Small Business Network Management Review: Spiceworks 7.1

Tuesday Mar 4th 2014 by Joseph Moran
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For small business network admins with any smarts, using Spiceworks is a no-brainer. We take a look at what's new in version 7.1.

How many company computers have the accounting software installed? What's the IP address of the second floor Ethernet switch? Which printers are out of toner/ink, and what color do they need? These are the kinds of questions small business network administrators need answers to every day, and Spiceworks' free network management and monitoring software makes answering such questions a lot easier—particularly for admins at small firms that lack the budget for powerful (but pricey) enterprise-centric management tools.

Spiceworks becomes more sophisticated with each new version, but the latest iteration, Version 7, received a major facelift, substantial under-the-hood tweaks, and an expanded repertoire of features that make it more useful than ever.      

For those who may be unfamiliar with Spiceworks, let's first address the obvious question, "How is this software free?" Answer: it's subsidized by IT equipment and service vendors—and lots of them. As a result, Spiceworks contains countless ads, logos, links to white papers and case studies, etc., but not to the degree that it interferes with using the software. (If you're new to Spiceworks, check out our Spiceworks 5 review for background info; there's so much to cover in 7.1, that this review will necessarily focus on new and improved features.)

Spiceworks 7.1 Review

We installed Spiceworks version 7.1 (actually upgrading from v 6.2) on a small business network consisting of a couple of servers, approximately forty desktops and laptops (running Windows 7 Pro), more than a half-dozen shared printers, and myriad other networked devices including VoIP phones, all spread over two subnets in different physical locations about 100 miles apart. 

Once we finished the upgrade, we took a look at the new features in Spiceworks 7.1.

Responsive UI and Improved Inventory

For starters, the Spiceworks UI received a bit of a facelift with an increased use of graphics and animations. Despite this, the software feels considerably more responsive. Refreshing pages, changing views, or switching between different areas of the software don't seem to take as long as they did in previous versions.   

Spiceworks 7.1 small business network management software

Figure 1: Spiceworks lets you remotely start/stop services or uninstall software, though the uninstall feature didn't always work in our testing. 

Spiceworks also overhauled the way it scans for and inventories devices. Rather than comprehensively scanning the entire network each and every time, Spiceworks now lets you schedule group scans so that you can poll critical devices and parameters more frequently than those that are less important.  For example, you might want to check a server's connectivity or free disk space every few minutes, but check for newly installed software every few hours. Spiceworks still performs a full scan daily (nightly, actually), and you can add to or modify the default scanning schedules as needed.   

Device inventory is smarter too. Previously, Spiceworks considered a device inventoried even if it knew little more than an IP address and perhaps a name. Now, Spiceworks flags these "unknowns" for extra attention, and lets you manually identify the device (assuming you know what it is). When you haven't a clue (a more likely scenario), Spiceworks helps you deduce an identity by telling you which ports are, or are not, responding. It also lets you use basic IP tools such as ping, nslookup, and traceroute without having to drop out to a command prompt.

Resolving these problematic devices requires a lot more work upfront, but it also means fewer superficial entries in your inventory. On our Spiceworks wish list: provide a link to a MAC address OUI database to identify device manufacturers. (Several of our mystery devices had an OUI of 50:2e:5c, which led us to determine that they were HTC smartphones.)

Increased Control and Cloud Detection Accuracy

Spiceworks now boasts two important new features that any network administrator would covet—the capability to remotely remove software as well as stop and start services. We tried both on a few randomly chosen computers. Starting and stopping services was always rock solid; removing software was somewhat less so—it didn't always work, but it worked more often than not.

small business network management software

Figure 2: Spicework does a better job scanning your network and flagging unknown devices (or devices with incomplete information).

In both cases, though, the feedback Spiceworks provides could stand improvement. There's no explicit acknowledgement as to whether an attempt to remove software or stop/start a service was successful or not; to determine this, you have to refresh the list of services or apps after your attempt to see whether the one in question is running/present.

Cloud services are both a productivity boon and a security bane, so it pays to know which services you have running on your network. Spiceworks added the capability to detect cloud services back in version 6, but it wasn't particularly accurate, having a tendency to both misidentify services and identify nonexistent ones.  Spiceworks 7.1, on the other hand, detected the services actually running on our network—services such as Dropbox, LastPass, LogMeIn , Ninite, and Skype—with very few false alarms or phantom detections.

Mobile Device Management

Recognizing that keeping tabs on smartphones and tablets has become at least as important as monitoring old-timey desktops and laptops, SpiceWorks 7.1 now includes an Mobile Device Management (MDM) component powered by Fiberlink's Maas360 (a watered-down version of the company's paid MDM product).

After you sign up for a free Maas360 account (Spiceworks takes care of that for you in a couple of clicks) a wizard prompts you to choose an existing employee—or create a new one—and specify the employee's device type (Android, iOS, or Windows Phone). The system then sends the employee an email with device enrollment information and a link to the management app.  

small business network management software

Figure 3: Spiceworks now includes an MDM component. You get device visibility for free, while remote location and control features cost extra (but at a discounted and reasonable price).

The enrollment process for our Galaxy S4 was quick and painless. The device appeared in Spiceworks a few minutes after being registered, and by the next day we could see a wealth of information about it, including the carrier, what OS version was running, which apps were installed, whether it had been rooted, and how internal and external storage it provided (plus how much of it was free, and whether that number was going up or down over time).

However, the enrollment process isn't necessarily quite so simple—to enroll iOS devices you must first create and upload a signed certificate, and you're admonished to back up any the device before enrolling it (we didn't bother and didn't suffer for it).

Also, the most desirable remote features—such as wipe, password reset, app distribution, and geolocation—require an added-cost upgrade.  You can effortlessly activate a 14-day trial of the premium features, but the process gives absolutely no indication of the cost once the trial runs out. That cost happens to be $4.50 per device per month, which is very reasonable (it represents a 25 percent Spiceworks discount). Even if you don't opt for the premium features, the level of mobile visibility you get from the standard features is a great value for the price, which is, of course, nothing.

On a final note, it should be noted that over the years the Spiceworks Community has become a great place to ask and answer technical questions. Information shared by "Spiceheads" tends to be both technically and grammatically cogent, which is not always the case with other tech forums.

Bottom Line

Managing a network with Spiceworks is not always nirvana. Some stuff you encounter clearly comes from Bizarro World—such as a warning that 162 services had been uninstalled from a particular desktop (probably a misinterpretation resulting from an OS updates), or alerts that non-PC devices such as phones or printers lack anti-virus software. But such glitches don't detract from Spiceworks' status as a hugely powerful and time-saving tool that just about every small business network administrator should use.  

Price: Free

Pros: more sophisticated device scanning and inventory; includes basic MDM for smartphone/tablet visibility 

Cons: popular MDM control features cost extra; remote software uninstall sometimes doesn't work

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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