MacGyver IT: 19 more tools for IT heroes

In the field, at the server rack, or in need of a live stream, these essential IT tools will help your team troubleshoot, collaborate, and train like champs

MacGyver IT: 19 more tools for IT heroes
MacGyver IT: 19 more tools for IT heroes

Since my original incarnation of “MacGyver IT” tools four years ago, IT’s on-the-go role has evolved well beyond troubleshooting critical systems in the field. Thanks to an evolution of IT responsibilities and a revolution in technologies, in particular around IoT and video, the mix in our kits is quickly transforming.

Here you will find a collection of tools to help you and your IT team do your jobs better, faster, and hopefully with less frustration, wherever you roam. Many of these essentials are inexpensive; even those that cost a bit are great alternatives to expensive systems. Consider this a means for stretching tight IT budgets as well.

I should say that these items are in my actual collection, and some are in their second or third iteration after their predecessors got worn out (or stolen). If you’d like to catch up on other essentials I have had and, in some cases, still have in my kits, check out the first two iterations: “MacGyver IT: 20 tools for hero hacks” and “MacGyver IT: 21 tools for IT heroes.”

Anker 40W USB charging hub
Anker 40W USB charging hub

Nearly everything is USB-powered these days, so Anker’s 40W five-port USB charging hub is a must-have for any gadget hound. I have one on my desk at work, another at home, and one in my travel bag, so there’s no excuse for a dead device. I’ve combined mine with a set of braided micro-USB cables in a rainbow of colors so that I can tell them apart, all bundled with twist ties to for simpler setup and teardown.

Above: Though Anker has great cables, I’ve swapped mine out for different color braided cables to cut down on cord confusion.

MXL AC-410W wireless condenser microphone
MXL AC-410W wireless condenser microphone

Sorry Polycom, but expensive, dedicated videoconferencing is very quickly going the way of the dodo, and it’s about time the Skype generation had some good wireless microphones, too. Marshall Electronics (aka MXL Microphones) has produced spectacular USB microphones for years, but a wireless version is what we really wanted. Enter the MXL AC-410W wireless condenser microphone. The receiver is powered by the USB interface with the wireless microphone up to 20 feet away powered by a couple of AA batteries. With a pickup pattern of 180 degrees, the MXL AC-410W is perfect for quick small-room videoconferences almost anywhere.

Above: The MXL AC-410W is an ideal mobile videoconferencing companion that you only need to feed AA batteries while you pet the nice big Mute button on top.

Logitech HD Pro C920 webcam
Logitech HD Pro C920 webcam

I co-host a video blog live every Friday on the TWiT.tv network, and everyone asks what camera I use. I have a Logitech HD Pro C920 USB webcam that sits on my desk full time for broadcasts, along with another in my backpack. The camera on my MacBook Pro is good, but unless I put my laptop on a big pile of books, that camera tends to give the audience a great view up my nostrils. I put my Logitech webcam on a mike stand camera adapter with a boom arm, and it sits about eye level on my desk. The last ingredient to the secret sauce is good lighting evenly distributed both in front and behind me. I use the iGlasses app to control white/color balance; it also gives me the ability to easily share video or still images as I would a camera input. Sadly iGlasses is available only on the Mac.

Above: Probably the best USB webcam around, I keep several around for tinkering and for broadcasting.

MikroTik SXT 5GHz outdoor wireless sector access point
MikroTik SXT 5GHz outdoor wireless sector access point

Sometimes you can’t get the signal you need. Enter the MikroTik SXT 5GHz wireless sector access point. With it, you can quickly deploy a 5GHz wireless backbone wherever you need it -- for special events, for emergencies, or as a cheap way to get a signal across the street without the massive cost of digging up a street to lay cables. The Interop lead engineer has these units in his regular kit to reach those hard-to-get-to places in convention centers. Simply feed the MikroTik SXT power over Ethernet and connect it to your wired infrastructure for an instant link across almost any open space.

Above: Sold separately or in a six-pack, this unlicensed 5GHz bridge system is an easy way to bridge open spaces.

Centipede Support XL expandable work surface support
Centipede Support XL expandable work surface support

Every once in a while you need a large, strong work surface for projects, emergencies, construction, you name it. But there's a problem with extra work benches and tables: Where the heck do you store them when they’re not in use? Centipede’s Support XL expandable frame is designed to work with regular sheets of plywood to build a truly huge work surface, while taking up very little storage space when not in use.

Above: Don’t let the picture fool you; this versatile work surface system would feel at home nearly anywhere.

Storacell battery caddies
Storacell battery caddies

The more devices you have, the more batteries you’ll need. So if you’re like me, you’ve got a ton of batteries to keep track of, and storing them can be a real headache. Throw them into a big storage tub, and you’ll be rummaging for the right size when you least want to be fishing for power. To that end, I’ve become addicted to Storacell’s amazingly simple battery storage systems, which are available from Amazon and almost any sporting goods store. I place my fully charged batteries nub down, and after I swap out a spent battery, I place it nub up. This way I can easily tell what’s charged or not.

Above: Keep a whole collection of battery types easily at hand and flip up the used ones to see at a glance which need to be put into the charger.

Pacsafe bag protector
Pacsafe bag protector

Tech pros on the go pour a lot of valuable gear into conveniently transportable bags -- convenient for themselves and, sadly, thieves. If you’re looking to secure your portable tech stash, pick up a Pacsafe bag protector and rest easy. I’ve started giving these as gifts to my good friends after my buddy Oliver got his backpack stolen out of his rental car.

Stick your backpack or small tech kit into one of these wire mesh bags, which you can then lock to a secure anchor, and your stuff will be difficult to steal. Notice I said difficult, not impossible. So beware: (1) You need to lock your Pacsafe-encolosed bag around an object that isn’t going to move; (2) the wire mesh can be cut, but not by, say, a Leatherman; and (3) a thief can reach through the holes, open small pockets, and steal small objects that will fit through the mesh. Still, it’s a lot better than leaving your gear in an exposed, zippered bag when you’re out in the field.

Above: Lock up your gear in the field with this easy-to-carry bag made from aircraft cable.

Teradek VidiU streaming video encoder
Teradek VidiU streaming video encoder

For training, videoconferencing, events, and complex repairs in the field, you’ll want to stream video. What sets Teradek VidiU apart from the likes of VLC (free video encoding and decoding app) is that this streaming encoder can upload via wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or USB cellular modem. The downside is that it offers only about two hours of battery life. Thankfully, it includes a power brick.

But VidiU's big upside is its compatibility with uStream, YouTube Live, Livestream, and Facebook Live, as well as Wowza if you’re hosting your own streaming system. You can control it either via a built-in Web server. or you can download the iOS or Android controller app.

Above: Don’t bother using a PC to stream -- clip a VidiU onto the light shoe of you video camera and stream the next company special event.

Skreens multi-input video processor
Skreens multi-input video processor

Putting on multicamera events costs big bucks -- until now, that is, thanks to Skreens, a Kickstarter project that puts multicamera video processing within reach of smaller shops. My unit should be shipping soon, and I’m excited to put it in action. Skreens is now taking pre-orders for its two- or four-HDMI input units. Via an iPad app, you can mix and tile up to four HDMI video inputs, along with a fifth Web window, and you can rearrange those video windows on the fly. You can create SkeensTV templates and layouts and get nearly the same results as a mega expensive multicaster, but on a much smaller budget.

Above: Targeted at gamers, this supersmall video processor/mixer brings multicamera special events into the range of anyone.

Cosemi OptoHD cables
Cosemi OptoHD cables

Getting an HDMI signal across a large room, especially for multicamera events, can be a challenge. Here, I recommend hybrid Cosemi OptoHD cables. Cosemi’s secret sauce is a combination of electrical signals to power and control the video signal and a fiber-optic cable bonded with copper to give you crystal-clear HDMI up to 100 meters away. Don’t get me wrong -- these aren’t cheap, but they are certainly more interference-immune than CAT5e video extenders, and they are much faster given that they don’t perform a digital-to-analog conversion that tends to require tweaking for every installation. Pricewise, they’re about the same as an Extron HDMI over CAT6 device, but they don’t require power because that comes from the HDMI interface.

Above: Run your 4K HDMI signal up to 100 meters away without having to hunt for a power outlet to run the units.

Synology DiskStation DS416slim personal NAS
Synology DiskStation DS416slim personal NAS

I use a MacBook Pro as my daily driver and simply love the Apple Time Machine backup system. What I don’t like is how unreliable the Apple Time Machines have been for me. My solution is a Synology DiskStation DS416slim that can provide reliable TimeMachine backups, Cloud Sync to Google Drive and Amazon Glacier, and a rich collection of Synology-tested applications to provide Web services, Radius, MongoDB, Surveillance Camera support, and more. While this limited platform doesn’t officially have Docker container support, it will run, though you won't want to use it for anything other than tinkering. Docker is supported on the company's larger units, and I now use it for Ubiquiti UniFi server support for my Ubiquiti Wi-Fi access points.

Above: My desktop time machine running an automated FTP client that grabs the contents of a remote FTP site each night with key folders synced to my Google Drive.

Paragon Software Protect and Restore
Paragon Software Protect and Restore

I’ve used Paragon’s Partition Magic for decades, and it has been my go-to system to migrate my workstation hard disks to bigger, faster disks and to new machines. It’s also been way more reliable than the Microsoft backup system for bringing machines back with a bare-metal restore. Well, Paragon’s “protect-restore” now brings easy bare-metal restores to your Windows servers and even Microsoft Exchange servers. It even has a free demo version, but after you save your bacon the first time, you’ll want the full version in your toolkit.

Above: More than a backup system, it migrates physical to virtual and back.

BrightSign HD222 Networked Interactive digital signage system
BrightSign HD222 Networked Interactive digital signage system

Have you ever wondered what drives flight arrival/departure screens at the airport? Or the touch displays that bring up information at the mall? There’s a high probability that a BrightSign unit runs those displays.

BrightSign’s key is a ruggedized system that can be updated remotely driving 1080p or the new 4K HDMI displays as well as nearly any HID-compatible touch interface. Templates provide options to display an interactive Web page (touch) while a ticker window can scroll Twitter or RSS feeds as a banner across the screen. Tiled windows can display clocks, slideshows, video feeds (I use Wowza), HTML5 Web pages, and custom scripts using the same scripting language as the Roku consumer units. With a general-purpose input output (GPIO) interface, you could even have the unit start a video when someone steps onto a pressure mat.

Above: It’s easy to make your own digital signage and even add a touch interface for your customers.

The Electric Imp
The Electric Imp

If you’re like me, you want to get a better idea of the temperature map of your data centers and server closets, even or especially to double-check the work of air-conditioning contractors. At $30 apiece, the Electric Imp Wi-Fi Environment Sensors can be tossed wherever you need to retrieve temperature/humidity data. These tiny boards have a built-in battery interface that allows you to solder on battery packs that could potentially run the board for years on a single set of batteries. But the key to Eletric Imp is its platform. With an encrypted link to the Imp Cloud, you could easily harvest data from the RESTful interface and combine the data from several Imps.

The $30 demo kit has an RGB LED tail and an environmental tail. We use them as is, but you could easily use a DS18B20 waterproof digital temperature sensor and run it into a freezer or airduct. This demo unit is marked not for production use (I do anyway); there are more robust units that also give you wired Ethernet and more sensor inputs and that can easily become the basis of your IoT system. The demo system is configured with Electric Imp’s Blinkup iOS/Android utility to configure the Wi-Fi and cloud information simply by letting the blinking screen program the card.

Above: The tiny but powerful IoT sensor package lets you add environmental sensors almost anywhere you roam.

AirTame wireless video dongle
AirTame wireless video dongle

When last I put together my MacGyver IT collection, the AirTame hadn’t shipped yet, but it was well worth the wait. I'd been frustrated because I needed an AppleTV for my Macs and a Miracast unit for my Intel Windows folks. While Kramer’s VIA system supports both, I’m not wild about spending $800 per system.

The AirTame is similar in size to the Chromecast, but works great for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android, while not limiting you to Google/Chrome apps. The AirTame can also display an HTML5 Web page for eye candy. Its Mac OSX app has worked flawlessly after an initial setup glitch was solved by AirTame’s tech support, which sent me a new SD card image to flash using the free Pi Baker image writer software. The downside: At the moment, the iOS app can only send images and PDFs from the iPad or Dropbox. Full screen share isn’t available at this time.

Above: As small as a Chromecast, AirTame combines lower-latency wireless video for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android platforms.

AnyMote conference room smart remote
AnyMote conference room smart remote

Juggling a half-dozen remotes in a conference room is painful and counterproductive when all you want is to hold a meeting with video. The Logitech Harmony is nice, but setup is painful for Polycom or Lifesize videoconferencing units, and the Extron and Crestron alternatives are costly and require consulting time to get custom screens and scripts written for your setup.

Thanks to another KickStarter find last year, I discovered the AnyMote. It’s basically an Arduino Micro with snazzy IR-blaster and Bluetooth circuits backed by a massive database of remote control command sets. Put a button on the phone or tablet screen that could be labeled “Watch TV” and it can kick off a macro that will turn on the cable box and AV receiver, set it to HDMI input No. 4, and turn on the TV. You could as easily change that to your Polycom videoconferencing unit and display a duplicate of the Polycom remote control with the special keys you need right on the unit. For $99 and a bit of sweat, you can have a customized conference room remote control that replaces that pile of remotes you keep misplacing.

Above: Build custom menus that kick off entire scripts to handle almost any Wi-Fi or IRDA remote-controlled device.

Platinum Tools EZ-RJ45 crimp system
Platinum Tools EZ-RJ45 crimp system

Yeah, RJ45 crimp tools are mundane -- until your staff needs to update hundreds of RJ45 connectors. Say, your staff needs to do top-of-rack cabling for a 10Gig copper upgrade and finds out how long your legacy CAT5e cables can be. Preterminated CAT6 cables aren’t horribly expensive, but custom-fit cables between racks make future diagnostics much easier and prettier.

Over the many years of building the InteropNet, I’ve learned there is a huge variation in CAT6 RJ45 termination systems. The easiest (and most reliable) system I’ve ever used is the EZ-Crimp system where the wires exit out the nose of the plug, making it significantly easier to know which color is which and in what order. When you crimp it using the EZ-Crimp tool, it will flush cut the wires for a reliable connection.

Above: Easy to see, easy to get the wire order correct, and flush cuts the excess wire -- what more can you ask for?

Fluke LinkSprinter 300
Fluke LinkSprinter 300

The Fluke LinkSprinter 300 is a must-have tool for IT field tech, as you can see from my in-depth review of this networking-testing tool. It’s inexpensive, sold on Amazon, emails test results to a cloud portal, offers one-button testing, and even tells you power over Ethernet (POE) levels. All that adds up to a lot of information that can help field techs avoid costly wheel-spinning. The ability to plug in and get confirmation that, for example, DHCP is working, POE is working, and I can open a Web page on a settable website add up to faster and less expensive trouble calls. Hang one on every tech and you’ll thank me.

Above: Buy the Fluke LinkSprinter 300 as a single, five-pack, or 10-pack. You’ll quickly cut the cost of desktop trouble calls.

Eton Blackout Buddy H20 water-activated flashlight
Eton Blackout Buddy H20 water-activated flashlight

Emergency light sources that don’t depend on batteries, which can go bad while in long-term storage, are an essential feature of any IT toolkit. The Eton Blackout Buddy H20 fits the bill nicely. These small flashlights can sit in an emergency kit for decades, and as soon as you get them wet, they jump to full power. Yes, they’re one-time use, but I can stash them with fire extinguishers, med kits, or wherever I see fit as an infallible emergency light source. It's nearly the same footprint as a Zippo lighter, and you can slide one into any emergency kit.

Above: They come in single or three packs and are small enough to add to any emergency kit.