The Best Free Software – Features by PC Magazine

I recently reread an article at PC Mag, The Best Free Software, and decided to update my list of favorites. Here are my favorites:

  • Security
    Although I do not have any complaints about their favorites I do not use them. I have used AVG in the past and it was good and stable. I prefer the commercial vendors for virus checking. My favorites in this category are KeePass and TrueCrypt.
    • KeePass is a password manager that stores the passwords in an encrypted file and via a hotkey will automagically fill in the correct userid and password for the site based on the title of the web page. If the title is not unique KeePass will present a selection of userids and passwords that match that title. If you login to a lot of secured sites this is a time saver and allows you to use long, random passwords.
    • TrueCrypt allows you to create a virtual disk that is stored on your disk drive as an encrypted file. This virtual disk will gracefully dismounts whenever your laptop hibernates or goes into standby mode. I use this virtual disk for my QuickBooks files and other sensitive data.
  • Productivity
    I like their selections in this category, too. I regularly use Notepadd++ and WordPress. Open Office is a nice package but Microsoft Office make my life so much simpler when I work with people who use Microsoft Office who are not technically savvy.
  • Utilities & PC Management
    I use both FileZilla and Foxit Reader in this category. Foxit Reader is faster, requires less disk space, and does not need to be installed. I recently installed Foxit Reader on my server because it takes up a lot less disk space and does not need to be installed. Both the free and professional version of Foxit Reader allow you to markup Acrobat files and print the marked up files. I use this feature for filling out rebate forms. The professional version allows you to save the markup data. My other recommendations in this area are PDFCreator and Portable Apps.
    • PDFCreator is a simple way to create Acrobat files. PDFCreator creates a virtual printer when you install it. When you print to this virtual printer it creates an Acrobat file. This is a great way to create and send Acrobat versions of reports via email. I recently installed this program on several computers at a nonprofit so they could create Acrobat versions of their monthly reports.
    • Portable Apps is a repackaging of several free software packages into a portable format. In my case I keep several programs I use infrequently on a USB drive. The Portable Apps format allows me to “safely” evaluate and use open source programs without mucking up my windows registry. The list of programs that I have on my USB drive include:
      • 7-Zip Portable
      • Audacity Portable
      • Clamwin Portable
      • FileZilla Portable
      • FireFox Portable
      • Gimp Portable
      • KeePass Portable

.[tags]open source[/tags]

SYDI and System Documentation

SYDI is a program to document your system. There are a lot of programs you can use to document your systems. Some programs are very sophisticated and provides lots of detail. Although these programs do not cost much, they inevitably have licensing issues and they provide a lot more detail than I care about. SYDI is a bunch of visual basic scripts that probe the system using WMI to create a XML file. At this moment SYDI provides enough documentation for me. With another script you can transform this XML file into either a Word document or HTML file. The documentation is not fancy but it is sufficient.

Recently I was updating my documentation for my server at home and decided that I was going to start saving versions of the server documentation. I initially changed the scripts to embed the date in the filename. I have since changed my mind and I have decided to store the XML files in a SVN depository. This way I can keep multiple versions of the XML file and compare these versions with the built-in Diff program or WinMerge. I still like the idea of embedding the date in the file name on the latest Word or HTML file.

As I was mucking about the scripts I decided to make a small contribution to the SYDI project and modify the XSL to generate valid XHTML code. I sent the XSL file to the developers and I will let them decide if they want to include it in the next release.

More ideas on freeing up space on a windows server boot partition

Recently I have been plagued with low disk space on the boot partition of my SBS2K3 server. I was confused why this was occurring since I thought I had this under control. When I found some spare time I started to re-examine the typical culprits(e.g. log files and temp files). I found some files but they were not big enough to cause the problem I was seeing. Since I needed about 1 Gig free space for some major upgrades, I decided to go ahead and move the SBSMonitoring database to another disk drive and delete old patch files. This almost got me to 1 Gb. I even decided to replace Acrobat with the lighter weight PDF reader, Foxit Reader.

Today I found the problem! I had previously set up Shadow copies to store the copies for all disk drives on my backup drive. While I was using JDiskReport to look at the disk space I noticed that there were three large directories in the System Volume information for the boot partition. After a little snooping I figured out my shadow copies were being stored on the boot partition and they were being duplicated. As an example, I was getting a copy at 7:00 and 7:02. I do not know how things got screwed up but I suspect it occurred during a power outage when the backup drive went offline before the server. Fixing it was easy. I deleted the existing shadow copies and changed the settings to point to my backup drive. To fix the scheduling problem, I went into the Tasks control panel and deleted the extra jobs.

I was thinking of getting rid of Java and JDiskReport until it lead me to the source of my problem. I probably will remove it but not right now. TreeSize Free is a free, lightweight alternative. The Professional version is even better. It was much easier to rationalize removing Acrobat from the server. For those interested in using Foxit Reader to replace Adobe Acrobat on your server, the link is listed below. Acrobat uses about 80 Mb of disk space when installed. Foxit uses about 2 Mb, launches much quicker than Acrobat, and does not need to be installed. I do not browse the Internet from the server but I do look at Trend Micro reports while logged as Administrator on the server.

Now with Foxit Reader 2.0, you don’t have to endure such pain any more. The following is a list of compelling advantages of Foxit Reader 2.0:

  • Incredibly small: The download size of Foxit Reader is only 1.5 M which is a fraction of Acrobat Reader 20 M size
  • Breezing-fast: When you run Foxit Reader, it launches instantly without any delay. You are not forced to view an annoying splash window displaying company logo, author names, etc.
  • Annotation tool: Have you ever wished to annotate (or comment on) a PDF document when you are reading it? Foxit Reader 2.0 allows you to draw graphics, highlight text, type text and make notes on a PDF document and then print out or save the annotated document.
  • Text converter: You may convert the whole PDF document into a simple text file.
  • High security and privacy: Foxit Reader highly respects the security and privacy of users and will never connect to Internet without users’ permission. While other PDF Reader often silently connects to the Internet in the background. Foxit PDF Reader does not contain any spyware or adware.

Source: Foxit Software

TrueCrypt 4.3

TrueCrypt is a software system for establishing and maintaining an on-the-fly-encrypted drive. On-the-fly encryption means that data are automatically encrypted or decrypted right before they are loaded or saved, without any user intervention. No data stored on an encrypted volume can be read (decrypted) without using the correct password or correct…

Link to TrueCrypt 4.3

I have been using TrueCrypt for over a year on my laptop. I keep my QuickBooks and other sensitive files in it. My assumption has always been that if my laptop is stolen that my XP login password would be cracked pretty easily. Ophcrack showed me how easy it can be done. My other assumption is that breaking into TrueCrypt would be way too hard for most thieves. I highly recommend TrueCrypt.

Using Version Control to Manage Web Site Changes

A while back I decided that Version Control software was a better way for me to manage web site changes. This adds a little bit more documentation and incremental control over the daily backups. For small shops Version Control looks like overkill but it is simple to use. So I bit the bullet and setup a Subversion repository on my Windows-based computer. Initially I thought I would only keep my theme customizations and content in the repository but I eventually decided to keep the entire directory. Today I decided to document the process I use to update a website. In this case I am upgrading WordPress from 2.1 to 2.1.1 with a zipped file of changed files. I will be using several open source programs in addition to Subversion and TortoiseSVN. I will be using WinMerge to compare directories and FileZilla to upload the files. There are many suitable programs for these tasks. These are the ones I used.

Step 1 – Update your working copies

Use TortoiseSVN to retrieve a clean working copy from the repository.

Step 2 – Download the updated files and expand into directories

In my case the updated 2.1.1 files are in a zip file which follows the WordPress directory structure. I download the file and expand it into directories. I also print the updated file list. I am going to use the file list as my check list for the rest of the process. Stuff happens!

Step 3 – Compare the directories and update the files.

I use WinMerge as a quick check to compare the directories. I have projects set up to automate my comparison settings. It should show that the files I am updating are the ones on the file list. Surprisingly I find I am missing a couple of files shown on the changed file list. I opt to download the full source and add the missing updated files to my updates. I use WinMerge to copy the changed files over the repository files.

 Step 4 – Update the website

In this step I use FileZilla and the file list to upload the changed files. It is a real plus that my host provider allows me to use sFTP. Every extra bit of security helps keep the hackers away. Since this is a minor update I will leave all of my plugins active during the upgrade. WordPress recommends that you deactivate your plugins before updating in case you run into problems. I sort the local directory based on Last Modified date so that the changed files are on the top and easier to find. I move from directory to directory updating the changed files. FileZilla continually reminds me that I am overwriting existing files. That is good. There are only four directories and twenty file so the process goes quickly. When I have finished uploading the files I go to my browser and click on the Site Admin link in WordPress. It prompts me with links to complete the upgrade. This is normal. I follow the links and finish updating the site within a minute. I do a quick check of the website to make sure everything is still working. I have finished updating the web site.

Step 5 – Commit the changes to the repository

I use TortoiseSVN to commit the changes and with a description. When I am finished I use TortoiseSVN to check the log and make sure that the  description I just added makes sense. This is probably the last time I will look at the description until I need to understand it sometime in the future. I am happy with what I wrote so I move on to my other projects.

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Setting up a Subversion repository on a Windows-based computer

The goal of this project is to simplify the process of setting up a Subversion repository on a Windows-based computer. Svn1ClickSetup takes a user through the steps necessary to install the Subversion command-line utilities and TortoiseSVN, as well as creating a repository and initial project.

I finally bit the bullet and setup a Subversion repository. My needs are pretty simple. I wanted to keep versions of my website changes. At the complexity level that I am working at backups have served my needs well and it is debatable whether a version control system will be a benefit. The costs are primarily the amount of time I am willing to spend and possibly waste on a system I may not use.

I played a little with version control systems in the past, CVS and Subversion, so this will be my first real “needs to work” experience. The problem was that Subversion has two ways of setting up repositories, svnserve and Apache. Apache would have been my first choice since I have it installed via XAMPP. Unfortunately Subversion needs an older version of Apache(2.0). I was just plain uncomfortable with how to setup Subversion using the svnserve method. After a little searching I found this link to automagically setup everything using svnserve. Suddenly setting up Subversion became much simpler.

Since I already had the newest version of the client on my computer, the installation procedure thoughtfully allowed me to skip the client installation step. This installation program installs an older version of Subversion but that is not a big problem. I downloaded the newest version of Subversion and it did a fine job of updating my existing installation. Then I used the TortoiseSVN utility, repo browser, to copy the existing Project1 to a new folder to create my first project with the same directory structure as Project1. With the folder created in the repository I could now import existing data into the trunk folder.

For my directory structure I chose to use customer-subproject format with the modified folders underneath the subproject. I used the same folder names as I use on the website to make sure it is easy to figure out if I do not come back for awhile. As an example I created a folder for my company with a subfolder called blog. Underneath the blog folder I have two folders, plugins and my customized theme folder. These two folders contain all of my customized code for WordPress. As a test I modified some code and used the TortoiseSVN Diff function to see what it said changed. It worked like a champ and pointed out the single change. Best of all the whole process was pretty intuitive. I still haven’t read the manual. This just might work for me.

VMware Delivers Free VMware Server

VMware Delivers Free VMware Server

I have become a fan of VMware. I have used VirtualPC in the past but became interested in their products when they offered VMPlayer for free. When they offered free usage of the server product and encouraged the VMTN appliance community, I switched.

My use has generally been in two areas:

  1. Testing new slipstreamed installations of Win XP.
  2. Playing with pre-built appliances.

The first appliance I started playing with was Asterisk at Home or now know as Trixbox. I have downloaded several versions over the last couple of months using BitTorrent. There is a bit of learning curve for this product and I did not want to waste time setting up a test box. There is a market for supporing this product but I do not have a customer right now.

The second appliance I have started playing with is a couple of Nagios/Groundworks variants. Nagios is an open source network monitoring program and Groundwork Open Source is a free version of a commercial variant of Nagios. Due to some recent discussions I had with my son in which he maintained that our internet access sucked, I decided to investigate the matter further. I originally downloaded a prebuilt Groundwork Open Source system by Tony Su of Su Network Consulting. The good news is that he had built it. The bad news is that he released it as a virtual disk drive rather than a virtual appliance. As a result it was a little harder to set up than Trixbox. To compound the problems the network adapter needed to configured before it would do anything. Trixbox configured the network adapter during startup so this was new territory for me since this was a SUSE box.

Along the way I found a posting about baywatchos. It was a Groundwork Open Source system built upon Centos which is the same operating system used by Trixbox. My familiarity with Centos and the fact that it had Webmin already installed were pluses for me. The author even provided a nice Getting Started document in English. After a brief configuration I had it working. Gianluca, you did a fine job!

My next project will be to move these virtual appliances to my ghetto box and see how well they run. This should be amusing. Groundwork has some pretty stiff hardware requirements.

Gpg4win – EMail-Security using GnuPG for Windows

Gpg4win – EMail-Security using GnuPG for Windows

Today I upgraded from 1.0.1 to 1.0.3 and experienced problems verifying files. I could not verify a file with GPGee or WinPT. The files had been verified under 1.0.1. GPGee said I had an invalid key and WinPT did not show any results. GPA did verify the file. I re-installed a second time with an uninstall, reboot, and install to see if was an installation error by me. I got the same errors. I have reinstalled 1.0.1 and it verifies the files again.

TrueCrypt 4.2a updated

TrueCrypt v4.2a
TrueCrypt is a software system for establishing and maintaining an on-the-fly-encrypted drive. On-the-fly encryption means that data are automatically encrypted or decrypted right before they are loaded or saved, without any user intervention. No data stored on an encrypted volume can be read (decrypted) without using the correct password or correc…

This is an open source programs I use everyday. I think it is essential for your sensitive data if you still run your laptop with XP Home.

NewsForge | Portable open source software

NewsForge | Portable open source software

Since I use several of the open source packages on this list, I have to say that I approve of the selections and will take a look at the ones I do not presently use. For the ultimate in portability I have Firefox and Open Office installed on a USB stick. Most of the packages I use lean toward enhancing security via encryption. Some of the packages on the list I use are:

  • KeePass – password manager
  • TrueCrypt – encrypted file system

Some of the other open source packages listed at the bottom that I use are XAMPP and Notepad++. Although it is not open source, VMplayer/VMServer, really help in this area by allowing you to run Linux on a virtual machine and reach the rest of open source universe.

Ophcrack 2 — The fastest Windows password cracker

Ophcrack 2 — The fastest Windows password cracker
The Ophcrack LiveCD is a bootable Linux CD-ROM containing ophcrack 2.2 and a set of tables (SSTIC04-10k). It allows for testing the strength of passwords on a Windows machine without having to install anything on it. Just put it into the CD-ROM drive, reboot and it will try to find a Windows partition, extract its SAM and start auditing the passwords.

I downloaded the iso, burned the CD, and tried it on my son’s PC(W2K Pro), my laptop(XP Home) and my desktop(XP Pro). It was impressively fast at figuring out my local Administrator passwords. Naturally it does not know about the network password since it is not stored locally. I had to run it manually with my desktop since it is a dual boot machine and Ophcrack did not detect the NT partition with windows on it. KeePass 1.04 released KeePass 1.04 released

Version 1.04 is mainly a feature release. The auto-type features have been enhanced (most notably there’s now an entry selection dialog displayed when multiple entries match), improved TAN handling (new display, support of indexed TANs, …) and the user interface has been improved.

I have been using this program for about a year since I have so many passwords to keep track of. This entry selection dialog is an improvement I can really use and appreciate. I have several entries for EFTPS and Ohio Business Gateway for which I previously could not use the auto-type feature. This feature saves me from a couple of copy and paste key strokes. It is not a big deal but it was annoying/inconvenient.

Review of KeePass Password Safe

I have been using Password Safe the last couple of months to help manage my passwords. It has done a fine job. Yesterday I saw another open source password manager was released so I decided to check it out. It is called KeePass and you can find it here. It does everything Password Safe does and a couple of things more. KeePass appears to have better encryption although I am no expert and really don’t care. The feature that caught my interest was the ability to open urls in the web browser and fill the normal username and password fields. It worked for several of the urls I tried. It did not work on all of them. Still it could be minor timesaving feature that may encourage me to use more difficult passwords(i.e. random). I was very pleased that my exported passwords from Password Safe imported into KeePass without a problem.