good tool that can make your Windows world better. You can see an online demo here.
Liferay is an enterprise portal that offers a full array of features and flexibility. Wish I learned about Liferay earlier. My last company went and dropped over $500K between document management, intranets and corporate instant messaging and collaboration software. As I tested the interface and features, I was surprised. I learned we could have done 75 per cent of all the things we wanted by spending little to no money. What we saved on commercial software packages could have been spent on servers and more storage that could have been shared by our IT projects as well. What makes Liferay even cooler is the customized "portlets" that each user can add. You can add weather, financial tools, news and RSS feeds. You can collaborate via internal blogs, wiki's, and message boards. Document Management has check-in, checkout, and versioning. Being open sourced you can under the licensing rights customize Liferay for your companies needs.
GroundWork Monitor is a bit of a different offering than most open source projects. This company is actually a commercial software vendor that sells GroundWork network monitoring software. However, they offer a community version of their product that covers most of the monitoring functions you need for your network. Like most open source support, support is handled through forums. GroundWork has auto discovery options for server devices and applications. The entire thing is downloadable for your Windows environment in a VMware virtual machine however this VM must run on a Linux flavor. You're starting to see the connection here, right? If you want something free for Windows often you need to get it from a Linux source. Ironic isn't it? If this makes your skin crawl too much, there are alternatives: GroundWork's Pro or Enterprise commercial versions or Hyena.
Version 8 of this software, code-named Black Moon, was released as an open source project. If you are not using a commercial backup software you probably are using the Microsoft's built-in backup software. Nevertheless, Cobian Backup is worth looking into. I tested it out by backing up my Document folder in Windows Vista. The system took just 12 minutes to backup 16.5GB's of data and compressed it down to 9.25GB's. What's more, I was able to create a copy with no compression and no archiving. True, this isn't the kind of backup needed most of the time. However, when we do need to store data in another location, the ability to copy files to a secondary location and be able to retrieve them instantly without running a restore process is invaluable. Cobian Backup can also work as a fully encrypted and compressed backup solution and so it can be used to routinely schedule backups, both the compressed/encrypted or not. Mix and match, its up to you. Cobian Backup comes with the ability to choose your compression and encryption methodology as well, which is a major advantage over the built in Windows backup utility. It is a good way to get more than the basic backup software without emptying your budget.
Locker technology, and encrypting an entire hard drive has its place, full drive encryption can sometimes be like using a cannon to hunt ducks. It is sometimes just too much. While we do have to be able to support the security needs of those who work with very sensitive data (they need the RSA device, full drive encryption and maybe the retina scanner), most people would be fine with a portion of their hard drives being set aside as a secure location. TrueCrypt is perfect for this. Simply create a volume and assign a portion of your exiting free space to TrueCrypt. That portion shows up on your computer as a file, nothing significant or noteworthy. When mounted, however, it acts like a separate drive on your system. If you are truly paranoid you can also make the drive hidden. You can use TrueCrypt to turn USB devices into secure drives as well with the tool's Traveler option. This is what I like to call responsible security which is better than full-blown paranoia any day. Now, I, personally am not a paranoid person and I think sometimes those in the security industry can go too far. I once had an instructor for a Microsoft Security class that almost had me burning my computers, electronics, emptying my bank accounts and moving into a cave in the Blue Ridge Mountains. By the time he was done, I was suspicious of my 1 year old. That would be an example of what I would call irresponsible security. That's not to say I take security lightly. I just don't see the need to spend $2,500 to secure the desktop in every instance (for instance, a six-year-old machine in an office reception area running Windows 2000 with 512MB of RAM). TrueCrypt is the right amount of security for most of your enterprise needs.
I'm not a stuffy person. I understand the whole "free the world" thing -- you know, the down-with-the-tyranny, bohemian, hippie or mad scientist types. However, for the life of me I do not get the naming of these open source projects! While I'm not crazy about its name, I do have to say that Joomla! is a great Website design and content management tool. I was told about this tool from a colleague and I have been messing around with it for months. Now it must be said that to get Joomla! configured will take some work. It requires PHP and MySQL. In all fairness Joomla! does seem to work better with Apache than IIS. (Actually, I tried to get it to work with IIS with no success at all. I finally gave up and downloaded XAMMP, which installed all three components to my server and I was set.) Still, I'm keeping Joomla! on this open-source list for Windows because I like it so much. It makes usability simple by breaking down the management component into sections These are:
- Article Manager
- FrontPage Manager
- Section Manager
- Category Manager
- Media Manager
- Menu Manager
- Language Manager
- User Manager
Need to manage your hardware resources without a budget? Here is a great alternative. Version 1.0 was just released in April and is already a very impressive product. The name is elusive since H-Inventory not only inventories your hardware but also has the ability to audit software, updates, and scripts running on the machines. Users have the ability to report incidents and these can be tracked in H-Inventory. Therefore we have an asset management and help desk software in one package that is open source. One drawback is that there is no ability to escalate or assign particular technicians, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that added soon. (Uhm, actually, I wrote the developers with the suggestion.) Now there is some work involved in setting it up to work on your Windows server. However, this software does work with IIS, which should make you "true blue" Microsoft professionals happy. To add to the entire package, you can download H-deploy and this will allow pushing updates and software installations to your users. H-deploy will work with either .exe or .msi packages. For networks that are a bit larger, you can even build a knowledge base for incidents that have been handled. The interface is all browser based and the script is simple to deploy on your network. This is definitely a project to keep an eye on.
This is another productivity tool for your end users. Thanks to the growing popularity of RSS feeds, this tool makes a great addition to the desktop. Personally, I don't necessarily want all the feeds I am subscribed to bugging me when I'm in Internet Explorer or for that matter when I am using my Outlook mail client. If you feel the same, here's a solution. RSSOWL manages your feeds and even has an extensive directory of feeds you can subscribe to simply by clicking on them. I like it because I can find my favorite bloggers with RSSOWL. (The screen shot I used with this entry will give you a hint of whom that is.) RSSOWL is so simple to use I just unzipped the file, threw on my desktop and launched the executable. Within 10 minutes, RSSOWL was populating my feed reader from a long lists of bookmarks. I thought I knew of every tech blog and news source out there but I found out rather quickly I was wrong! A secondary benefit was to have the pre-populated bookmarks. Want to manage your RSS feeds in one place with simple installation and tons of content? This is the product.
Here is a tool we can use for good or evil it depends on which side of the force draws you. I am going to speak about the good uses only. I don't want to know what the so-called "Wardrivers" are doing. Netstumbler is a neat utility for finding analyzing and troubleshooting wireless networks. This tiny tool allows us to see where we have weak connections. It helps us to detect rogue access points as well as detect causes of interference. Filters help you easily detect whether your WLANs are running encryption, the channel they are broadcasting on and speed of the connection. All of these are very useful features for securing and improving your WLAN. Moreover, if you are out of town on a business trip and the boss is too cheap to pay for Internet at the hotel, it comes in handy for finding a quick open WLAN for checking and sending e-mails (that wouldn't be considered Wardriving, would it?). Although NetStumbler is free (though its authors jokingly calls it beggarware -- as they do ask that you make a donation if you use it), it is technically not open source. A similar tool called Inssider is open source and its creators claim that they've taken up where NetStumbler left off -- namely at ongoing development and support for Windows Vista and 64-bit Windows XP. However, as NetStumbler is the granddaddy in this category of wireless analyzers, I felt it earned a place on this list.
ReactOS offers an interesting alternative between sticking with seven-year-old XP and avoiding Vista. ReactOS is a Windows XP-compatible OS, meaning it is meant to work with all the applications and devices that are available for Windows XP. Now ReactOS is in the alpha stages -- so it is strictly a test-only product at this point. Like a few other products on this list, it comes available in a preloaded VMware virtual machine. Therefore, VMplayer is all that is needed to demo the software and see it in action. I have to say that when it is launches it is impressive. Not at all the look and feel I would expect from a non-windows OS. The menus remind me of the XP classic style or Windows 2000. Overall, the navigation and file structure is very much like Windows (sans the color schemes, but a very good imitation all the same). I even found one of the most Windows-like features, the Start Button (see screen shot). Now being Alpha software, I was not able to test out installing XP -based software. We need to await the more stable Beta that should arrive very soon in June. ReactOS is a nice tool that I can think of lots of uses for -- an intern's PC or testing environments, for instance. Definitely, ReactOS is worth a look.
Of course, Thunderbird is the younger sibling to the wildly popular Mozilla Firefox. Thunderbird is to e-mail and news clients what Firefox is to Web browsing. I actually know some businesses that run Microsoft Works and use Thunderbird as their e-mail client. Here is where it gets tricky: Thunderbird trumps Outlook Express 6.0 for Windows XP. However, if you are one of the few (it certainly seems these days as if we are in the minority) that run Windows Vista, well then, it is a toss-up between the two e-mail clients. However, Thunderbird is simple to configure and even has the ability to manage your Gmail account. That's another plus for Thunderbird even in Windows Vista and especially now that Outlook Express and Windows Mail have both decided to remove support for cloud/http mail services. Now I would love to see Thunderbird support all cloud/http mail services, since I personally seem to use them all (Hotmail, Live, Yahoo ...). It would be great to use one tool to collect and deal with them all. Even Thunderbird isn't there yet, but it is more likely to make such a move then Windows Mail.
This is another tool that is again part of the Mozilla family and has not exactly been flying under the radar without notice. Still, I believe it belongs on this list because unlike our superstar open source projects, FTP apps do not get the glory and recognition they should. However, FTP is still widely used for file transfer. If you are installing XAMMP to work with Joomla! then Filezilla is installed automatically. Now, I have always found Microsoft's FTP service to be sufficient but very simple in the area of FTP servers. Funny that Filezilla would actually be more graphical and easier to administer than a Microsoft product! Nevertheless, Filezilla has more options and better usability. If your organization has a need for FTP file transfer, Filezilla Server is a great way to go.
As IT pros we love the fancy tools that have all the bells and whistles. Occasionally though you need to get back to the basics. jNetStream may not be the sexiest tool out there, but it doesn't have to be. jNetStream is a protocol analyzer and sniffer but that is not all. With jNetStream, you can decode the captured packets. This takes some work to utilize in Windows and you will need the Java VM installed since this tool is completely written as a Java application. jNetStream uses Network Protocol Language (NPL) and this allows it the ability to create protocols using NPL as the basis. Now I've never been that kind of admin, but if you are and you need to really customize the way protocols work in your environment, here is a tool that will sniff, analyze, and decode all in one package. If you are the kind of IT Pro who just wants to really dig deeper to understand your environment, or maybe to make your boss proud with your in-depth knowledge of protocol analysis, jNetStream is a tool that can take you there.
Yes, I've written about Keyfinder already, but it still belongs on this list. Keyfinder searches the registry of Windows and locates the product keys of software. The information can then be saved to a file or printed. Keyfinder is not a key generator (hey -- that's illegal), but it is a good basic software management program. You can use Keyfinder to track and compare software licensing. This serves as a great tool for re-installation of licensed applications in cases where you may have lost the physical license. For obvious reasons I am not showing my product key, but you can see from the screen shot that I can quickly find those keys as well as information about my Windows installation, like service pack level, registered owner and registered organization. The configuration file can be manually edited to locate more product keys, if you know where the key is located in the registry. It takes a little work on your part to configure. Nevertheless, if you need to manage software on a budget then here is the tool.
Here is a tool I found when I had people coming in and out of my environment. Laptop users and vendors were coming and going every day. Management wouldn't let me lock down the network or spend a dime on securing it at the time. So I had Angry IP Scanner running constantly. It is a very easy-to-use tool for monitoring IP addresses based upon subnets. You can scan and report on hostnames, open ports, ping response time and more. You can also launch tools for your hosts like Telnet, Web browsers, tracert, and FTP. That's a lot of functionality for a little package. I have always found this tool to be a great way to know who is really on my network, unlike some built in utilities, like the DHCP server or my Network Places in Windows. I once had a major piece of accounting software that would cause the browser service to stop responding properly. When I went to look at the network, half the machines that were there would not show up in my Network Places. Angry IP Scanner gave me a quick way to check on my client PC's and know what was going on in my environment.
I have been in IT over a decade. To some, I'm a babe in this business and to others, I'm a dinosaur. Either way I have learned though the years that IT people are not too different from doctors. Of course when our patients die no one cries, well, except the user who just loss hours of work, or the business owner who thought they had no real need of a disaster recovery/business continuance plan. Like doctors, we have different tools at our disposal and some overlap in functionality. Knowing what to use at the right time and having a variety of resources is the difference between success and failure. I hope this list will help to add to your arsenal and give you "A Better Windows World."