When I was reading the web-exclusive sidebar "The Reader to Reader 'Tool Time' Reference", I noticed that Spiceworks IT Desktop (www.spiceworks.com) wasn't listed. This free application is for inventorying, monitoring, and managing networks as well as running a Help desk. I'm the administrator of two networks, and I've been using Spiceworks on them for several months. I started with version 4.1, but have since upgraded to version 4.6. (The upgrade process was quite painless.)

The tools in Spiceworks are fantastic, especially considering that it's a freebie. I've found the tools in the Spiceworks Inventory section (see Figure 1) to be extremely handy, especially for creating asset lists.

InventorySectionSpiceworks

You can assign your devices (up to 1,000) to various built-in groups or custom groups you've created. For example, I have separate groups for our network switches, servers, printers, workstations, VoIP telephones, and so on.

You can use Spiceworks to keep tabs on what software, hotfixes, and services are installed on servers and workstations. By adding notes to devices, you can keep track of configuration changes or other pertinent information. Its reporting capabilities let you run reports on various aspects of your network, even to the point of showing the number of pages your printers have printed. You can even have the system send you an email before each maintenance contract is set to expire so that you can keep your maintenance contracts up-to-date.

If you have Wake on LAN (WOL) set on your devices, you can wake them up with this system. For example, if you need to roll out an update but a few users forgot to leave their workstations running, you can power them up—very handy if those workstations are on a subnet at a remote site.

To help users report IT problems, you can run an IT Help desk with Spiceworks. The Help desk integrates with your mail system. My company uses IBM Lotus Notes, but Microsoft Exchange is also fully supported.

If you have IT problems or questions, you can connect with peers in the SpiceWorks Community from the Spiceworks UI. I can assure you that they're very friendly and very helpful.

Be aware that Spiceworks includes ads. They're all IT-related, so you don't have to worry about inappropriate ads (e.g., ads for online dating websites) appearing. For the most part, I mentally filter them out, but on occasion, I've found some ads quite useful. If the ads are a problem, you can subscribe to a version (Spiceworks MyWay) in which the ads are replaced with your company's logo and messages. This version costs $20 per month or $220 per year.

If you're looking for free software that can help you inventory, monitor, and manage your networks or run a Help desk, give Spiceworks a try. The tools it provides are very useful, and I've had no problems using it. You can download Spiceworks 4.6 from here. There's also an early beta version of Spiceworks 4.7.