IT Products I Actually Like

I am sometimes prone to long rants about the many evils the IT industry visits on users, companies, governments, IT professionals and anybody else it thinks it can shake a few quid out of. In a world that tolerates Microsoft and Apple how could it be otherwise? But lets not dwell on the negative. There are some great commercial IT products out there and here are a few that I like.

Kerio Mailserver / Kerio Connect

This is an email and groupware server for small to medium size companies. It is a bit like Exchange except that thinking about it doesn’t make me yip. It runs on Linux, Windows and Macs. It has great Webmail. It is based on standard protocols (not bloody MAPI) and integrates with Outlook using a small connector program. It is damn cheap compared to Exchange and there are no Windows CALs to worry about. It integrates with Active Directory if you want it to but it isn’t tied to Windows in any mandatory way. Installation or upgrade is just a matter of installing two RPMs. Its admin tools are easy to use. It can even download the incoming email from a POP server instead of having it pushed in by SMTP, a very useful feature that MS Exchange dropped for some reason.

Of course, you might ask why I didn’t just build a mailserver myself from Open Source components? It doesn’t take much effort to throw together a working SMTP and IMAP server and adding a basic webmail onto it is not rocket science either. The problem is adding on the groupware, decent security and all the bells and whistles people expect and then presenting it to the users as a coherent solution rather than a heap of bits. This is where a turnkey solution like Kerio ‘s can add a lot of value. It makes my life less painful. It is worth the money. I like it.

Draytek Routers

To be taken seriously as an IT professional you need to spend a lot of your own time and money learning about Cisco routers. Use anything with a web interface and people will point and laugh. Well let them laugh. I like Draytek routers. They occupy an extremely useful, and sparsely populated, middle ground between home user type routers, lacking the advanced features a medium size business needs, and an expensive Cisco you need to go on a course to learn how to configure. I am not slagging off Cisco. If you are a large company and you need to set up BGP between your sites rules then Daytek is not going to do you any good, but most of us are not like that. We just want to force people to use the proxy server (Squid, since you ask) , block some chat protocols, forward a few ports and provide a VPN service. The Draytek dual WAN models are a particular favourite. With a dual WAN router and two ADSL ISPs you can not only get more surfing bandwidth for your company, you can greatly reduce internet downtime without the cost of a leased line. Sure ADSL will have downtime but what is the chance of both ISPs being down at once? Use a dynamic DNS service for your incoming connections and you can even get a degree of failover on those too.

Multi-Tech Faxfinder

I hate printers and I really hate faxes. Paper jams, faulty toners, spontaneous combustion. That’s all horrible enough in a printer but when it means irretrievably lost faxes from customers it is too much to bear. So I toyed with the idea of building a Linux box with several modems in it and getting it to be a fax server but it wasn’t going to be easy and it was going to take a lot of time I didn’t have and even then it probably wouldn’t have integrated with the PABX very well. Then I discovered Multi-Tech Faxfinder. It is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination but it is a turnkey solution that means that you never have to worry about faxes ever again beyond a bit of simple configuration in its web interface to tell it where to deliver them. It gives you a bank of modems which are not tied to any one fax number so you get much better modem use efficiency. You rig up your PABX to send DTMF tones to the Faxfinder telling it who each fax is for (based on the DDI it came in on) and the the Faxfinder delivers it to the appropriate email, printer, network folder (or any combination). The best bit is that it has non-volatile storage and hence it is impossible to lose a fax ever again unless lightning strikes the server room.

Avaya IP Office 500

Telephony is never easy. You want to treat your phone system like an IT system but they come in two sorts: The old style ones that are PABX hardware and don’t like talking to computers and the new style ones that are computers and crash like computers and suck like computers and only like talking to other computers and not to standard/cheap phones. What I like about IP Office is that it is a proper PABX running an embedded OS but it still talks sense to computers. The admin tools don’t require you to be a telecoms guru to use them. The auto attendant and voicemail live on a separate PC but the main system will behave sensibly if that PC goes down (and, being a Windows PC, it will go down occasionally). The best thing is that you don’t need expensive new digital phones, PoE switches or any of that unless you actually want to go down that route. You can use cheap analogue phones and have all the advanced features delivered by a piece of software called Phone Manager which runs on the PCs instead. I like this because I hate the thought of “intelligent” phones connected to the PCs by USB. That is not just expensive (although it is very expensive!), it is overcomplicated and messy. The downside? Just try making any sense of the Avaya website…

Sophos Anti-Virus/Endpoint Security and Data Protection

Too many anti-virus programs spend their time jumping up and down telling the user stuff they don’t understand, and don’t need to know, while slowing down the PC and generally being obnoxious. Sophos is better. It gives the users a little blue shield icon to tell them they are protected and that is it. It just sits there. It won’t annoy the user unless they actually do something really stupid, i.e. click on a virus. It doesn’t even slow the PC down too much. Yeah, yeah. I know we would all be better of running Linux, but we don’t, and this is a painless way to keep the users safe. It will also grass them up by email whenever they get an infected file. This means that you can creep up on them as they charge their infected iPods off the USB and then bollock them for bringing unapproved USB devices to work (and mock their taste in music as well).

Conclusion

What do these products all have in common? They are simple, turnkey solutions. They each address a single area of functionality and do it well with a minimum of fuss. They don’t force you to do extensive training (OK, I did a couple of days training on the IP Office, but none of the others). They do not try to take over your whole IT environment or make you bend your way of working round them. Working in IT is hard. There are a lot of distractions. Unlike gadget freaks, IT professionals don’t want or need pointless complexity. We need stuff that helps us get stuff done without making a song and dance of it.

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February 13, 2010. IT, Sensible.

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