Product Review: Spiceworks Network Management Solution

by [Published on 19 Jan. 2011 / Last Updated on 19 Jan. 2011]

Deb Shinder reviews Spiceworks Network Management Solution.

Product: Spiceworks Network Management and Monitoring Solution

Product Homepage: click here

Free Download: click here

Introduction

There is a plethora of network management and monitoring software available, ranging from rudimentary SNMP utilities to complex, high priced enterprise level suites such as IBM’s Tivoli and Nimsoft’s NMS. In today’s tight economy, small and midsize businesses (SMB) need solutions that are cost effective, but still cover the broad range of network management and monitoring tasks supported by more costly options:

  • asset inventory
  • network mapping
  • configuration change management
  • power management
  • auditing
  • virtualization management
  • troubleshooting
  • IT help desk

Spiceworks is a network management and monitoring solution that’s specially designed for networks with up to 1000 devices (there is no limit and it will run on larger networks but performance is optimized for 1000 devices or fewer). It runs from a Windows computer (client or server) but discovers systems running Windows 2000 or above as well as Linux, UNIX or Mac OS X systems that have SSH enabled. It supports both RDP and VNC for remote control. You can access Spiceworks via the computer on which it’s installed or from a remote computer on your network using a web browser (IE ). From outside the network, you can use a VPN connection or HTTPS to connect to Spiceworks.

Download and Installation

You can download the Spiceworks software from their web site. The current version is 5.0. The experience is a nice one from the very beginning, as – unlike with many free packages – you don’t have to jump through hoops and fill out endless forms to get the software. Just click the “Download Now” link and the 27.7 MB Spiceworks.exe file downloads to your computer in less than a minute on a fast connection (it took 47 seconds over my business FiOS line).

The setup wizard starts by informing you that your data will be stored locally and never sent to Spiceworks, which is a reassuring touch. On the first page of the wizard, you can change the port on which Spiceworks will run (by default, it will run on “9675”).


Figure 1: By default, Spiceworks runs on port 9675 but you can change this in the Setup process

The EULA is pretty standard and quite broad for a free product; you’re granted the right to use the software for personal use, for your internal business use, or as an MSP or VAR, in commercial support of your customers. Of course, you’re prohibited from selling or distributing the service for payment without permission.

Only 68.8 MB of space is required for installation, and the installation took about a minute and a half. It can be installed on Windows XP Pro SP2/SP3, Vista, Windows 7, Server 2003 SP1 or above and Server 2008 systems with a minimum of 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM.


Figure 2: Installation is quick and simple and requires less than 70 MB of hard drive space

Once it’s installed, you have to set up your login information, which consists of:

  • Username (your email address)
  • Password
  • First and last names
  • Company name
  • Industry
  • Zip code

An account is created for you, and you’ll get an email message welcoming you to Spiceworks, summarizing your account info and providing a link for resetting your password. Later, you’ll get another “Getting Started” email message with links to the new user webinar and the Spiceworks Help Center.

After initially installing the software, you’re given the choice of three starting points: create a hardware and software inventory, set up the help desk, or back up your network device configuration settings.


Figure 3: After you provide login information and an account is created, you can get started

If you select to do the hardware and software inventory, you can scan the entire network or the individual computer. Scanning a computer takes only about a minute or two, whereas the time required to scan the network naturally depends on how many servers, workstations and other devices you have. Note that Spiceworks may not be able to scan your computer if you have an anti-virus or firewall turned on that blocks it, so you’ll need to disable them during the scan (Don’t forget to re-enable them when you finish). You also must be signed in with an administrative account to conduct the scan.

When you scan the network, you’ll need to supply credentials for an account that has remote administration privileges, and you’ll be asked whether any of the computers on your network run UNIX, Linux or Mac OS X, as well. If you do, you’ll be asked to provide an SSH username and password that will work on those systems.


Figure 4: To scan the network, you must provide remote admin credentials

You are assured here that passwords are encrypted and stored locally and are not sent to Spiceworks, which is good to know. I liked the way the software didn’t leave you wondering about these potential security issues.

The network scan may take a while; the inventory sections – Workstations, Servers, Printers, Networking, Others and Unknowns – will be shown as “scanning” during the process.


Figure 5: The inventory tool scans for six different classifications of devices

If a large number of “unknowns” are detected, the Discovery Troubleshooter will appear, offering to help you resolve the issue. A common reason that the Spiceworks discovery process might not be able to get the detailed info for some of the devices is authorization errors, either because the Windows account isn’t a valid domain administrator or because SNMP isn’t enabled on the device(s) and the community string isn’t correct.

The scan will identify devices that have alerts or scan errors, as shown in Figure 6.

You might also opt to back up your network device configurations. This will save the configuration information for your switches and routers.

Of course, you don’t have to select any of the three starting points to begin with. You can perform the same functions later through the Spiceworks dashboard, with the “Start Network Scan” button shown in Figure 6.


Figure 6: You can run a scan at any time from the Spiceworks dashboard

One of the first things you’ll notice as you start working with it is that Spiceworks uses your web browser as the interface, connecting by default to port 9675 on your local computer. You’ll also notice that when you’re connected to the Spiceworks dashboard, there is advertising in the rightmost column; this is the price you pay for free software and it’s really not intrusive.

The dashboard provides information about your systems and networks, including environment charts, the security center that tells you the status of antivirus software on your systems (up to date, out of date, unknown, no AV), a timeline showing discovery of devices, DNS changes, even things such as hard drives that have less than 25% of capacity free and printer ink cartridges less than 30% full.


Figure 7: The Spiceworks dashboard offers a wealth of useful information

Moving to the Inventory tab, you’ll see a nice summary of assets and configurations in the Overview section that’s shown in Figure 8.


Figure 8: Spiceworks gives you a nicely arranged overview of your network

You can get a breakdown by operating system, manufacturers, antivirus status, IP configuration, hardware age and much more.


Figure 9: You can see a graphical representation of device manufacturers and other classifications

I like that the network mapping feature lets you arrange the map in a radial, hierarchical or tree arrangement. I found the tree most useful, as the other arrangements were so spread out – regardless of zoom level – that it was hard to see all of the devices. You can also filter the map to show, for example, only servers, only workstations, only domain controllers, and so on.

The software inventory was comprehensive, showing the oldest and latest installation of each application, licenses, and the number of installs. You can see applications, hotfixes and services. In Browse view, you can sort by application name, install date, product ID, product key or vendor.

There is a Purchase List option in the Inventory menu, where you can keep track of purchase orders, vendors, department the purchase is charged to, price and status (approved, purchased, received).  And with the IT Services option, you can track the cloud services your company uses, such as web hosting services, online backup services, your ISP, and so forth. Here you can enter details about the service provider, contact info, contract period, and cost per hour, month or year.

A favorite feature of mine is one of the new ones in version 5.0, called “People View.” You get to it via the Inventory menu (People). This integrates with Windows Active Directory and imports the users from your domain’s Active Directory. You can associate users with specific computers or other assets, and you can get such information as a user’s help desk requests timeline or account information. This is a really nice touch that brings home the fact that networks are not just about hardware and software – they’re also about the people who use it. To import users from AD, you’ll need to set up the information on your AD server, as shown in Figure 10.


Figure 10: You can set up your AD information to import users, who can then be associated with computers or other network assets

The Help Desk functionality is easy to set up, and you can have notifications emailed to administrators and/or users at various stages of the help process, as shown in Figure 11.


Figure 11: Setting up the Help Desk functionality is easy

You can even set up multiple help desks if you have two or more locations, and can also select to launch the LogMeIn Rescue Technician console from the Help Desk or device view. Help Desk tickets can be imported in .CSV file format from external systems, as well.

A nice resource is the Spiceworks Community, which according to the site connects you with a million other IT pros who are using Spiceworks. Here you can join groups, get help and support and browse ratings and reviews to find out what others like (and don’t like).


Figure 12: The Spiceworks Community

Summary

I found the Spiceworks management and monitoring package to be surprisingly full featured for a free solution. Even more surprising for software that costs nothing was the extensive amount of documentation, how-to information, tutorials and community support available on the web site. This software probably wouldn’t scale well to thousands of users, but for the many SMBs with 1000 or fewer users that don’t have the budget for an expensive management package nor the inclination to undergo the steep learning curve that some of those high priced solutions require, Spiceworks fills the bill and gives you what you need to keep up with IT assets, monitor configuration changes, track purchases and even operate a full service help desk.

The only problems I encountered were some initial quirks with authentication, and the inability of the software to identify and classify some of my network’s assets. Some IT Pros may find the presence of the ads slightly annoying, but as I previously indicated, they’re pretty non-intrusive. Those who don’t want the ads or simply can’t host ads on their network can opt for Spiceworks MyWay, which provides all of the free version’s features but with your corporate brand in place of the ads. For a web-based interface, performance was more than adequate although not blazing fast. I found the software to be very intuitive and easy to navigate and could find what I wanted without consulting the documentation. I did wish Flash wasn’t required to view some parts of the site. Still, I have no qualms about giving the Spiceworks utilities the Gold Star Award, especially when considering the value you get at no cost.

WindowsNetworking.com Rating 4.5/5

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