If the economy's getting better, it's doing it slowly, and certainly not perceptibly for most of my friends and clients in the IT biz. Budgets are tight and the specter of "the cloud" looms over many of our jobs. So, it's time to ask—what to do?

I've got a thought: go European. Or, put simply, make better use of free stuff.

For the past quarter-decade, I've been fortunate to be able to travel out of the United States a lot in my consulting and teaching practice, and in that time I've noticed that while Europe and the U.S. do many things similarly—Windows is big there as it is here, Office sees wide use on both sides of the Atlantic, etc.—the two geographical areas differ in how they choose their support tools.

If I'm speaking to a large IT pro audience in the U.S. and I ask, "How many of you build VBscripts with WMI and/or ADSI to automate management tasks and Active Directory jobs?", I'll be lucky to get five percent of my audience raising their hands. In contrast, the same question in a European venue will often get a positive response from 25 to 33 percent of the attendees. Ask about some truly horrible but free-in-the-box tool like Windows 2000's Remote Installation Service (RIS), and almost no one in the room in the U.S. or Canada says they're using it, but ask in a European group and you may get 20 to 25 percent of the room responding. In short, our friends from Galway to Moscow seem to have a tradition of trying to squeeze the most out of what they paid for Windows rather than turning to third-party time- and labor-saving products.

And heck, in a rotten economy, I say: let's do what they do. After all, if we can save a few kilobucks on software licenses, then the folks in the boardroom might be a little less inclined to ship our jobs out to the cloud. In case you haven't had time to research running Windows on ten dollars a day, here are two suggestions.

Deploy with WAIK and MDT
Rolling out zillions of Windows desktops and servers can be a time-consuming job, so many of us have turned to any number of really cool and useful deployment tools that, unfortunately, can be sort of expensive. Prior to Vista, Microsoft's automated deployment tools were "minimalistically horrible," to coin a phrase. But as of November 2006, Microsoft has been offering a useful tool for scripting unattended Windows installs (Windows System Image Manager or WSIM), a disk imaging tool along the lines of Ghost (ImageX), a free cut-down version of Windows for use in doing offline deployment and file system repair (Windows Pre-execution Environment or WinPE), and a multicasting server-based tool that ties those capabilities up with a few nice GUIs (Windows Deployment Services or WDS). You can find most of those tools in a free download called the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK), and you can also download (again, for free) a system called the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) that attempts to organize and simplify using those tools. I haven't worked all that much with the MDT, preferring instead to just hack out solutions with the WAIK tools, and I can testify after using them for the past three years that they are worth getting to know. You can get started with the WAIK via several newsletters on its component technologies on my website in newsletters 59 through 62 and, of course, a simple web search would yield many other resources.

Disaster Recovery
Let's say you're happy with your deployment stuff. Well then, how about disaster recovery? What if you had to recreate an important Windows server that died without warning, despite your best efforts—how long would it take and how difficult would it be? Well, if that server was a Server 2008 or Server 2008 R2 system, then you'd find bringing that server back to life an absolute snap, if you employed a backup tool that first appeared in Vista called Complete PC backup. If a Vista, Server 2008, or Windows 7 machine dies, then you can actually grab another piece of hardware (that need not be identical to the now-dead system's hardware), boot a recovery or installation disk, restore the entirety of the dead machine's state in about an hour, and it's like it never left. Yes, there have been some great third-party tools that could do this for a long time, like Acronis' wonderful TrueImage tools, but, well, they cost money, while in-the-box Windows counterparts have zero marginal software license cost and are very nearly as good.

That's about all the space I've got to highlight the good and cheap this month, but let me close by answering the question that is probably on many of your minds: are these solutions truly free? Well, as I said, they're free from the point of view of extra software license costs, but using them will entail some time for IT pros to learn to use them. But to be honest, neither technology is as hard as learning some sort of scripting tool, and my experience has shown me that seeing how to use them pays back dividends in time and money. But those are just two of my suggestions; take a little while and see if there's not something useful—and free—in your IT shop's future. Happy holidays, all!