February 21, 2005

Must-have open source software for a mixed environment

Author: David Handlos

I am a software architect working in a mixed environment, with both Linux and Windows systems on the network. As happens with many others working in IT, different projects often require me to take on additional roles, like system administration, quality control, programming, and sometimes even documentation. To balance out the different tasks and roles, I depend on several open source applications, regardless of what platform I'm in, what project I'm on, or what position I'm filling at the moment.

As long as I have even one system to manage remotely, TightVNC will always be on my list of OSS. I use it to remotely manage and troubleshoot multiple boxes, Linux and Windows alike. At first, I used it solely to maintain our relatively few Linux servers, and relied on the Windows Remote Desktop and Terminal Services features for the rest. But TightVNC is a great fit for both spots, since it allows me remotely access both the servers and the workstations I use. Unlike the Windows Remote Desktop, it's a simple matter to run TightVNC on almost any Windows operating system. Occasionally I have to play support tech, and I use this application to share a session with the user. With a shared session, we can walk through the reported problem and get to the root of the issue fast.

Ethereal is a relatively new but definitely welcome addition to my must-have list. Using this LAN traffic analyzer to run a trace on the network for 30 seconds can save me 30 minutes of the time that it would otherwise take to troubleshoot a cluster of application servers. I can organize the packets by source or destination and quickly get a picture of what kind of traffic the applications are generating, and why. Admittedly, I use Ethereal only for a fraction of its full capability, but each of the servers may have more than a dozen applications that need to be tested, and the less time I need to spend on reconfiguring them, the more I can spend on other projects.

I use CVS for development, and if I have to work from Windows, I use TortoiseCVS to manage my repository. It integrates with Windows Explorer and requires a minimum of configuration, yet allows for quick checkouts, updates, and commits. Tortoise has also proved user-friendly enough to get several of my colleagues into using CVS as well. Few of them have actually used either CVS or Linux before, but the point-and-click accessibility of TortoiseCVS has helped smooth out the learning curve.

For document publishing, PDFCreator makes it easy to generate PDFs from any Windows program with the ability to print. The application installs itself as a printer, so you can convert documents to PDF by simply selecting PDFCreator as your printer. Like TortoiseCVS, PDFCreator makes my list because I can use it to quickly accomplish what I need to do, with a minimum of extra tweaking and configuration.

Since I work in a mixed environment, utilities like these are a must. They serve the dual purpose of helping me keep both my projects and my operating costs manageable. Even though I may have to work outside of Linux, it doesn't mean I have to go without open source tools to get the job done.

What are your must-have open source or Linux applications? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what essential apps you use and what you do with them. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. Please use proper spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation!


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