Small Business Network Management Review: Spiceworks 5

By Joseph Moran | Posted January 27, 2011

The last time we looked at Spiceworks, we were impressed by the small business network management tool’s capabilities, especially given its cost—a big, fat nothing -- provided you’re willing to deal with a few ads.  Our earlier impressions haven’t changed much with the latest offering, Spiceworks 5.0, which improves on its predecessor by delivering a slicker interface, quicker performance and an expanded repertoire of features.  

Getting Started with Spiceworks Network Management

Getting Spiceworks up and running on your network requires a minimum of effort. You install it on an available Windows workstation or server (which can be running Windows 7/Vista/XP or Server 2003/2008), then access the software through a browser (it supports IE, Firefox, and Chrome). You don’t need to install agent software on servers or workstations.

Upon running Spiceworks for the first time, you provide the software with the appropriate account credentials and it proceeds to perform a detailed scan of the devices your network. Once the scan’s been performed (it repeats regularly according to a schedule you specify), you can peruse an inventory of everything Spiceworks finds -- servers, workstations, and printers, as well as other network devices from switches to routers, firewalls and NAS devices, to IP phones and even virtual machines.

Spiceworks review
Spiceworks can provide a detailed inventory of all the hardware and software in use on your network.
(Click for larger image)
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On our test network, Spiceworks’ scan took a bit less than 15 minutes to pick up 84 devices, including a half-dozen “unknowns”-- devices it detects but can’t precisely identify, often for want of the correct login account info.

From the inventory screen you can drill down on a particular device to obtain a wealth of information that might normally involve a physical or remote-access trip to the computer. Available info can include basic data -- CPU and RAM amount, IP address, installed OS, etc., as well as more detailed information such as a system’s shared network folders, available disk space, event log, or list of installed applications.

While Spiceworks’ hardware inventory will tell you that system x is running application y, its software-oriented inventory will show you everywhere that particular app is running on your network. This lets you easily pinpoint where problematic software may require your attention -- because it's unauthorized, unlicensed, or out-of-date, for example. We used it to identify half-a-dozen workstations running an old (and unsecure) version of the Adobe Flash IE Plug in.    

An Improved Spiceworks Interface

Spiceworks browser-based UI has always been pretty user friendly, if somewhat bland and a bit complex in areas. It’s received a significant refresh in 5.0, and now sports a more attractive design and a cleaner layout that makes features easier to find without too much digging. It’s also snappier --  Spiceworks claims a speed boost of up to 50 percent in this latest version, and while we can’t vouch for that figure, it does perform scans noticeably quicker than before. It's also more responsive when loading pages and when moving between different areas of the software.  

The Spiceworks Dashboard provides an excellent at-a-glance view of what’s happening on your network. Alongside network specific information such as an inventory view, event timeline, alert list, etc., the Dashboard incorporates other useful data streams including:

  • links to Microsoft Security Bulletins,
  • video tutorials
  • webinars covering Spiceworks-specific and general-IT topics
  • posts from the highly active community of Spiceworks users (also known as Spiceheads)

 

The Dashboard is customizable, so you can add modules to track things like new hardware or software added to the network, or the amount of ink or toner remaining in a network printer/copier.  

As always, Spiceworks comes with a generous helping of ads.  Text ads are frequently tucked into the spaces between screen elements, and there are also one or two larger graphical ads along the right side of each screen, so they’re always in your field of vision without being right in your face (they’re always for various tech products or services). If you absolutely can’t stand the ads, you can replace them all with your own company logo for $30 per month or a slightly-discounted $330 per year.

Better Network Insight Through People View

Spiceworks review
Spiceworks can provide a detailed inventory of all the hardware and software in use on your network.
(Click for larger image)
.

One of Spiceworks 5.0’s most notable new features is one it calls People View. While earlier versions of Spiceworks could provide plenty of information about the myriad pieces of hardware and software on your network, it knew relatively little about the people using them. That's changed with People View, which lets Spiceworks import your user account information from Active Directory.  

People View is disabled by default, but turning it on only requires providing a set of domain administrator credentials and configuring a handful of options including how often you want to scan for updated info and whether you want changes you make to user info in Spiceworks to be synchronized back to AD (this requires an account with domain write access).

Within about five minutes after we activated People View, it reported the 76 user accounts residing on our domain. From there, we were able to do such things as view and edit user contact information, disable accounts, reset passwords, and in theory at least, see the last time a given user had changed his password or logged into the network. It wasn’t flawless, though -- the last login info was erroneously listed as "Never" for every user on our network, and since our Active Directory didn’t specify a department for each user, Spiceworks imported all of them into a single group labeled "No Department."

Help Desk, Warranty and Purchase Tracking

Even if you didn’t need any of the other features, Spiceworks Help Desk would probably be reason enough to use the software. With it, you can quite easily set up an internal portal site where users can view technical info that you publish, as well as submit help requests that you can exhaustively track to completion.

To aid in delegation, Spiceworks now defines a special help desk admin account so that you don’t have to give anyone tasked with responding to support requests unfettered access to the rest of the software. In addition, small business IT admins that are responsible for multiple locations will appreciate the capability to manage remote Spiceworks help desks from a centralized location.

When a piece of hardware goes on the fritz, determining whether the item is still under warranty can take considerable effort. Spiceworks does its best to make the process less of a time sink, at least if the hardware is from Dell, HP, or Lenovo. Based on service code information collected during network scan, Spiceworks will usually display whether an item is under warranty, what kind of coverage it has and how much time is remaining. In the case of Dell equipment, a Dashboard module lets you submit warranty extension quote requests directly to the company.

When it’s necessary to lay out for a new piece of equipment or software, you can track it within Spiceworks from approval to receipt, and record all the pertinent details including what user or department it was obtained for (and then view that information from within People View). CDW customers can search the site and perform one-click purchases from within Spiceworks.

While the software’s not perfect and sometimes deliver incomplete or not entirely accurate information (e.g. our last login times) the myriad things Spiceworks does well refutes that old adage, “you get what you pay for." Spiceworks lets small businesses pay nothing for network management, but get a lot in return.

Price: Free with ads ($30 monthly or $330 annually without) 

 

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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