16 Tools to Make Troubleshooting and Repair Faster and Easier

Being a datacenter engineer requires a broad base of knowledge and skills to successfully troubleshoot hundreds of different configurations and environments. While knowing what to do is a huge part of the job, having right tools on hand can be equally as important. Having just what you need with you, right when you need it, can be the difference between getting a server back up and running in minutes – or dealing with delays that could last hours, or even days.

Ben Miller, one of NetActuate’s Network Operations Engineers, spends most of his days at our flagship datacenter in Durham, resolving issues, upgrading equipment, and replacing parts. He, along with several other technicians, ensures our (and our clients’) infrastructure is fully optimized for availability and performance.

Because NetActuate operates over 32 locations worldwide, Ben is frequently called to travel across the United States, and sometimes around the world, to keep our global infrastructure in top shape. To make sure he has just what he needs, when he needs it, Ben let us take a look inside his “go bag.” Below are the top items he recommends for any technician to help save time – and a lot of headaches.

1. Backpack

A large, comfortable, rugged backpack with many compartments is a great place to start. You’ll want it to have interior padding to keep your laptop safe, and lots of compartments and zipper pockets to store your items. Having MOLLE webbing on the outside is also a plus, so you can attach your commonly-used tools for easy access.

2. Laptop with the Right Ports

There are several things to consider when choosing the right laptop for global datacenter troubleshooting. You’ll want a laptop that has a wide range of ports, so some of the more streamlined, lightweight models may not work as well. In addition to have as many USB as you can find, you’ll want to ensure it has an ethernet port, for fast, direct connections to servers. Additionally, your onsite Wi-Fi performance can vary greatly, so preloading a folder with images of your most commonly-used operating systems (such as FreeBSD and CentOS), as well as bootable system rescue software (with a range of diagnostic tools) can save a lot of time when restoring a server after a crash.

3. Pre-loaded USB Thumb Drives

To save even more time from having to download or transfer commonly-used ISO images and other utilities (to flash the BIOS or run diagnostics), or to easily boot from USB, it is helpful to bring a copy with you on a labeled thumb drives. Given how inexpensive USB drives are and how much time they can save, this is an easy addition to your toolkit.

4. A USB Hub (or Two)

To make sure you are able to connect your ready-made USB drives to errant servers, keep a couple of lightweight USB hubs in your backpack. When you run into a server that only has a limited number of ports, or you find that the ports are disconnected, malfunctioning or hard to get to, having a USB hub means you can still quickly and easily connect your keyboard, laptop, mouse, and thumb drives.

5. Label Maker

Portable, legible, self-adhesive documentation is very handy when swapping out parts, so you can easily label bad drives and other problematic pieces of hardware. Also, it is great for labeling the USB drives discussed above.

6. A PCI Slot Panel

Removing standard cage nuts in server racks can be frustrating and painful. There are expensive custom removal tools, and even more expensive alternatives to cage nuts, but one quick, cheap and easy answer is to keep around is a PCI slot panel or two. It is the right size and shape to remove cage nuts quickly and painlessly.

7. Multi-Bit Ratcheting Screwdriver

When installing or moving around servers in different cages and cabinets, you are bound to encounter any number of different screw heads. The best answer is to keep a multi-bit ratcheting screwdriver in your backpack so you know you will have what you need.

8. Long Screwdriver with Magnetic Tip

To get to cage screws easily and not disturb structured (or unstructured) cables and wires, an extra-long screwdriver is your best bet. If you get one that has a magnet tip, it can also help retrieve small screws when they fall into hard-to-reach spots.

9. Double-Sided Rolls of Velcro

To organize and structure cables, it helps to keep a roll of double-sided velcro, pre-cut and ready-to-use, in your bag. When zip ties are used, it can be hard to trace a cable because they inhibit the cable’s movement. It is also really easy to clip or cut part of a cable when removing a zip tie. With double-sided velcro, you also save money and create less waste because the lengths of velcro can easily be removed and used again.

10. Serial Console Cable

To quickly and easily connect your laptop to console into a router or switch for reconfiguration, it is helpful to keep a console cable with USB adapter in your bag.

11. Power Cord (C13 to NEMA 5-15)

When performing longer diagnostics and installations on a server, it helps to be able to plug your laptop into the PDUs in the cabinet, so you aren’t limited by the battery life. These small adapters are very small and inexpensive, so check the PDU type of the location you are going to work on to keep all the adapters you need right on hand. For the racks Ben works on, C13 to NEMA 5-15 power cords do the trick.

12. Cable-Making Kit

A range of connectivity issues are often caused by clip failure or other issues with the cables themselves. To be ready to for this common first troubleshooting step, keep a small bag of RJ45 connectors, cables of various lengths, a good wire cutter and wire crimper on hand.

13. Fiber Optic Cable Tester

Many basic fiber optic cable testers can be purchased for less than $50, and are easily portable. Keeping one in your bag lets you quickly check a fiber cable for signal strength.

14. Spare Fiber Patch Cables

When troubleshooting connectivity problems, it is always helpful to have a set of fiber patch cables right at hand. Create yourself a set that includes cables of various lengths, with a mix of both LC and SC connectors.

15. Keystone Couplers

Small and inexpensive, keeping some LC, SC and RJ45 keystone couplers in your bag will be an easy fix when you need to extend a cable.

16. Medi-Pak

To avoid becoming a hangry tech when things take longer than expected, it helps to keep some pre-packaged bars or other small (non-messy) food items in your bag. A small pack of band-aids for minor mishaps and lip balm (for those cool, dry datacenters) are also great to have ready when you need them.

Keeping thousands of servers up and running means being knowledgeable – and mobile. Our skilled engineers are constantly working around the clock to keep our servers, routers, and other equipment, up, running, and ready when needed. We hope this look into Ben Miller’s datacenter engineer “go bag” will prove to be a useful resource, as well as an interesting look at the tools and skills required to successfully support the infrastructure that runs today’s data-driven economy.