This article was born of necessity. Chatting with my editors at Auvik, I went looking to see what kinds of advice other sites had on SysAdmin tools you should have handy to do your job. Two things immediately struck me:
- There wasn’t much in the way of advice in general.
- Nearly all the advice I came across only talked about software tools.
Now don’t get me wrong, software is important to have. But what if you can’t access that device to use the software? What if there’s a (gasp!) physical issue that needs to be addressed, and you have to get some hands-on time with some racks? There’s a whole list of real-life tools that need to be in your toolkit too.
It’s understandable. Some SysAdmins haven’t been caught out in a situation for a while, so maybe they haven’t given it much thought. For veteran admins, your load-out has probably been set for a while.
But if you’re new to the field, you might not be sure what you need vs. just lugging things around you might never use. It’s great to see more and more businesses moving to the cloud, but there’s a lot of equipment still out there to see in person (not to mention the actual devices that make up the cloud!).
This might not be quite as fun as making things run DOOM, but it’s probably just as important. Here’s my list of non-software sysadmin tools that live in my toolbox, organized by type. Do they live in yours? Let’s see.
- USB to Serial Adapter. For many network devices, there’s no escaping the need to use serial for the initial setup of a device. And if things go terribly wrong, and the device ends up no longer being accessible from the network, your only resort may be to physically connect via serial. Unless you have a REAL computer from the good old days, odds are you won’t have a serial connector on your laptop. The USB to serial adaptor is your basic entryway into the serial world, and from here you’ll need a small collection of serial cables and adaptors to make sure you can physically connect to your devices. Most USB to Serial Adapters are DB9 Male—which means you’ll need an additional serial cable (or cables) to connect to your device.
- Roll-over cable. AKA a DB9 female to RJ45 cable. Typically, they are light blue to distinguish them from regular RJ45 cables. Most Cisco devices will require this cable for a serial connection.
- DB9 female to DB9 female serial cable straight through. Not every device has a RJ45 connector for serial console access. Many have DB9 male connectors for the console port. To physically connect your USB to Serial Adapter, you’ll need a DB9 female to DB9 female cable. Because this cable is a straight through, you’ll also need a Null-modem adapter.
- Null-modem adaptor. For a serial connection via the console port to work, the TX and RX lines must be crossed. That way what’s sent on one end (TX) is received on the other end (RX), and vice versa. A null-modem makes this possible. Tip: a roll-over cable already crosses the TX and RX lines, so it doesn’t need a null modem.
- USB extension cable. Too many times, the combination of USB to serial cable and a roll-over cable wasn’t long enough for me to sit somewhere comfortable while setting up the equipment I’m connecting to. I keep a USB extension cable in my toolbox, so I don’t have to squat by the rack, or hold the laptop with one hand while typing with the other.
Cables, cables, cables
- An assortment of UTP Cables. Nothing worse than running out of cables in the middle of a job. Especially if it’s just a short patch cable that’s needed. I always keep several 6 inch, 1 ft and 3 ft UTP cables handy. For longer, permanent runs, I prefer to terminate myself (no judgements if you prefer to buy!).
- RJ45 connectors. If you’re planning to build your own cables, you need something to terminate with. Also, handy if you have to make any changes to wires permanently installed somewhere. Be sure to pair with the right crimping tool.
- Ethernet Cable Tester. If your network monitoring software indicates a connectivity issue, and you suspect the root cause might be a faulty cable, you’re going to want to be to verify with a cable tester. It’s also very handy for verifying your work when crimping your own cables.
- Power cables. One or two spare power cables can be helpful when you come across one that’s been crushed or pinched in a dark corner somewhere.
- HDMI and VGA cables. Handy to have these to connect a server to a screen in a hurry for troubleshooting. Just don’t lend them out, or you’ll never see them again!
Tools (like from the hardware store)
- Wire cutters. Good quality, sharp wire cutters are a must. Don’t cheap out on these.
- Pliers. There’s a reason pliers have existed since the Bronze Age. Get some.
- Punch tool. No, this is not slang for a junior IT pro. For when you need to wire a punch down block. Make sure you’re looking for punch tools specific to the cable you’re working with (likely RJ45).
- Ethernet Cable Crimper. Great for terminating cables yourself. For longer runs, or cables I know won’t be changed frequently, I prefer to terminate myself rather than use premade cables. For short runs or patch panels, I’ll use premade cables. This is one tool where I think it’s important to not be cheap. A quality crimper makes terminating much easier and smoother.
- Screwdriver set. A nice multi-tip screwdriver saves on space.
- M5 Screws. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to mount something and didn’t have enough M5 screws to get it on the rack. Now I keep extra handy, and you should too.
- Cell phone. Handy for looking up information as a tether if the internet is down, and generally being part of modern society in 2021.
- Laptop. From testing connections to configuring devices via the console, a laptop is essential.
- Label maker. A recent addition for me, but I can’t imagine being without one now. Great for labelling equipment, patch panels and even cables. Future you will be grateful you took the time now to organize things.
- PoE injector. Useful for testing/isolating devices. Sometimes you’ll want to power up a PoE device separate from the switch.
- Cable Ties. LOTS. No really, go grab a few more. Keep them clean by trimming with your wire cutters.
- Anti-static wipes. Racks are often dirty and gross. I like to leave a rack cleaner than I found it.
- Cloths. For dusting and cleaning.
- USB drives. It can be frustrating when you need to copy a file from one device to another, and you don’t have anything handy.
- USB DVD drive. Since it’s less likely a laptop will have a DVD drive these days, it’s handy to have an external one for emergencies. It can be frustrating to have a driver disc for a device and no way to access it. The smaller, the better.
- USB keyboard. Like the DVD drive, the smaller, the better. Sometimes necessary to access headless devices (especially if they don’t have an IPMI port).
Got any more tools to recommend? We all learn from each other’s experiences, so add your advice in the comments!
Don’t forget a roll of velcro!
My list is nearly identical! My only additions to the list are a toner probe to find those mystery cables, and a decent flashlight!
Thank you Lawrence for your awesome articles!