For some people, an application named Spiceworks might sound like an adult-oriented business productivity suite. But behind its slightly lascivious name lies a product designed to handle something decidedly dull: IT network management.
Network management software has earned a reputation as being both costly to buy and complicated to set up and use. As a result, many smaller organizations tend to forgo it, filing it under "nice to have, but not worth the expense or hassle". But network management can be a lot like a visit to the dentist while you can put it off, in doing so you risk letting a potential problem go unnoticed, or even grow worse over time.
Spiceworks (from a company of the same name) hopes to convince more small businesses to embrace network management by addressing the price and complexity obstacles. The easy-to-use Spiceworks application, which is still in public beta but scheduled for a late October release, can inventory your network's systems and software (along with various other devices) and also includes monitoring and reporting capabilities too. But what's most noteworthy about Spiceworks is its cost or more to the point its lack thereof because it's entirely free (though there is a slight catch that we'll get to shortly).
Spiceworks will please those who aren't read-the-manual kind of people because it doesn't have (or need) one. In fact, the sole product documentation is an FAQ that consists of a couple dozen entries.
Many network management applications also require you to install software agents on every system to provide control and query capabilities. One of the nice things about Spiceworks is that it doesn't rely on such agents. Instead, the software gathers its data entirely though the remote administration capabilities of the WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) interface that's built into Windows 2000/XP. (In the case of Linux or Unix-based systems, it uses SSH, or Secure Shell.)
You need to install software on only one system, which makes configuring Spiceworks fairly simple in most cases. During setup you're prompted to answer a few questions such as which IP port you want the software to communicate through and what administrative account you want to use to log into remote systems.
Within a few minutes of downloading and running the software, Spiceworks is ready to scan the network. The initial scan can take up to 45 minutes depending on how many devices you have (While Spiceworks is designed for networks with 250 or fewer devices, the company says it will also work on larger networks, albeit at reduced performance).
Gathering and Viewing Data
Spiceworks displays all of its information within a simple browser-based interface. Its default setting presents an overview of your network that's organized by category, displaying how many workstations, servers, printers and miscellaneous devices it detected (along with other network information). The program offers lots of ways to view your network data, allowing you to browse for particular items or to drill down through a particular device, selecting different device categories via a tabbed interface.
Spiceworks also reports all of the Microsoft software, services and operating system updates (a.k.a., hotfixes) present on each of the systems it finds, and we especially like the supplemental information it provides in these areas. For example, each hotfix record contains a link to the corresponding knowledge-base article on Microsoft's support Web site, and when looking at services you can click to automatically conduct a Google search on them. Software entries include a link to the manufacturer, assuming Spiceworks recognizes the application.
Spiceworks successfully located and identified most of the devices on our test network (which included a Windows Server, network printer, and multiple Windows and Linux clients), although it failed to recognize a couple of non-PC devices namely, a wireless print server and a NAS drive. If all of your systems use the same administrator account username and password, specified during initial setup, they should all be identified without any additional configuration. If your systems use a variety of administration accounts, and the account you provided is invalid for a particular system, Spiceworks will flag it as unknown. You can correct this condition by specifying additional accounts for your network.
By default, Spiceworks scans the entire subnet of the system it's installed on, but you can add additional address ranges or individual IP addresses to be included in or excluded from the scans. A current limitation of the interface is that there's no way to edit entries in any of these categories, so modifying an entry involves deleting it and then creating it anew. (The company says it's in the process of remedying this.)