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.

Randy George

October 9, 2008

9 Min Read
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If you're like many small and midsize businesses, your budget for network monitoring tools is somewhere between small and nonexistent. And even if you could afford the tools offered by network management's "Big Four"--BMC Software, CA, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM Tivoli--their features would probably be overkill.

Some network management startups have entered the market with products that fill the small-budget void by bringing big-company capabilities at a price that's 10 cents on the dollar or less than those of those high-end platforms. Here we look at offerings from PacketTrap, Spiceworks, and Zenoss, all founded in 2006 or later. Each targets a network management niche, aiming at specific pain points common to SMBs.

PacketTrap was founded in 2006 by a group of former SonicWall executives, and pt360 Pro is the company's first commercial offering. The professional version of pt360 can be downloaded as a fully functional product for 30 days, after which time you'll need to purchase a site license for $795.

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We dropped pt360 Pro into a moderately complex network infrastructure consisting of many Extreme Networks switches and Cisco routers. Installation was extremely fast and simple. Once it was installed, we were immediately logged in to the pt360 Pro dashboard, where a large set of basic troubleshooting tools is aggregated into a single view.

The pt360 Pro offers a basic set of network troubleshooting utilities that network engineers use in daily life. Of the 16 tools available on the main dashboard of the pt360 console, seven are devoted to performing pings, traceroutes, port scans, and MAC address resolution. The pt360 also includes tools for DNS mapping and troubleshooting and Windows Management Instrumentation/SNMP troubleshooting. The rest of pt360's capabilities focus on Cisco router configuration management, TFTP/Syslog services, NetFlow Analysis, and switch port mapping.

Many of the tools that pt360 provides can be had for free from a variety of sources. But after using the tools for a few days, we were hooked on some of the value-added features. For example, a DOS-based traceroute that took 10 hops and 14 seconds to complete on our lab server took less than 1 second using pt360's graphical traceroute tool. If you're a network engineer who's constantly chasing down routing issues, the lightning-fast execution of traces is reason enough to buy pt360 Pro.

Also, pt360 offers terrific port scanning capabilities. If doing port scans all day is part of your job, we suspect the time saved will pay back the license fee pretty quickly.



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Our favorite feature of the suite is pt360's switch port mapper, which interrogates a switch and generates a table listing port numbers, speeds, interface types, MAC and IP addresses, and operational status. If you run the switch port mapper against your core switch, it will interrogate the MACs and IPs of hosts hanging off your downstream switches as well. So if you need to track down the physical port location of a particular host, you can do it like lightning with the switch port mapper.

All in all, pt360 is a solid, basic network trouble-shooting tool. It's not Tivoli or OpenView, but its price point and feature set make it a no-brainer if all you need is a simple toolbox of utilities. In August, PacketTrap introduced Perspective, a more full-featured "remediation" system that works in conjunction with pt360 Pro. Perspective wasn't available in time for our review.

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 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.

Zenoss was founded in 2006, and only two years later, its open source platform has developed a cultlike following in some enterprise network management circles. Zenoss has matured into not only a viable alternative to Nagios, but in some cases an actual replacement for a Big Four system, says Zenoss CEO Bill Karpovich.

Zenoss has managed to grow its customer base from nothing to more than 4,000 installs of its free version, called Zenoss Core. Since Zenoss Enterprise (the subscription-based version) made its debut last year, 132 customers have signed on.

As with any enterprise-class network management system, don't expect to be up and running in minutes. But don't be scared away by the heavy lifting, either: The implementation is simpler than any of the Big Four.

Zenoss offers hardware- and software-based versions of its system. Each platform can run either the Core or Enterprise version of Zenoss, and all versions sit on top of a Red Hat Linux distribution. The hardware-based options are the Zenoss Appliance 250 and Zenoss Appliance 1000, both 1U appliances. The primary differences between the two are processing power and number of nodes that can be monitored.

We tested the Zenoss Enterprise software and found the Ajax-based management console took some getting used to.

The subnet discovery feature in Zenoss allows easy bulk discovery of a large number of Windows servers. We set common group parameters such as the all-important Windows Management Instrumentation user name and password. In two operations, we discovered every Windows box on our subnet and were polling hardware, operating system, service, interface, and performance statistics for all our servers.

Add-ons called ZenPacks add targeted monitoring for specific functions, such as Active Directory, IIS, Exchange, Apache, and Oracle/SQL. The open source nature of Zenoss has led to the community development of a large number of ZenPacks, and as a result, there's a ZenPack to monitor almost every conceivable production system out there.

Zenoss' built-in tiered alerting capabilities can be configured to alert Level 1 staff right away if a service dies. If Level 1 fails to clear the alert within a certain threshold, Level 2 staff can be alerted, and so on.

In our opinion, the coolest feature of Zenoss is its integration with the Google Maps API. There's nothing more slick than seeing your network devices interconnected on a real Google map with full zoom and scroll capabilities. Large environments are no problem: You can create tiered maps so regional IT managers can zoom in on and monitor their own areas.

Zenoss is not for the faint of heart. The interface is less than intuitive and completely Web-based, so plan on investing some time to learn how to navigate around the product. You'll need to rely on community-developed ZenPacks or pay for professional services if you need to monitor a device that Zenoss can't fully model itself. But the vast size of the Zenoss customer base should ensure that device support is added quickly when needed. And according to Zenoss, device support can be added on a support basis for customers in short order if something critical comes up.

The most important two things you'll lose by not buying the Enterprise version are support and WMI collection.

An open source network management system isn't for everyone, but if you're new to the space, definitely give it a try before you take a look at the more expensive alternatives.

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Key Features


PacketTrap pt360 Pro

Collection of basic troubleshooting and management utilities


Spiceworks IT Desktop

Web-based agentless monitoring, inventory and help desk management

Free as adware; ads can be removed for $20 per month

Zenoss Enterprise 2.2

Fully functional network management system

Zenoss Core is free; Zenoss Enterprise ranges from $100 to $180 per monitor, based on support

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