I visited my family for the holidays, which means I spent an entire day on planes and in airports. However unpleasant, I can deal with this. But upon reaching my destination I found I had left my little black case of CDs on the plane.
What was in my case? Not music or movies (actually I did have serenity in there), but instead something far more valuable, my admin toolkit. This was devastating (ok not so bad, I stored the ISO files).
Currently I do low level computer support. People come to us all the time with computers that are completely hosed with spyware and other malware. We often get computers are running legacy software, OS9, WinME, Win 98, I've seen Win 95 (though not 3.1 or earlier thank goodness). It is hard to stay on top of all of this software.
The other part of my job is helping people with 'multimedia' projects. This includes Final Cut, Premier, DVD Studio, Encore, Shake, Motion, the Adobe Creative Suite, the Macromedia Suite, Garage Band, Audition, Soundtrax, and a dozen other programs we have sitting on our computers. Occasionally one of these computers gets hosed too. Guess who gets to fix them?
I don't mind fixing computers, I enjoy it. I usually plug OSX or Linux for people while they are waiting, I enjoy that too. Most people are pretty accepting that we can't fix everything, and sometimes it is better to give up the ghost and reformat a computer than muck around for hours.
So why is my toolkit so important? I'll tell you. It makes my job much easier. Here is a list of CDs I have in my kit, and why they are useful.
Windows Live CDs: These aren't all Windows based, but they can all write to NTFS.
Winternals ERD Commander: A live windows based CD (so it can r/w NTFS), ERD will sort through Windows blue-screen memory dumps.1 Then it will suggest the most likely causes of the problem. It is rarely wrong. It does have a ton of other uses, but this is the most useful to me.
MiniPE: This is the ultimate Windows liveCD. It includes everything: backup utilities, 4 different virus scanners, 3 antispyware scanners, ISO software, file recovery software, and anything else you might need. There were a few things I wanted extra, so using WinISO I added a few other goodies, but it is fairly complete by itself.
Ultimate Boot CD: This is a nice collection of freeware utilities. It is a little bit dated, but still quite good for free. Antivirus, antispyware, hard drive tools, and a whole lot more.
Windows Installer: The install disk and necessary apps to go with it.
Windows XP Professional Install Disk: It is my own personal copy I got when I bought my computer. XP Home works just as well. When people don't have their disk, as long as they have the product key, I'll install off of my disk. Reformatting is so often the answer to problems, XP installer is necessary.
Custom Autopatcher Disk: Since my WinXP installer is SP1, there is no way I'd connect a computer to the internet off a fresh install. Not even to get Windows Updates. Enter Autopatcher. This is about 250 mb right now, and it includes all WinXP updates. Plus it offers a lot of ways to customize Windows. Since it is only 250 mb, I put a ton of other freeware on the rest of the disk: Firefox, Opera, Sygate Firewall, ZoneAlarm Firewall, Microsoft Antispyware, AVGFree, Clamwin, and others. This way I can update the fresh windows install and put antivirus, a firewall, all at the same time. Then I feel comfortable connecting to the internet.
I have two versions of each freeware program, one I can run from disk and an installer. That way I can run AV without going through all the rebooting and installing, then install it to keep the user safe.
Gnu/Linux Live CDs: Each of these has a specific purpose, testing hardware, security, rescue and others. Note, not all of these are Linux, one is BSD based.
ZoneCD: ZoneCD is neato. It makes any computer, with a wifi card (it suports an amazing array of chipsets), and internet access into a hotspot. Reportedly this was used during Hurricane Katrina so that people could file FEMA applications and whatnot over the internet when there were only a limited number of ethernet ports.
Knoppix: The original LiveCD, or nearly so. Knoppix comes with a ton of software, secure deleters, network traffic analyzers, apache, and others. Knoppix is so complete, it could easily be called a desktop replacement OS.
M0n0wall: A liveCD firewall. This isn't as easy to use as most of the other disks I've listed, but don't let that deter you. This is a grade A firewall. Based on FreeBSD, it is small enough to run on most anything, I had a friend running it on an old 386 with 20mb hard drive just fine. This is useful for creating protection for a temporary DMZ, while you are getting things setup.
Auditor and Whax: Either of these will do, I've use Auditor more frequently but not because it is better, these are both great. They are security testing disks. Someone running insecurely and refuse to change? Do some penetration tests with these and they'll change their mind. In the future Auditor and Whax are merging to become Backtrack. Keep your eyes out for that!
Helix: Helix is for incident response. Other liveCDs use virtual memory or 'swap' space. This makes them much quicker, but they may overwrite some temporary data (or more likely unrecovered deleted data). Helix won't. If a computer is compromised you'll want Helix.
Gnu/Linux Install CDs: These are almost all really easy to use, which is why I carry them. Some users are sick of Windows but don't have the $ to buy a Mac, so I offer them a Gnu/Linux disk. I do carry a lot of them, but isn't that what Linux is all about, choice? Note, not all of these are Linux, one is BSD.
Mepis: This is my preferred newbie distribution. It automatically detects nearly everything, plus you can learn a lot about Linux systems if you want (as opposed to Ubuntu). But if you don't want to, you don't need to. Debian is my favorite distribution and Mepis is a comfortabl derivative.
OpenSuSE: This is another easy OS to install and use. Very professional, and functional, most users can handle SuSE just fine. The best RPM distro out there.
Linspire: This is probably the easiest distribution out there for an ex-Windows user. I've offered it to people who don't know a firewall from a port. Linspire had a temporary free offer, which is when I grabbed it, expect to pay about $60 for it now. As a warning you always run as root on Linspire, so you can hose your computer if you aren't careful. But thats not any different from Windows.
Kubuntu: If you don't want your user to mess anything up, Ubuntu is for them. I prefer KDE to Gnome, so I offer Kubuntu to those sick of Windows. I'd never use it because... well there is no root!
FreeBSD: Occasionally we have someone with a real working knowledge of computers seek help. BSD is real Unix, rather than a clone, and is really a grade A operating system especially (but not only) for servers. I've only ever given FreeBSD away twice, but the users were both quite happy.
So between the rescue disks I can clean up any computer pretty quickly. With the install disks I can help them get a fresh install if that is what they need.If I had to pick 3 disks that are the most useful, I'd definitely go with MiniPE, my custom Autopatcher disk, and Mepis. Save the system if possible, replace it if not!
1When WinXP blue screens, it does a partial memory dump. You can set it up to do a full memory dump if you'd like, but this is valuable for diagnosing the problem.