Network management software falls into the must-have category for medium-to-large firms, but for smaller ones, its typically in the nice to have, but cant afford category. Spiceworks 4 is network management software that any size firm can afford, mainly because its free.
The advertising-supported software gives resource-constrained smaller firms the capability to inventory and manage network devices like PCs, servers, printers and the like. (Dont be turned off by the ads, because its not as bad as it sounds more details on this later.)
Spiceworks takes an inventory of your network devices.
(Click for larger image).
Up and Running
As soon as youve installed the browser-based Spiceworks software on a single Windows server (or workstation that runs all the time), youre ready to scan your network. Theres no agent software to install on all your systems; you need only tell Spiceworks which subnet(s) to scan and provide it with the necessary administrator account information for your network.
Spiceworks then does its thing polls Active Directory, pings the network to locate devices, and gathers information about them via the appropriate management protocolWMI for Windows PCs, SSH for Mac or Linux systems and SNMP for things like printers, switches, routers, etc.
Spiceworks says that for best performance the software should be used on networks of 500 or fewer devices, though it will still work albeit more slowly - on larger ones. When we turned Spiceworks loose on a Class C (maximum 254 devices) network, it took approximately 20 minutes to do an initial scan, after which it found nearly fifty devices ranging from PCs to IP phones.
On all but the smallest or simplest networks there are bound to be devices that Spiceworks can detect but not properly identify, which is usually because of incorrect or missing logon info or interference from firewalls or anti-virus software. As a result some initial legwork may be required to visit and troubleshoot these unknowns. The biggest glitch we encountered was that Spiceworks couldnt detect the presence of Norton Anti-Virus Corporate edition on our systems, though it does work with 19 different packages from about a half-dozen major vendors.
Spiceworks repeats its scans at regular intervals to keep the information up-to-date, but youre given a high degree of control over how and when theyre performed in order to minimize the performance impact on your network. Note that although the software is Web-based, all the information Spiceworks collects about your network or that you provide is stored locally on the Spiceworks system, not on some remote server.
Spiceworks generates a range of standardized or customized reports.
(Click for larger image).
Once the scanning is complete, the Spiceworks Dashboard gives you a bird-eye view of your network (and lets you know if it found any red flags), while an Inventory page displays devices organized by category and lets you drill down to get a summary or detailed configuration info for individual devices (e.g. what software is installed on a PC).
When viewing a specific item you can access a host of connectivity troubleshooting tools like ping, trace router, nslookup, and if a PC supports it, initiate a remote access session using either VNC or RDP. Companies using Dell hardware will appreciate the fact that Spiceworks notes system asset tags and provides a direct link to Dells support/download page for the specific system.
To help you keep tabs on the network when youre not in front of the Spiceworks console, the software provides a number of built-in monitors to inform you of things like when a server runs low on disk space, a printer needs ink/toner, or a user installs something on their system. You can view alerts in the dashboard or receive them via e-mail, and you can keep yourself informed by creating custom monitors, including ones that dont necessarily pertain to a particular hardware or software event (such as when a service contract is about to lapse). For broader and more comprehensive information gathering, Spiceworks can generate a range of standardized or customized reports.
The Spiceworks help-desk feature can help small IT departments better manage user support requests. Support requests are collected by the help desk as tickets that can be prioritized and responded to (you can also track the time spent on each). Support requests can be submitted by e-mail or through a basic but functional intranet portal thats new to version 4.
In addition to hardware, Spiceworks also inventories the software running on your network.
(Click for larger image).
Users can monitor their open requests through the portal, and administrators can use it to publish content like support articles, phone lists, etc., though you cant simply upload existing documents. Instead, you need to type or copy text directly into the online forms, which is somewhat inconvenient.
From the admins perspective, the wide array of support options that Spiceworks offers makes it especially easy to work with. These range from the comprehensive online documentation and knowledge base to the extensive array of training videos and Webinars.
If you can't get the help you need from these resources, you probably will from the large (the company claims 700,000+) and active community for Spiceworks users. Consulting the user forum helped us determine why a Microsoft Exchange 2003 mail server wasnt recognized as such (turns out it was a common WMI glitch in the Exchange software). Spiceworks users can even upload their custom report templates to share with the community and download plug-ins that add new capabilities, such as license monitoring, to the software.
As far as Spiceworks advertising is concerned, its a mix of small and large graphical ads (from IT vendors, naturally) in the page margins, along with sponsored links to tech white papers and such that are integrated into the administration console. Youll notice the ads, but theyre not at all obtrusive. If you simply can't stand them, you can opt for Spiceworks My Way and pay a monthly fee of $20 to substitute all ads with your company logo.
Spiceworks capabilities make it an impressive product and a remarkable value whether or not you pay to use it. Small organizations that want to get a better handle on their technology resources for little to no cost will do well to give Spiceworks a serious look.
Price: Free with ads, or $20 per month without them.
Pros: Easy to setup, easy to use; lots of support info available from company and online user community; includes help desk support-management system; did we mention its free?
Cons: Nothing worth noting.
Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).