Be the first to know when there's trouble on your network
Have you ever received a call from a customer or, worse yet, your boss asking why a particular service was slow or completely down? More likely than not, you've been in that uncomfortable situation, so you know it isn't fun. A network management tool can help you avoid this situation and ensure that you're the first to know when there's trouble in the network. I recently reviewed four network management solutions, two of which are free, as Table 1 shows. Depending on your environment and budget, one of these solutions is probably right for you.
Spiceworks stands out in this review because it's free. By showing non-intrusive advertisements within the application, you're able to use this tool for no charge. If the advertisements start to bother you or if your company doesn't allow them, Spiceworks can be purchased for $45 a month. You get a small break ($495 instead of $540) if you purchase it a year at a time. This product also stands out from the others because it includes a full-featured Help desk.
Spiceworks is big on community involvement. For example, you can contact local Spiceworks users through SpiceCorps or participate in traditional forums on the community website (community.spiceworks.com). When I browsed through the forums, I found them to be very active and friendly.
Spiceworks is also big on training. For example, you can attend Spiceworks University regional events to get hands-on training from certified trainers, watch the free training videos on Spiceworks TV, and participate in the free IT Webinars.
Installing Spiceworks is easy. As soon as the setup is complete, you create an initial account and password. Then, a large prompt asks you where you would like to start, with the choices being Inventory, Help Desk, or Configuration Backup.
Clicking Inventory starts an IP scan of your network. A wizard helps you set up the proper credentials for Windows, UNIX, Apple, and other servers accessible through Secure Shell (SSH), and for printers, switches, or other SNMP devices. The scan took a few minutes to find, log on to, and inventory all the network devices on my test network.
As soon as the scan was complete, Spiceworks sent me an email detailing what was scanned. The main Inventory page has a running log of what was discovered and notes whether there were any problems with the scan. For example, Spiceworks found my VMware ESXi server but was unable to provide detailed information about it because the username and password that I entered during setup weren't correct. Clicking the ESXi server brought up a menu that allowed me to fix the authentication problem. The next time I ran the scan, Spiceworks found the ESXi server, logged on, and updated the inventory information. Spiceworks not only provided information about each virtual machine (VM) but also listed the names of the VMware data stores and how much space was left in each one.
I have set up and tested quite a few inventory scanners, and Spiceworks got this one right. The interface is very intuitive, making it easy to identify and fix common configuration mistakes.
I spent some time looking over the dashboard, which Figure 1 shows. Out of the box, the dashboard shows the network at a glance and displays information about 12 common areas, such as antivirus software status, Microsoft Exchange Server data, inventory summary, upcoming warranty expirations, and alerts. The dashboard is completely configurable (e.g., you can add, remove, or move sections).
I also tested the Spiceworks Help desk. As the manager of technical support services for a large university, I was curious to see how this solution stood up to the big boys. To help you get started, there are four tickets already created that walk you through an overview of the Help desk system and how it's configured. I quickly learned that the Help desk is very basic. For example, there are no group functions, request types, or escalation paths -- all essential in large IT organizations.
One of the Help desk's strengths is email ticket scraping. This feature is easy to set up and lets users simply email their requests. The Help desk system will "scrape" the information from the email and automatically create a ticket for you. Another homerun is the Help desk portal for users. In addition to emailing requests, users can log on to a web page (which uses Active Directory -- AD -- authentication) to log their tickets.
For a business with just a few people, this Help desk is the perfect solution. Just keep in mind that it won't scale well if you have a large user or technician base.