Build a functional collection of administrative tools

Systems administration can be a highly personal task: The tools you use might not be the same tools your colleagues use. Nevertheless, certain items should be in every Windows NT administrator's toolkit. In this column I discuss these essential resources, which include 3.5" disks, CD-ROMs, printed reference materials, and online sources of information. I'll also clue you in to resources you can turn to for help when the going gets tough.

CD-ROMs and Disks
The most basic tools in your admin toolkit are copies of the CD-ROMs for NT Workstation and NT Server. Most likely, you have installed operating systems across your network, but sometimes when you change the configuration of a particular computer, you must supply either the CD-ROM or the network path where the files are shared. However, if you're trying to fix a network-related problem, you might not be able to connect to the shared files, so using the CD-ROM is often quicker. If you undertake an emergency repair in which you have to compare installed files with the original versions, you must use the CD-ROM, even if you installed NT over the network.

If you have a computer that doesn't have a CD-ROM drive, you can use a portable CD-ROM drive, even though NT doesn't support parallel-port drives. To use a portable CD-ROM drive to access the NT CD-ROMs, boot to DOS (which supports portable CD-ROM drives with the correct drivers) and copy the NT install files from the CD-ROM to the hard disk.

Do you need the three boot/setup disks that come with NT? Not in most situations, but if you have to perform an emergency repair, you'll need these three disks to get the process started. If you don't have these disks, you can create them for your Intel-based systems by running winnt32.exe with the /OX option--it's in the i386 directory on the NT CD-ROM. (If you run Digital Alpha systems, you still must create a boot disk, although the emergency repair process will be different from that for Intel-based systems.) Create a set of disks for NT Server and a set for NT Workstation (they differ from each other slightly) and keep them in your admin toolkit. When you run winnt32.exe from the CD-ROM, it doesn't matter whether you are on Workstation, Server, or even Windows 95. To create a boot disk for DOS, run winnt.exe.

You must have an Emergency Repair Disk (ERD) for each server on your system (for more information on ERDs, see my January 1997 column, "The Emergency Repair Disk"). You won't keep ERDs in your admin toolkit, because each ERD is specific to a computer. You can designate a central location for ERDs, or you can store each one with its server. You can decide whether to maintain an ERD for each workstation: If you have a large number of machines, keeping an ERD for each workstation probably isn't feasible. A better workstation strategy is to run the rdisk.exe utility on each workstation periodically to update the backup copy of the Registry information it saves in the \Winnt\repair directory on the computer's hard disk. I recommend that you run rdisk.exe on every server regularly, or at least after you change server configurations. Screen 1, page 226, shows the Repair Disk Utility window.

A DOS boot disk can be a useful addition to your admin toolkit; it is especially helpful for systems that aren't booting correctly. On my DOS boot disks, I like to include utilities such as a simple text editor, the ATTRIB command (so that I can modify hidden and read-only attributes on files), and some utilities for viewing directories. If your NT computers use the NTFS file system exclusively, booting with a DOS disk won't ordinarily give you access to NTFS partitions, because DOS can't read the NTFS format. To read the NTFS partitions from DOS, make sure the ntfsdos.exe utility is on your DOS boot disk. Then, you can not only examine files on the NTFS partitions to make sure they are intact, but you can recover vital files off the NTFS drives. You can download a free copy of NTFSDOS from Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell's Web site (http://www.ntinternals.com). To run NTFSDOS from your boot disk, simply boot and run the utility from the disk.

An NT boot disk is another good addition to your admin toolkit, especially if you have systems that boot only to NT. Whereas the DOS boot disk is all you need to start a computer under DOS, the NT boot disk only begins the boot process--it then transfers startup control to the copy of NT on the hard disk. Your NT boot disk will help you work around problems with boot files on a hard disk. When the boot disk has the computer up and running NT, you can fix any missing or damaged files. To make an NT boot disk, format a disk under NT, not DOS. Use the command-line FORMAT command, the File Manager, or Explorer to format the disk. Then, copy three files from your C drive to the disk: ntldr, ntdetect.com, and boot.ini. These files are hidden in the root directory of your C drive. You might need to edit boot.ini if you use this NT boot disk on a machine where NT is installed on a different hard disk.

In the unusual case that you boot from a SCSI controller with no BIOS, you must copy ntbootdd.sys to your NT boot disk and use it for booting. The ntbootdd.sys file is the renamed device driver for the SCSI adapter. Therefore, if you use the NT boot disk to boot another system, you might need to modify this file so that you can use the new system's SCSI driver.

Most of us end up supporting multiple network cards, each of which has slightly different setup software and drivers. I usually copy the software for my network cards onto each system, but I also keep a copy of every unique network card disk, and you should, too. If you have only a few network card types, set up DOS boot disks that also connect to the file server where you store the downloadable files for your operating systems, applications, and utilities. The quickest way to set up a DOS boot disk that connects to a file server is to run the MS-DOS Network Client 3.0 Setup program on computers that have each type of network card. You might need to edit the IRQ and Address settings in the protocol.ini file the setup program builds. If you don't have the DOS Network Client disks, you can copy them from the \clients\msclient\disks directory on your NT Server CD-ROM or you can build them from the Network Client Administrator utility in NT server, as Screen 2 shows.

If your antivirus software can fit on a disk, a virus scan disk is the next must-have in your admin toolkit. It will be helpful when your users report mysterious problems with their workstations. NT suffers less from viruses than other operating systems do, but viruses can still infect boot sectors in NT. I had a very frustrating experience when I set up a classroom full of computers (at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, of course). Three computers would not install NT. The install process would crash partway through. I finally booted with my DOS disk, ran a virus scan, and found a simple boot sector virus, which the virus-scanning software removed. Because I had FDISK on my DOS boot disk, I was able to work around the problem with the FDISK /MBR option, which rebuilt the master boot record on the affected computers. You can run MS-DOS-based virus software even if the file system on a computer is NTFS, and the software will check for boot-sector viruses. (For more information about virus scanners for NT, See Jonathan Chau, "Workstation Virus Scanning Software," November 1997, and Mark Russinovich, "Inside On-Access Virus Scanners," September 1997.)

Service Packs
If you must troubleshoot a system, one of the first things you must do is make sure that you've applied all the appropriate service packs and hot fixes to it. Service packs used to be small and easily downloaded, but they have grown and now contain additional software that has been added to NT 4.0 since its release. Because service packs are usually in the 20MB range, keep them on CD-ROMs in your admin toolkit, in a central location, or on a server. (Microsoft has promised to return to small service packs by separating product enhancements from essential fixes.) Fortunately, service packs are now coming out in a more timely manner on TechNet CD-ROMs, which I'll describe in more detail shortly.

Be a Recording Artist
If your admin toolkit has grown into a small suitcase of disks that you must haul around, think about making your own CD-ROM that contains copies of all the essential drivers, utilities, service packs, hot fixes, and hardware configuration software (for your network cards, in particular) for your systems. You can also add your favorite shareware and commercial diagnostic utilities to your admin CD-ROM.

Reference Materials
No administrator should be without the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Resource Kit and Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0 Resource Kit. If you support BackOffice products such as SQL Server, Exchange Server, or Systems Management Server (SMS), you must have the BackOffice resource kits. The books in the resource kits are useful, but the CD-ROMs have even more helpful information and many utilities that will make your life as a systems administrator easier (see "Windows NT 4.0 Resource Kit Utilities," June 1997). Screen 3 shows some of the utilities in the NT Server 4.0 resource kit.

Another essential reference tool is a subscription to Microsoft's TechNet support service. When you have a TechNet subscription, you'll receive TechNet CD-ROMs once a month. The CD-ROMs contain the Microsoft Knowledge Base of problem reports and fixes, articles on how to tune and optimize Microsoft products, and software patches and service packs. Microsoft has added resource kit CD-ROMs to the monthly TechNet shipments; thus, a TechNet subscription is a cost-effective way for you to get resource kit utilities, as long as you don't need the manuals in hard-copy form. For more information on TechNet, visit Microsoft's TechNet Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/technet). Screen 4 shows a typical TechNet CD-ROM search.

A good NT reference book should be a part of your admin bookshelf. Dozens of NT references are on the market, and I find it difficult to single out just one or two as best. Nevertheless, let me suggest a couple of reference books that I like, just to get you started. The first is Windows NT Server Professional Reference, Volume II, by Karanjit Siyan (New Riders Publishing). The second is Windows NT Server 4 Unleashed, by Jason Garms (SAMS Publishing), which comes with a CD-ROM that contains source code and utilities.

Web Sites and Newsgroups
I said earlier that I would give you the names of some resources to help with your tough questions and problems. When I am learning about a new topic or dealing with a problem, I like to follow the newsgroups to see what problems other people are having and what solutions they're offering. One of the best news servers is msnews.microsoft.com. It offers almost 20 NT forums covering topics from Apps to Wolfpack and includes discussion groups for BackOffice products. There is a downside to newsgroups: They produce an overwhelming volume of information. (Most of these newsgroups are propagated over the Internet under the hierarchy microsoft.public. Thus, you might check your own server first, before you go to an overburdened Microsoft site.)

Many Web sites provide valuable resources. I recommend two in particular that you should visit regularly: the Microsoft Web site at http://www.microsoft.com, and the Windows NT Magazine Web site at http://www.winntmag.com. From the Windows NT Magazine site, you can download articles from back issues of the magazine and search an interactive editorial index of articles from 1997 issues categorized by author and subject.

A final resource that should be a part of your reference library is one or more of the many free emailed NT newsletters. They contain late-breaking news and information about bugs, fixes, new downloads, and white papers. Microsoft offers newsletters for NT and BackOffice (and for other programs and operating systems) at http://register.microsoft.com/ regwiz/personalinfo.asp. You can also subscribe to UPDATE, the free email newsletter from Windows NT Magazine. Go to the magazine's Web site and click Subscribe to UPDATE. UPDATE contains information about new software downloads and white papers, and links to Web sites on which you can find articles or software referenced in UPDATE.