SpiceWorks Simplifies Network Management for Free

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SpiceWorks offers full-fledged network management that incorporates social networking for administrators looking to simplify their network management without giving up control.

Mention the term “network management” to most business owners and you’ll watch their eyes roll as they think “how much is this going to cost me”?

Solution providers looking to keep their customers happy and services affordable have turned to the managed services model to keep those customers from experiencing the sticker shock often associated with a network management suite. That may be all well and good for the customer, but someone still has to make the investment in a network management product and that’s often the managed services provider.

SpiceWorks is looking to ease that pain by offering a comprehensive network management suite for a price that anyone can afford: Free.

But, of course, there is a catch.

Spiceworks earns it money from imbedded advertising in their product. Not really a big deal and not very intrusive, but some may still balk at idea of ads infiltrating their work day. Luckily, Spiceworks has an answer to that dilemma; the software can be purchased sans advertising for a mere $240 (£168) per year per network. What’s more, solution providers choosing to pay can replace the spot normally taken by ads with their own logo.

SpiceWorks has a comprehensive feature set which includes:

* Inventory functions for software, network equipment and PCs
* Network monitoring, Exchange monitoring and license monitoring
* Comprehensive reporting for assets, inventory and events
* Help desk management and an IT portal
* Social networking Q&A system

Solution providers will find pretty much everything needed for effective network management included in the SpiceWorks software package. And, best yet, it’s relatively easy to get started with the product. The free version of SpiceWorks is available as a 12 MB download directly from the SpiceWorks’ Web site. Installation consists of little more than running the downloaded application and creating an account to access the product.

SpiceWorks runs as a browser-based application on the management PC, launching the product automatically launches the default browser and will then either ask the user to create an account or login to an existing account.

For first time users, it’s best to start off with a network inventory. SpiceWorks will ask for administrative privileges and then will do an auto discovery of the network. The product will scan the local network and determine the specifics about PCs, servers, networking equipment, printers and software packages. SpiceWorks will also classify components that don’t fit into any of those categories. Unidentified products will either go into an “other” category (if the product can figure out exactly what they are) or into an “unknown” category, where an administrator can offer additional information and then move the devices into an appropriate category.

Inventory scans can take some time and can create a lot of network traffic, so it is best to perform those off hours. Of course, the bigger the network, the longer the scan will take and if PCs are to be included, then they must be up and running during a scan. Scans can be scheduled to happen as frequently as needed and the product even offers a “wake on lan” capability, which can be used to boot shutdown PCs for an inventory check.

Once a basic inventory is built, SpiceWorks can be used to its full potential – monitoring for events and reporting on the network. Event monitoring is pretty straightforward—an administrator will use the monitoring menu to create alerts. SpiceWorks comes with a bunch of canned alerts, such as “device offline” or “antivirus not up to date,” which can be enabled to catch and report on anything that can generate an alert. Administrators can then define how alerts notify interested parties.

In most cases, alerts will be configured to send off an e-mail to the administrator (or the solution provider), who then can take action.

Alerts can be used in conjunction with SpiceWorks event logging feature, which can be configured to detect and log specific events. Event Logging is fully customisable and proves to be an excellent tool for gathering up all of the spurious events that occur on a network and create singular log to track them all.

Solution providers will find the ability to gather information, generate logs and receive alerts very valuable when it comes to managing a customer’s network. What’s more, solution providers should be able to generate additional services based upon the information offered by SpiceWorks, such as backup monitoring, software licensing enforcement, patch management and so on.

Many solution providers will find additional value from the product’s help desk feature, which is used to generate trouble tickets and track resolution status. Although quite basic in nature, the help desk feature in SpiceWorks can be setup to track most any request and document the time taken to resolve the ticket. Solution providers can turn that information into billable events, where all of the reporting is handled automatically. What’s more, the automatic tracking of the help desk management system helps to build a historical record of network maintenance. That information can be critical for solving recurring problems or tracking the events that led up to a significant failure. Help desk reporting can be used to show that solution providers have met the SLA requirements or for ROI trending.

Documenting the network takes on additional significance when one considers the product’s ability to track IT services. Here, solution providers can use SpiceWorks to define and track critical elements such as ISP settings, domain registration information, hosting services and online applications. All sorts of IT service information can be tracked, ranging from service expiration dates to primary tech support contacts to events in between. That store house of information can save countless hours for new technicians taking on a service assignment for an established customer.

All of the products capabilities are wrapped together in a customisable dashboard, which gives a quick look into the health of the network and can also act as a notification portal for product news, security alerts and patch information. A quick glance at the dash board can determine if anything has changed on the network or if there are any active alerts, trouble tickets or equipment failures.

SpiceWorks goes one step further than most network management products by including a social networking community. The community also users of the product to ask other users questions, contact tech support or track other problems and issues across the SpiceWorks universe. The community also offers “how-to’s”, “product ratings”, “whitepapers” and group discussions. Solution providers will find the community feature a powerful tool that can save a great deal of time when determining best practices or defining custom reports. Odds are that someone is the community has already accomplished what a solution provider may be attempting and can give tips and tricks to make the process that much easier.

While there may be more robust network management suites on the market and ones that better service the MSP community, it’s pretty hard to ignore what SpiceWorks brings to the table and solution providers owe it to themselves to take this product for a test drive, even if they are not new to the world of managed services and network management. Most will be pleasantly surprised by the quality and professional features offered by the product.