Cheap Tools to Try During Tough Times

IT managers don't need the recession as an excuse to use freeware and open source applications, but the current economic climate shines a spotlight on just how much free tools can help slash costs and sustain IT services.

"You can get some really good search and management capabilities from free tools if you don't have the money right now to buy full commercial products," says Rick Vanover, systems administrator at Safelite Auto Glass in Columbus, Ohio. "I would say they offer anywhere between 30% and 70% of the functionality you need to manage a virtual environment."

Vanover recently has taken advantage of free tools from systems management newcomers such as Embotics and VKernel, both vendors that provide limited-functionality versions of broader enterprise products free for download.

Most recently VKernel introduced a free virtual machine documentation tool for VMware ESX server environments, dubbed SnapshotMyVM, which inventories all virtual machines and helps to eliminate manual processes around managing virtual environments. And Embotics' V-Scout tool is a scaled-down version of its V-Commander product that the vendor says helps IT managers generate reports from data dispersed in their virtual environment.

"I look to freeware and open source tools to get more out of what I have, and the free tools usually complement the more premium product from the vendor so it's an easy transition if you do decide to buy commercial products," Vanover says.

And he is not alone. John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University, turned to freely available open source tools in lieu of a commercial monitoring software product, and fortunately for him, one vendor offered both.

"The dollar figure for a total monitoring solution was going to be way out of our budget, and as time went on and money got scarcer and scarcer, we decided to explore open source alternatives," Turner says.

Turner and his staff evaluated both commercial and open source software from Hyperic. Turner says with most of the features available for free, his team couldn't pass up Hyperic's open source offering. And perhaps in time, when budget dollars are again available, he will be able to upgrade his deployment to Hyperic's commercial offering, he says.

"In such a case, you could overlay the commercial version of what you have done with the software and none of your work is lost and you have gained that sudden ability to get access to full commercial support," Turner says.

Others find open source software helps them get critical network projects completed without having to ask for additional funding. For instance, Chad Buzzard was able to complete a project that might have otherwise been pushed to the back burner if not for open source software.

The director of network operations at Lending Tree in Charlotte, N.C., says he might not have been able to undertake a critical IP address management upgrade without the freely available application IPplan.

"Many IT folks and shops don't get that proper IP address management is more than just housekeeping. Although more appropriately thought of as IP address design, how you determine to lay out your address space becomes a major factor in being able to grow and adapt your organization to the changing needs of IT," Buzzard says. "Last year we moved from spreadsheets to the open source tool called IP Plan. I can understand the priority conflict in moving to an automated solution, but the cost of a product should not be a factor for anyone if they take their time to look at the options out there."

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