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Infrastructure Management Startups Bring Big-Company Capabilities To SMBs

Three newcomers offer specialized, low-cost or no-cost tools to companies with tiny IT budgets.

ADD SOME SPICEWORKS
Spiceworks IT Desktop, launched in 2006, has been dubbed by some as the iTunes of SMB network management applications. You can download and install the software from www.spiceworks.com in a minute or so, and after creating your Spiceworks profile, you're immediately logged in to the console, where you can begin to define a range of subnets to scan for the purpose of building an inventory of all the devices in your network.

IT Desktop was written using the Ruby on Rails framework, and the Web-based console is well designed and easy to navigate. The wide range of protocols supported for device discovery makes IT Desktop a versatile asset-tracking tool, and the agentless way in which discovery is done means you can go from installation to a fully populated database of devices in five minutes.

Enterprise systems with similar capabilities can cost thousands of dollars in licensing fees alone, but IT Desktop is free, thanks to its ad-based revenue model. Initially, we envisioned Spiceworks as an ominous piece of adware. But there's a reason 350,000 users have registered to use the product in the two years since its launch: IT Desktop provides easy-to-use inventory, monitoring, reporting, and trouble ticket management.

Our tests of IT Desktop's asset-collection capabilities yielded mixed results. Remote WMI data collection can be stymied by virus scanners, client firewalls, and permissions issues, and a number of Windows clients couldn't be fully added to the Spiceworks database. Some detected PC hardware and software specs didn't populate completely; others were classified as "unknown," with no information other than IP and MAC address. For the machines that did load into our database, we were impressed at the amount of useful data at our disposal, including hardware information, installed software, critical system events, and resource usage.

IT Desktop's reporting capabilities also are noteworthy. We could run a range of canned reports, such as displaying a list of computers that don't have virus-scanning software installed, or listing all computers with less than 10% disk space remaining. We could export reports to CSV, PDF, or Excel.

Spiceworks has a pretty strong support community for basic troubleshooting information, and it's completely integrated into the Spiceworks desktop. Free e-mail also is offered. The Web-based help desk management app allows you to configure a rudimentary help desk-related e-mail account and portal for users to submit and obtain the status of open tickets via the Spiceworks help desk portal.

IT Desktop's preconfigured alerts check for things such as systems with low disk space or printers with low toner, up-to-date virus scanning software, or the presence of WeatherBug and Google Desktop. E-mail alerts also can be activated when a monitor fails to meet a preconfigured condition. In tests, however, IT Desktop wasn't a great detective. We received a few warnings when printers were low on toner in our lab, but it failed to tell us that several systems were running Google Desktop with low disk space. We also had trouble creating new monitors.

Our take on the Spiceworks' IT Desktop is mixed. To us, Spiceworks is an advertising company that attracts customers and advertisers by providing a free way to solve some of the most basic problems that SMB IT shops have, but in exchange for that free tool, you have to accept the banner ads that come along with the software. Organizations that like IT Desktop but don't like adware can replace the banner ads with their company logo for a $20 monthly fee.

Right now, IT Desktop is suitable only for small companies that lack an inventory and reporting system. However, IT Desktop has a solid base to build on.

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