IT Toolbox: Some Software for the Road

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about my own IT toolbox, and then a follow-up article based on reader recommendations. I love these kinds of tips and tricks, because there's always a better way to do something. And the more you need to do that thing, the more valuable the savings are.

This thought occurred to me because I'm writing this on a train heading to Boston from New York City. And not only does the train have Wi-Fi, but thanks to some free and inexpensive software, I'm able to access all of the files on my home server as if I were sitting at my desktop at home—OK, it's a little slower—and get meaningful work done even though the reference documents I need aren't on the laptop I happened to bring with me on this trip.

In my original IT toolbox article, I focused largely on hardware. This time I'd like to discuss a few software solutions that I find invaluable, especially on the road.

First of all, if you're serious about your day job, I strongly recommend a TechNet subscription. Microsoft offers two basic options here: Standard ($199 for the first year, $149 per year after that) and Professional ($349 the first year, $249 renewal). Both offer you access to full-version Microsoft software, generally with multiple install rights, for evaluation and testing purposes. This means, Windows, Windows Server, Office, and hundreds more. The big difference between the two is that Professional includes "enterprise" software, which generally means just the Enterprise SKU(s) of certain products (such as Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise or Windows 7 Enterprise).

I recently purchased a Standard subscription and am impressed by the sheer variety of software available for testing purposes: Windows 7, Office 2010, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Home Server 2011, SQL Server 2008 R2; it's all there.

Thanks to TechNet, I've set up an old PC as a server and am using Hyper-V to test various server solutions in virtual machines. Sure, you could do this locally, using Virtual PC or another similar product, but like many of you, I've got extra machines sitting around idle, and this is a great way to utilize those machines without impacting the performance of my own PC.

Regardless of your own needs, TechNet subscriptions are a great way to work with software you couldn't otherwise afford and increase your value at work. But it's not just about software: You also get Microsoft E-Learning courses, which can be valuable for those seeking certifications, complimentary professional support calls, and more. If you're working in IT, I can't recommend these subscriptions enough.

(Disclaimer. Since someone always gets burned by this for some reason, please understand that the TechNet software downloads are licensed only for use by you, an individual. You can't use the subscription to provide your whole family with Office or whatever.)

I travel a lot and in the old days (i.e., before pervasive broadband) I used to travel with a set of DVDs or, eventually, a portable hard drive on which I'd store important work-related documents, you know, just in case. (I was pretty bad, actually. I also brought OS and application restore disks in case I ever needed to perform an in-trip PC lobotomy. This never actually happened.) Now, of course, I can routinely access my server-based documents with various remote access solutions. And as noted above, these solutions work fine on Wi-Fi-based trains and planes, not just in hotel rooms. What a world we live in.

What's amazing is that these services are available for free. Using a tool such as Windows Live Mesh or LogMeIn Hamachi, a free VPN client, I can remotely access my desktop or server at home while on the road. I actually prefer Hamachi over Mesh, because the fidelity of the remote desktop experience—using Windows' native Remote Desktop Connection software—is superior.

But I rarely need to actually interact with a remote desktop. Really, what I'm looking for is access to my files. And there are two tools I use for that. The first is the aforementioned Hamachi which, as a VPN client, also lets me access my home server's file shares using the normal Explorer interface in Windows just as if I were at home on the local network.

That works just fine, but if I'm performing a lot of file transfers, there's a faster solution: LogMeIn also has Free and Pro versions of its eponymous remote access product, and one of the things I really like about those solutions is their FTP-like File Transfer utility. It works amazingly well.

I just used all of these tools in tandem from the train: I accessed files on a VM-based server running under Hyper-V over Hamachi using Amtrak's free Wi-Fi. Nerdvana? It's up there.

Of course, nothing will ever beat my greatest technology moment: In 2003, my wife and I and two friends were hurtling down the Autobahn in Germany at 120 KPH (which sounds so much more dangerous than the 75 MPH it really is). Using a rented international cell phone (this was pre–smartphone days), I was able to speak with my then-7-year-old son from the passenger seat of the VW van. Why is this impressive? My son is deaf, but thanks to cochlear implants he can hear, and we had a normal conversation over that phone, despite the cellular connection, the movement, and the many miles that separated us.

It still makes me smile every time I remember this moment. And while I still fear some future technological betrayal, come on. Tell me you don't love this stuff. Sometimes it really does all come together in a way that makes life easier, and better. And that's what it's all about.

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