11 free Microsoft tools to make life easier

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In addition to its commercial operating systems and applications, Microsoft offers up a host of free tools that make it easier, cheaper, safer and faster to accomplish essential tasks from removing malware to converting virtual machines to deploying software. Here is a smattering of some of them, including a few designed for the company’s latest operating system, Windows 8.

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The Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool

Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool can remove a laundry list of known malicious software. While not a replacement for antivirus, it’s updated every month on Patch Tuesday, so the list of signatures it seeks are kept relatively fresh. And having one more scan can’t hurt, right? The tool is available from Microsoft Update, Windows Update and the Microsoft Download Center.

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Best Practices Analyzer

Once you’ve got Windows Server 8 installed, make use of the Best Practices Analyzer tool that comes with it. It scans the server to make sure it’s configured to what are considered best practices – things that admins might know but over look. One example Microsoft cites: close all ports that aren’t necessary for the server to talk to just the network machines it needs to. The goal is to improve security, avoid conflicts and boost performance and reliability.

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Windows Defender Offline

The Windows Defender Offline tool runs from some form of removable media – USB stick, CD – to defeat smart malware that might otherwise disable security measures. The machine being cleaned is booted from the removable media and inspected before malware is running and has the chance to hide itself or disable the scan. Note: Microsoft recommends downloading the tool to a known good computer to prevent Windows Defender Offline itself from being corrupted.

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Attack Surface Analyzer

When developers or desktop admins make changes to the standard desktop, they may introduce changes that increase the opportunities adversaries have to attack. Attack Surface Analyzer addresses this by scanning for classes of security weaknesses that the company has discovered over the years as apps are deployed on Windows operating systems. According to a Microsoft blog, the analyzer looks for “changed or newly added files, registry keys, services, Microsoft ActiveX controls, listening ports and other parameters.”

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Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit

Application developers may not know that Windows has a set of security mitigations baked in, and Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) points them out so they are enabled in the software they write. These tools include address-space layout randomisation, data execution prevention and structured exception handler overwrite protection, among others. Some of these features are turned on by default in applications written via Visual Studio, but others are not. Commercial code often includes recommended mitigations, but some don’t. EMET can help security pros find out.

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Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2012

Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 is a chore facing many enterprises this year, and Microsoft Deployment Toolkit can help. This set of tools and procedures can automate desktop and server deployments from a single console, cutting the time it takes, assuring consistency of images and boost security, the company says. The toolkit supports Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 as well as earlier versions.

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Virtual Machine Servicing Tool 2012

Virtual Machine Servicing Tool 2012 is designed to help virtual machine admins keep track of old virtual machines that may be stored offline, but may come back into use at some point. The tool automatically checks these machines that have been stored offline in a Virtual Machine Manager library and updates them with new virus signatures, application patches and operating system updates. This reduces the time needed to get these VMs in shape to come back into service and eliminates the need to create a secure environment in which to update them manually. VMST 2012 works in tandem with System Center 2012.

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Windows 8 Enterprise Evaluation

Windows 8 Enterprise Evaluation is a 90-day evaluation of the enterprise version of Windows 8, giving businesses the chance to put the new operating system through its paces. Windows 8 Enterprise includes a dozen or so features not included in the consumer version of Windows 8. Among them: encryption, joining a business domain, support for group policies and Windows To Go, the feature that enables carrying around an entire Windows desktop on a memory stick. The trial is available only to IT pros and for testing purposes only, not live deployment. Microsoft provides no tech support for the evaluation software.

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Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit

Assessing IT infrastructure is an important first step for many corporate technology projects and The Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit can help. It conducts inventory, assesses configurations and fashions reports with the idea of making migrations to new platforms simpler. It can aid in planning for Hyper-V server capacity by gathering data about server use and by assessing whether current physical servers are good prospects for being virtualized. It also plots return on investment for virtualization projects.

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Microsoft Virtual Machine Converter

The Microsoft Virtual Machine Converter software for turning VMware virtual machines and virtual disks into Hyper-V virtual machines including Windows Server 2012. Businesses that have not yet decided whether to make the switch to Hyper-V can use the tool to experiment with the Hyper-V environment without actually making a wholesale swap. Along with the conversion, the tool retains the configuration, memory and virtual processor capacity from the original virtual machines to the Hyper-V version. It supports VMware vSphere 4.1 and 5.0.

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Visual Studio Express 2012 for Windows 8

If it’s time to write modern style applications for Windows 8, this is a must have. The tools here edit code, debug it to enable writing in HTML5, JavaScript, C++, C# or Visual Basic. It also includes a device simulator for testing the applications on a range of machine types to determine how user-friendly the apps are in different environments. This is a good place to start if the goal is dipping a toe into the waters before making a commitment to Windows 8. The platform has an interactive mode that lets developers test drive their applications as they write them.

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