Every Operations person or datacenter (DC) junkie that I know has a datacenter tool kit of some sort, containing their favorite bits of gear for doing work inside the cold, lonely world of the datacenter. Now, one would like to think that each company stocks the right tools for their folks to work, but tools break and don’t get replaced, they walk away or get misplaced. My current employer is generally pretty good about supplying the DC cage with what we need, but we tend to be lazy about asking for stuff if it’s gone.
After going to find the right-sized screwdriver to swap failing drives from their drive caddies for the tenth time, I decided it would be best if I just built my own kit and carried it with me all the time. Building the right kit is like searching for the Holy Grail. You never know quite what it’s supposed to be, where you might find it, what it looks like, or if it’s going to be gilted and beautiful or humble and ugly.
Datacenter Tool Kit – The Bag
I’m now on the third build out of the bag. What I found is that the bag is one the most important pieces of the kit. If your bag is too small you can’t keep the right tools in it. Or, even worse, you can’t find the tools you need without dumping them all out.My previous bag was a Harbor Freight 12-inch tool bag. I bought it because it was cheap. I regretted that decision about three months into owning it. Keeping it closed was an effort in frustration. Either I could pack all the tools I need and not be able to close it or I could jam shit in it with the hopes that what I needed was right on top. More often than not, I had to dump the bag to find the right screwdriver or set of earplugs.
A few months ago, I ran across Veto Pro Pac. These guys design bags for various trade industries (HVAC, plumbing, carpentry). Now, trades aren’t necessarily forgiving when it comes to their tool kits. This stuff gets dropped. It gets hung up in odd places, filled with heavy tools, stretching the stitching to its limits. It gets dragged through dirt and mud. Basically, some of the worst conditions you could expect.
Veto designs for this. Waterproof bases and fabric. Heavy duty zippers and D-rings. Double stitching. Great stuff all around.I purchased one of their newest designs: the Veto Pro Pac – Model MC. It’s 8 inches wide, 10 inches long, and 12 inches deep. It has two zippered flaps dividing the bag into two sides. Each side has a plethora of pouches and slots for organizing your tools. One side is geared more for things like screwdrivers and pliers. The other side is geared more for bigger items, such as meters.
I’ve added a small set of additional Husky organizer pouches for various things that I’d prefer outside of the bag (pens, paper, velcro).
Datacenter Tool Kit – The Tools
When I first started building my kit out, I decided that I wanted to not worry so much about having this stolen, so I went down the Harbor Freight route for a lot of things. We’re not doing rocket surgery here, so the quality of the tools wasn’t especially important. Now that I’ve been using this stuff for a few years, I’m not sure that I’d upgrade it to something nicer. For DC use, it just works.
Harbor Freight Electrician’s Screwdriver set 7pc – now, I’m not generally working with power on or connected on systems, but why risk a shock? These are bright safety orange and have an insulating jacket on the handle and driver shaft. To make it easier to pick out the right size and tip shape, I’ve sharpied a plus (Phillips) and dash (Slotted) on the handle end with the relative size of the tip.
Harbor Freight 100 Piece Security Bit Set – you never know what wild bit some manufacturer is going to lock you out with. I’ve mostly had to use the security Torx. I use a spare Craftsman magnetic bit driver with this.
4 inch magnetic parts tray – this is great for holding on to tiny screws for drives between drive swaps or slapping to the side of a rack and filling with caged rack nuts.
Sockets and Wrenches
I have a handful of Craftsman open ended wrenches and sockets from an old kit I had years ago for emergency work on the car. I rarely need them for the car, so they’re now a part of the kit. The sockets live in a nylon zipper bag inside the Veto so they aren’t randomly sloshing around.
It’s an older version of this Craftsman socket wrench kit.
Harbor Freight 6 Piece Pliers Set – small pliers for doing more delicate work. This includes a set of diagonal cutters.
Harbor Freight 8 inch Professional Linesman Pliers – I’m not really doing any wire cutting with these, but they’re sufficient for what I need: heavier duty gripping. If I ever need to upgrade, I’d probably get something from Klein.
Cage Nut Tool – If you have your hands in racks for any amount of time, you’ll come across caged nuts. These are the bane of any Operations person’s existence. The caged nuts are sharp, hard to insert, sharp, and love blood. A cage nut tool provides a great defense to these things, making them easy to insert and remove. Get one. If you don’t want this one you can MacGyver one with a PCI card bracket.
Husky Folding Lock-Back Utility Knife – Our DC requires us to break down boxes since they don’t have a trash compactor on site for their big dumpsters. I’ve used a few different brands. These are my favorite. I keep a stash of twenty or thirty blades in the bag and restock as necessary.
Klein 3 piece Cable Splicers Kit – When you need good scissors that will cut through wire, just get the Kleins. I use these pretty often when decomissioning Cat5. It’s safer to just clip the end and pull gently through the bundle instead of trying to fish something out and risk yanking the wrong thing.
Husky Garage Shear and Scissors – For general clipping and cutting when I need precision.
SensGard ZEM SG-31 Hearing Protection Device – My hearing is important. Or, at least, what’s left of it. I have tinnitus in both ears, so there’s a constant ringing going on. The DC is loud, so I’m constantly trying to keep my hearing protected. I started using these hearing protection plugs with my power tools at home. I’ve since put a set in my tool bag. They reduce the noise by 31dB. That’s a lot. It makes working in the DC bearable.
If, for some reason, I don’t have them, the DC supplies the foam ear plug inserts. I always have backups in the bag and make sure to grab a set or two when I’m there. Just in case.
FAVI Mini 2.4Ghz Wireless PC / Tablet Keyboard – I hate cables. For the bulk of our work that requires keyboards, we’re mostly just hitting F2 to get into BIOS or DRACs and then navigate around. This makes it easier to stand near a system and walk around without having to set the keyboard down on the floor. At some point, we’ll get proper crash carts. We’re just at the DC so infrequently that it hasn’t been a high priority.
Plugable USB to RS-232 DB9 serial adapter – There will always be serial ports in datacenters. Everyone needs to connect to a console at one point or another. For many devices, this is going to be a DB9 serial connection. Because laptops today no longer have serial connections, we have to supplement with a USB to DB9 serial dongle. Most any one should work. I use one connected to my Mac and work with it using
Along with the USB to Serial adapter, I also have various RJ45 to DB9 connectors, a Cisco serial connector, and an Eaton RJ45 to DB9 connector.
Amongst other things, I always carry:
- Reuseit Nylon Shopping Bag – collapsible and reusable shopping bag. These are lightweight and pack down really small. Great for when I have to carry additional stuff into the DC.
- CPU Thermal grease cleaner and replacement thermal grease. This was left over from a swap out we did, so I just keep it in the bag now.
- Paracord – you never know when you need to quickly bind or tie something up to get it out of the way (or hold it onto a cart).
- LED Flashlight – Poking around inside or under racks requires some illumination. You’re not lighting up a city, so this doesn’t need to be too powerful, but it does need to be resilient to dropping and banging.
- Anti-static bags – for carrying things like RAM back to the office
- Velcro – We get spools of 1/2 inch velcro. I try to carry some with me for bundling up cables of various sorts. Don’t ever use a ziptie.
- Sharpie – black.
- Post-It Notes or equivalent.
- Pens – I prefer Pilot Precise V5 Pens.
- Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm – Yes, you can get wind-burn on your lips in a datacenter. Just stand in the hot isle between rows of racks for a few hours working on cables. Burt’s Bees works.
Datacenter Tool Kit – The Evolution
Now, one thing you’ll notice conspicuously missing from my datacenter tool kit.
Networking test equipment – We don’t build our own cables. We keep stocks of various lengths in our supply shelves. If we suspect a cable of being broken, we cut it and replace it. So no need for me to carry around network test gear. At most, I might invest in a tone generator and probe (aka “fox and hound”) to trace cables, but I just have not needed it to date.
Label makers – I do recommend that every datacenter or cage be supplied with a good label maker. We use a Brady IDXPERT Keyboard-style, but this appears to be obsolete. The current model is the Brady BMP51 Label maker. We use two types of labels: self-laminating polyester labels (BMP51-equivalent self-laminating) and continuous indoor/outdoor vinyl (BMP51 equivalent continuous indoor/outdoor vinyl) for applications that require really small or really large labels. Do yourself a favor and always try to get the keyboard-version of any label maker. They are much easier to work with.
Drills – We have a community drill in the cage. It’s a bright green Ryobi 18volt. It works. If I were to buy my own, I would get a M12 12-Volt Lithium-Ion Cordless 3/8 in. Drill. I use one at home and like it. It’s small, powerful, and portable.
Finally, things come and go in the datacenter tool kit. It’s constantly evolving as my needs change in the datacenter. If we no longer do a particular work activity and I’ve picked up a tool for it, I’m not going to keep it in the bag. I just want to save weight.
Have any suggestions about what you would add or comments about what I’m using? Shoot me a followup in a comment below or contact me.