The employees who do the actual work in IT need all the help they can get; these open source tools are handier than most.

Open source tools are a great asset to any organisation. In the majority of firms, the use of open source tools starts in the skunkworks of the IT department, where a few individuals leverage open source projects to perform a specific task that is either unfunded or underfunded.

This opens the door for more open source applications and frameworks. Yet with little or no advertising, many open source projects that every shop should be testing, if not implementing, never appear on the radar. Here are a few of my favourites.

Nagios: Open source network and system monitoring and notification

I've been a fan of Nagios for a long time. Nagios is a network and system monitoring and notification tool that has an extensive list of plug-ins and a vibrant community. There is a steep learning curve to set it up, but once that's done, you'll have your finger on the pulse of the entire IT plant. You can monitor just about everything on everything: temperatures in the datacenter (through the temperature of each server), latency across WAN circuits, storage capacity, performance, you name it. Implementing a full Nagios monitoring scheme in a reasonably sized organisation isn't a one-day project, but it will save significant time and headaches later, guaranteed.

Cacti: An open source app for graphing and trending

Cacti is a graphing/trending tool that uses SNMP and is a great complement to Nagios. Whereas Nagios can tell you when things go wrong, Cacti can tell you all about the trends relating to that problem. For instance, monitoring storage array capacity with Nagios may tell you that you've eclipsed a threshold, but Cacti will show you the trends related to that array, allowing you to determine the utilisation rate over the past six months or a year, which will help determine how much storage may be required in the coming months. This is also true about temperatures, airflow, LAN and WAN links, number of users on a particular server, license utilization (for applications that use licensing tools like FLEXlm), and so forth.

The web interface is easy to use, and most anything that uses SNMP can be monitored. As with Nagios, there's a large community around Cacti and plenty of plug-ins. The information Cacti provides is only as useful as the length of time it's been running, so if you're not using it yet, there's no time like the present to get started.

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  1. You should be utilising these projects
  2. Rancid
  3. FreeNAS

The employees who do the actual work in IT need all the help they can get; these open source tools are handier than most.

RANCID: Short on configuration, long on resources

RANCID is one of those tools that you'll set up once, make very minor modifications to over the years, and praise for saving your bacon in an emergency. RANCID performs a very simple function: retrieve and organise the configurations of network routers, switches, and firewalls. When set to run every hour, for example, RANCID will email admins when changes are made to any monitored piece of gear, and add the configuration to a version control database that you can then run diffs on to see exactly what changed and when. In the event of a catastrophic failure of a router or switch, you can pull the configuration back quickly and easily, and be sure that it's the latest possible copy.

There are very few utilities that require so little configuration yet can provide such an immense resource during outages, but RANCID is certainly one of them.

MediaWiki: Internal documentation made easy

If you don't have an IT wiki running in your organisation, you should start one now - right now. Internal documentation has never been so easy, and MediaWiki is a fantastic package to drive this initiative.

MediaWiki is the code behind Wikipedia and millions of other wikis. It's easy to set up and run, and it can completely transform the documentation tasks of any IT organisation. In many cases, documentation on applications, hardware, and network equipment can not only include information on the component, but also have direct links to management interfaces, administration panels, and so forth. Rather than typing a URL into a Word document that's printed out and stored in a three-ring binder (nobody does this anymore, right? Right?), you can simply embed those links inline in the wiki page for that element. You can even include photos, diagrams, and more.

CentOS: Red Hat Enterprise Linux, open source style

One common characteristic of all the above projects is that they run on Linux. Some also run on Windows, but they all are quite at home with Linux. In keeping with the open source flavour, you can easily run all of them on CentOS, which is essentially the open source version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

There's no licencing, no cost, and no support, but for boxes that run these tools, that may not be an issue. In fact, a single CentOS virtual or physical server can run all the above tools for a sizable IT shop without breaking a sweat. In environments where mission-critical Linux boxes must run licenced and supported version of Linux, CentOS can find a home in lab environments or for ancillary tasks. Go forth and download. Then give something back and donate a few bucks to the project.

NEXT PAGE: FreeNAS

  1. You should be utilising these projects
  2. Rancid
  3. FreeNAS

The employees who do the actual work in IT need all the help they can get; these open source tools are handier than most.

FreeNAS: Build your own nearline storage server

Every IT shop needs to provide network storage, and more and more shops are implementing SANs to achieve this goal. Commercial SANs are fairly expensive, but they also generally provide stability and support. However, the data stored on those expensive boxes is sometimes better suited to a less expensive device - things like system images, IT installation packages, or any number of other items that makes IT tick, but aren't mission critical. Offloading those things to a cheaper storage solution buys more space on the expensive gear.

The good news is that you can build a very capable nearline storage server for next to nothing with FreeNAS. Using a decommissioned server, or even a whitebox with a pile of cheap SATA drives, you can have FreeNAS up and running in a matter of minutes with the simple installation. You can access the data via CIFS, NFS, HTTP, FTP, TFTP, iSCSI - basically every file sharing protocol available - and the administration interface is on par with many commercial solutions. For basically the cost of some 1TB or 2TB hard drives, you can pack a ton of data on a FreeNAS box with minimal effort.

I can personally attest to each of these tools, as I've been reaping the rewards from their implementation for years and years and have deployed and configured them in IT organisations of just about every size. There's no time like the present to make your life easier and your infrastructure more robust - and these tools go a long way toward achieving those goals. After all, that's why they exist.

See also: Is Microsoft losing the open source battle?

  1. You should be utilising these projects
  2. Rancid
  3. FreeNAS