Cheapware: The Cheapskate's Guide To IT Tools

Behind every successful geek, there's a good utility. Here are our picks.

December 5, 2003

12 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Virtual Network Computing (VNC)

Developed at AT&T, VNC is a remote-control tool, like Symantec's pcAnywhere and Microsoft Terminal Services. The big differences: VNC is free and, though

primarily used for Linux and Unix systems, is platform-independent, with versions available for Windows and Macintosh. With VNC, the remote computer is called the "server," and you control it from a system loaded with a VNC "viewer." The viewer is a very small program that can fit on a low-density floppy disk. The VNC server also contains a small Web server. If you connect to this Web server from a Java-enabled browser, you'll download the Java applet VNC viewer. VNC sessions are stateless on the client end. This means that if your VNC viewer crashes or you switch to a different computer, you can resume the VNC session right where you left off. Security is a bit lacking in the default install, however. You can require a password for a viewer to connect to the server, but though this password is encrypted, the rest of the session, including the graphical data and VNC protocol, is not. It is possible to tunnel VNC through SSH (Secure Shell), which would result in an encrypted session (see Windows users should note that it's a violation of Microsoft's EULA to use VNC on Windows servers. Sorry. Suggested by Lori MacVittie, Steven J. Schuchart. Platform: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, others. Price: Freeware, open source (GPL). TFTP Server

TFTP (Trivial FTP) is a simple, small, unsecure file-transfer protocol. It is mostly used for transferring configs or firmware to and from routers, switches and other pieces of infrastructure. We like how SolarWinds' server can handle simultaneous transfers, set access control by IP address and work in receive-only mode. Suggested by Ron Anderson. Platform: Windows. Price: Freeware. Studios Trillian

Trillian is a mega-instant-messaging product. It supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber and IRC. So, instead of loading six different IM clients, you can use a single Trillian client. It supports encrypted communications, Yahoo Webcams, customized skins and global away messages that set your status on all connected networks. It also allows for meta contacts, which group multiple network IDs to a single visible contact. Suggested by Steven J. Schuchart. Platform: Windows. Price: Freeware (basic), $25 (pro).

VMWare Workstation 4

Running both Linux and Windows on the same computer used to mean having to dual boot: You'd run Windows, then reboot into Linux and reboot back into Windows. VMWare eliminates this by slicing up your computer into multiple virtual machines. Each VM has its own environment, containing its own virtual processor, memory, network access and disk space. This way you can run Windows and simultaneously boot a Red Hat machine, another Windows machine and a SuSE box. Such a setup is handy for system testing, developer work and doing demos that need multiple computers. And, unlike dual booting, you don't need to repartition your disks or muck with the boot loader. Each VM is separate, so there is no chance of one VM deleting or damaging another. VMWare 4 can take snapshots or a point-in-time copy of a running VM and revert back to it later. That gives you the freedom to experiment and break a system, then go back to a pre-existing state. Suggested by Bruce Boardman, Mike Fratto. Platform: Intel. Price: $299 (electronic distribution), $329 (packaged).

PuttyAnyone who has used the built-in Windows 98/NT telnet client can tell you how bad it is. Windows 2000 brought some improvements, but it doesn't have a built-in SSH client. Putty is a free telnet, SSH and Secure FTP client for Windows. It supports colored text, session logging and X-11 forwarding, and is Socks-proxy compatible. Some people, including Mike Fratto, prefer TeraTerm Pro, though it hasn't been updated since 1999. We've also heard people describe SimpTerm as the least-bad Windows terminal emulator, but it doesn't support SSH. Suggested by Lori MacVittie. Platform: Windows. Price: Freeware, open source (MIT license).

Microsoft Office is the 800-pound gorilla of office suites, but it has two major problems: It doesn't run on Linux or Solaris, and it's expensive. (OOo) is a multiplatform, free and open-source alternative. The suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, drawing program, math-formula editor and HTML Editor (in the Windows version). The interface looks similar to Microsoft Office, and OOo can open, save or translate Office documents, though there are some limitations to this capability. For example, you can't use Office macros or open password-protected files. Despite its smaller feature set, OOo does a pretty good job. Some of our tech editors use it exclusively, not touching Office for months at a time and yet avoiding the wrath of their Office-using editors. And remember that OOo, though often associated with Linux, does work well on Windows. Suggested by Greg Nicolas, Network Computing reader. Platform: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, others. Price: Freeware, open source (LGPL).

Cygnus Productions Password Corral

How many passwords do you have? Given that different systems and Web sites have varying rules--some require special characters or accept only alphanumerics, others won't let you use a previous password--some people, even those who should know better, have taken to writing down their passwords in a plain-text file just to keep track of them. Password Corral lets you do the same, but a bit more securely. You enter your passwords, and all the information is encrypted against a single password of your choice. You can even use the product to store voicemail or PDA passwords. Suggested by Steven J. Schuchart. Platform: Windows. Price: Freeware. Ad-aware

Ad-aware is the leading tool for removing spyware (applications that report usage habits without the user's knowledge) and adware (which randomly displays advertisements on your computer). These programs are often installed via system vulnerabilities or bundled by unethical shareware vendors. Many times, users have no knowledge of the spyware on their systems. Ad-aware detects and removes these undesirables. Suggested by Ron Anderson; Steven J. Schuchart; Brent Nichols, Network Computing reader. Platform:Windows. Price: Freeware, $26.95 (plus), $39.95, (professional).

High-Density Software PopNot

You know those pop-up and pop-under ads, first made famous by X10 Corp. and then later by illicit sites (use your imagination). Annoying, aren't they? Granted, many valuable sites make their money from advertising. But the pop-unders have gone too far: We hate closing a Web page to find three or four ads behind it, not knowing where they came from. And if you've ever mistyped a domain, you may have entered the hellish world of the never-ending pop-under ad, where trying to close one opens two more. Although the Mozilla, Opera and Safari users among us can block these infuriating ads automatically, Internet Explorer users cannot. Fortunately, the cheap utility PopNot will let IE 5.01 or later block all unsolicited pop-ups. It does allow solicited pop-ups, such as those requested by clicking on a link or pressing a button. Or you can customize it to permit pop-ups on a site-by-site basis. Suggested by Ron Anderson. Platform: Windows Internet Explorer. Price: $19.95. WhatsUp Gold

We gave WhatsUp Gold a Best Value award earlier this year. It's a budget-priced network-management suite, but that doesn't mean it has a budget-size feature set. WUG performs device discovery, produces network maps, monitors select services (such as HTTP), sends alerts and generates reports for network infrastructure and servers. The program also includes a Web server and Web interface for basic network management. This makes it easy for an administrator to use the software remotely or from a user's PC--many other suites require a Win32 console agent installed. WUG can monitor and access IP, IPX, NetBIOS or SNMP devices. Bruce Boardman has been known to show WUG to his college students as an introduction to network-management tools. Suggested by Bruce Boardman. Platform: Windows. Price: $795, service agreement and training extra.

NTopNTop is a monitoring tool that tracks the type, timing and quantity of network traffic. You can use a built-in network sniffer for capturing data or turn to a flow protocol, such NetFlow or sFlow. Traffic is analyzed and displayed graphically via HTML. This software can help you determine what protocols are going over the network or expensive WAN links. For instance, you may find that unnecessary traffic, such as Kazaa, is chewing up a large amount of bandwidth, thus slowing down mission-critical protocols. Tracking can be done by UDP or TCP ports, ICMP, VLANs, IP addresses, top users and over time.

Suggested by Jonathan Feldman. Platform: Windows, Linux, others. Price: Freeware, open source (GPL).

MG-Soft Corp. MIB Browser

MIB Browser is a graphical SNMP browser for Windows and Linux that lets you monitor and manage any SNMP-compatible device. The pro version supports SNMPv1 and 2, while more advanced versions support SNMPv3 and DOCSIS agents. MIB explorer can monitor several devices simultaneously, log query results, present graphical performance charts and display both raw hex and human-readable SNMP messages. The SNMPv3 version also supports encrypted messages. Suggested by Bruce Boardman. Platform:

Windows, Linux. Price: $219 (pro), $425 (SNMPv3 edition). is the king of port scanners. Billed as a network-exploration and security-auditing tool, it scans entire networks or a single host. Nmap reveals what hosts are available on the network and what services (via open ports) are being offered, detects operating systems and attempts to detect firewalls. The software is very flexible, allowing for all sorts of scan combinations. For example, you could do full TCP connect scans, half connect (TCP SYN only), ACK-only scans and UDP scans. You can also scale back the scan speed from 0.3 seconds between probes to 5 minutes per probe. This lets you avoid overloading a machine, while also sneaking by some IDS systems. Nmap will help you detect unauthorized or unknown services (for example, if someone who shouldn't need to is running IIS) or discover what can get through your firewalls. Nmap got its 15 minutes of fame when it was featured in The Matrix: Reloaded. Suggested by Michael J. DeMaria, Mike Fratto. Platform: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, others. Price: Freeware, open source (GPL).

Sam Spade

If you have an IP or DNS address and want to find out as much information as possible about it, SamSpade is the first place to go. Pop over to the Web site and see traceroutes, whois, IP whois (find out who owns an IP address), netblock owners and so forth. This is especially useful for tracking down obfuscated URLs, spammers, attackers and trolls. The site is very easy to use and works with almost any browser. Suggested by Ron Anderson, Michael J. DeMaria, Mike Fratto. Platform: Web site, Windows. Price: Freeware.


Netcat is a versatile utility that reads and writes data over network connections. It's very useful for debugging and incorporating into scripts. You make Netcat "talk" with network servers and clients simply by typing in the protocol commands or redirecting commands from another source. It works similar to telnet, but also can run in server mode, over UDP or TCP, and can transmit binary data. If you've ever encountered a network problem and wondered what was happening with the client or the server, this tool provides an easy way to see what they're saying. Suggested by Mike Lee. Platform: Linux. Price: Freeware, open source (GPL). netcat.sourceforge.netUserLand Software RSS Validator, W3C HTML Validator, W3C CSS ValidatorWeb browsers are great at honoring violations of Web specifications. When a browser is given invalid or out-of-spec HTML, it will attempt to draw the page as best it can. But different browsers, and even different versions of a single browser, can render a malformed page with unpredictable results. In the worst case, the page doesn't even load or crashes the browser. These validators will help you write Web pages to spec. UserLand has created an RSS 2.0 validator; the W3C, which creates and publishes Web standards, offers multiple validators. These cover HTML, XHTML, CSS, P3P and a whole host of other standards you've never even heard of. Suggested by Brad Shimmin. Platform: Web site. Price: Freeware.;;

MKS Software MKS Toolkit for Developers Or Cygwin Tools (free)

Take a long-time Unix developer or sysadmin and put him or her on a Windows box. You won't have a happy camper, especially when typing ls yields nothing. MKS Toolkit and Cygwin Tools bridges Windows and Unix environments. The MKS suite has more than 400 Unix tools for Windows, from "at" to "yacc." You can also replace the Windows Command Shell with the Korn, SH, Bash or TCSH shells. These shells are fully scriptable, and several utilities, such as awk, sed and perl, also are included. The toolkit has two main uses--one for developers and one for system administrators. Developers can use their familiar Unix user interfaces and build scripts on Windows. MKS Toolkit for Enterprise Developers, an advanced version of the suite, adds 2,700 Unix APIs for running Unix apps natively on Windows.

If you're looking for an open-source implementation, look no further than Cygwin, which has features similar to MKS Toolkit. Cygwin includes tools for compiling Unix software on Windows, shells, common commands and scripting. Sysadmins can use the scripting capabilities to manage and automate Windows tasks, such as adding new users, changing file permissions and creating TAR (tape archive) files. Former Unix admins will like being able to use perl scripts on Windows. Suggested by Sean Doherty. Platform: Windows. Price: $479 or freeware, open source (various licenses).

Michael J. DeMaria is an associate technology editor based at Network Computing's Real-World Labs® at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected]. Post a comment or question on this story.

Now that you've read our Editor's CheapWare picks, we bet you're still looking for more of the best shareware and freeware IT admin tools. Well, look no further than your fellow Network Computing readers, who have submitted their favorite IP scanners, spam blockers, text editors and protocol analyzers. Their picks start here.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights