I spent the last week in Austin, Texas attending Spiceworld, a conference put on by Spiceworks. When I first started mentioning that I was attending Spiceworld, many had no clue what in the world I was doing. Some thought it was a Spice Girls conference, others thought maybe I was visiting a new amusement park dedicated to the all-girl band. And, to be honest, since this was my first time attending the Spiceworks event, I had little clue what to expect. Austin is one of my favorite US cities and always love a chance to visit. So, with Spiceworld being located in Austin this year along with the stellar content and phenomenal community, Spiceworld turned out to be one of my favorite events I've attended this year. I highly recommend it for any Spiceworks customer, or anyone interested in becoming a customer.

I've been aware of Spiceworks (the application) since it was unveiled on the world in the 2007 time frame. Spiceworks was released as a free application that allows small-to-medium businesses to take advantage of all the same features that some of the more popular systems management vendors offer with their applications. However, the big applications like Altiris and Microsoft System Center are all, in truth, targeted toward the Enterprise. This left a gaping hole that Spiceworks was able to fill, and do so in a way that eliminated cost – since it was and, still is, a free download. Spiceworks is free to customers, but subsidized by vendors who want to connect with over 4 million customers through advertisements and other value-add services. When Spiceworks first released, I remember they took quite a good amount of criticism for banners and ads within the application, but over time, the value and richness of the solution they have developed has eliminated the majority of negative feedback. In fact, the community of satisfied customers that has been established and nurtured through the solution is really what has ultimately made the product such a success. Community members are labeled "Spiceheads" and through their close-knit ties have even banded together to give the application a mascot, called SpiceRex, which is an orange T-Rex. You can read the story about how SpiceRex came about HERE.

In addition to sitting in on the keynotes, I was afforded the opportunity to spend some significant time with a few of the Spiceworks founders in the press room, discussing the announcements, the product, the history, and the future. And, we even had time to spend on one of my favorite subjects: the history of television.

The Spiceworks founders, much like the community that has emerged around the product, are very real and very approachable. Honestly, I could have sat all day long with them, chatting about the entire industry. Usually, when I'm tasked to interview company representatives, there's a high amount of pre-positioned messaging and marketing that I have to weed through to get a real story. This was not the case at all at Spiceworld, and I want to personally thank CEO, Scott Abel, and VP of Products, Tabrez Syed, for such valuable and memorable discussions. Like real people, we connected in a way that was extraordinary and cherished, which led to some very candid dialog.

At Spiceworld, there were a few updates to the solution announced that I think are important to highlight, however, the bulk of my coverage following below, is not from pre-canned press releases, but from one-on-one discussions with the Spiceworks founders. As a company that is deeply indebted and embedded in community services, I think they'll appreciate it.

Platform Update for the Enterprise

Spiceworks, the application, provides similar technologies to what you are used to hearing about in offerings such as Microsoft System Center. Spiceworks provides network and computer management and monitoring, mobile device management, and IT Help Desk, among other things. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If you want the full scoop on what the solution offers, read through the product pages HERE.

Astonishingly, Spiceworks currently runs on over 1.7 million servers. However, since its original release, the platform was always maintained to run on up to around 1,000 desktops and servers. Anything close to that, or over that, there were performance issues. That makes sense because Spiceworks was never intended to be an Enterprise application, only to serve the SMB market that companies like Microsoft still can't seem to understand. One interesting quote I thought was telling was that "Big vendors tend to look at the SMB market and think they are Enterprises, just smaller." This is why SMBs never get valuable solutions and support from the big vendors. The big vendors can't truly comprehend what it's like to work in IT for a small company, so they literally can't develop good solutions for them. Spiceworks' whole intent was to serve SMBs and over the years they've built experience and expertise in doing so. From my new understanding of the company, Spiceworks thoroughly understands SMBs.

Spiceworks provides a solid set of features for managing IT-related technologies in the company, but is unique because it actually targets the community first. Because of this, future updates of the application are all community-driven. During the keynote, it was noted that there are currently over 2,200 feature requests in the queue. Obviously, all 2,200 cannot be addressed in a short time frame (it was mentioned that serving all the current requests might take 10 years), but there's a solution coming which I've covered below in the "3rd Party App Store Coming" section. However, one of the more important feature requests from the community has been the ability to manage over the 1,000 machine performance limitation. Spiceworks announced at Spiceworld this year that they have now completed an entire platform change with the release of version 7.

Spiceworks 7 now supports larger implementations, giving customers the ability to serve more clients and manage more devices. I was not able to find out what the new limitation is, but from my talks with the company founders, they are excited to be able to now target Enterprise-sized companies. This puts Spiceworks 7 on a level with the systems management big guys, particularly for those companies that aren't at all supportive of moving pieces of the infrastructure to the Cloud. Spiceworks already manages over 170 million network devices and has over 10 billion software installations. And, it is touted to support over 90 million customers in 1.7 million different organizations. This is all on the old platform. Can you imagine what the new platform will bring?

New Enhanced User Profiles

As I've noted already, Spiceworks puts community first, allowing worldwide IT professionals to connect and support each other. It's like a version of LinkedIn that actually works, but also carries a valuable, robust piece of management software with it. Spiceworks strives to make their IT customers happy. They take customer feedback very seriously, incorporating requests and suggestions into their product roadmaps. And, Spiceworks is very thankful and appreciative of such a vocal and truthful community. This is one of the reasons why they are so dedicated to enhancing and the community aspects of the solution.

Spiceworks version 7 reveals a new way of giving back and showing the community just how appreciative they really are. Spiceworks 7 comes with new, enhanced User Profile pages. Immediately, you might think, "oh, ho hum, user profiles. Everybody has them." While it's true that everybody does have profiles as part of websites, theirs are not like what Spiceworks has just unveiled.

From the press release:

Spiceworks 7's User Profiles are targeted specifically toward IT workers. Spiceworks’ new profiles are designed so that IT professionals can bring their IT experiences to life. They do this by highlighting their skills and the technologies they use to do their jobs. Profiles include community contributions, the vendors they follow, content they find valuable, and traditional resume components such as past work experience and certifications. All within a graphical, well-designed layout.

IT projects can now be added to any profile and can include photos, videos, geographic information, budgets and more than 40,000 individual IT products and services from Spiceworks’ catalog of solutions. Additionally, IT service providers who assisted with projects can also be included. Complete with a timeline of projects, Spiceworks’ profiles redefine the online IT resume by providing a rich, visually appealing account of the technologies and people involved in the IT experience.

IT professionals can now use Spiceworks to find new job opportunities in their area or across the country. The opportunities can be filtered by job title, skills, hiring company or location, and IT professionals can also post openings available at their organization. When coupled with Spiceworks’ new profiles, IT professionals can showcase their portfolio of work and find the career opportunities they’re looking for – all from the network they use each day.

Honestly, this is a feature that will bring a whole new level of respect for those that work in IT every day, not just from peers in the Spiceworks community network, but also from those in management. When yearly reviews come up, just send your manager to your Spiceworks User Profile page and then dare them not to give you a raise based on the list of things that you've accomplished in the past year.

3rd Party App Store Coming

One of the less highlighted, but, I think, more important aspects of this week's announcements is that Spiceworks will be releasing APIs soon. Admittedly, Spiceworks cannot hope to serve each and every suggestion and feature request submitted by the community due to development resources, time, and the overwhelming volumes of requests, but most importantly, focus. The Spiceworks app does its intended job extremely well, allowing IT professionals to manage technology across the company. But, there are areas where Spiceworks might not be able to provide the best solution. They are honest about that, which is highly complementary of the organization and principles employed at Spiceworks. This is a company that believes in itself and also believes they have a good handle on what customers want and how best to supply customer's needs and requests.

To help provide a superior and workable solution, Spiceworks will be making APIs available so 3rd party vendors can help extend Spiceworks by writing apps that can integrate with the core application. For example, for obvious reasons, Spiceworks does not want to get into the antivirus industry, however, a company like McAfee could use the APIs and create a first-rate plugin, allowing Spiceworks customers to immediately take advantage malware support through the Spiceworks console. Another example would be allowing access and management of Cloud-based storage services, like Box or SkyDrive, directly through the Spiceworks application.

As the plugins (or apps) are created they will be made available as downloads from a Spiceworks "app store" not unlike the huge number of app stores already available today by various vendors. Spiceworks customers will be able to shop, download, deploy, and extend the management application quickly. In doing this, Spiceworks will ensure that the majority of those 2,200 feature requests are addressed by the best possible solutions.

I wasn't able to resource an exact date for when this feature will start rolling out, but based on discussions it is a critical next step in the evolution of Spiceworks. So, expect it soon. And, I'd expect a huge number of valuable apps to be available at launch. There was a good number of vendors at Spiceworld this year that I know would love to take advantage of the APIs to bring the community excellent value right away.

The Windows XP Story

Another interesting discussion I had during my time at Spiceworld was on the topic of Windows XP's demise in April 2014. Every vendor, these days, seems to have a Windows XP message, falling in line with Microsoft's own push to rid the world of the almost 14 year old operating system. There are some hugely compelling reasons to migrate away from this archaic OS, and you can read all the coverage here on Windows IT Pro HERE.

So, with this in hand, I asked Spiceworks' CEO, Scott Abel about what their story is for Windows XP. I was pleasantly taken aback by the response.

In essence, Spiceworks has no Windows XP story. They are less concerned about customers migrating off of Windows XP (which, is still important, by the way), than making customers happy and satisfying their needs and requirements. As we all know, there will be those Windows XP holdouts beyond April 2014, no matter how much marketing push is driven by Microsoft and its partners. While Spiceworks will not actively support the Windows XP OS, they will continue to actively support their customers, no matter what OS they happen to run and need to manage.

For functional reasons only, Spiceworks has suggested upgrades in the past. When IE6 became a problematic and industry-unsupported browser, they sent a message to all customers suggesting they upgrade Internet Explorer. But, still there will holdouts, so Spiceworks architected ways around that by including an embedded Chrome component (hidden to the user) to still provide adequate functionality for their own products without having to rely on IE6.

In the same way, Spiceworks will not force customers to migrate off of Windows XP. They may suggest it, but will not revoke support for Windows XP in their products. If there become problems later on, they'll again, suggest that customers upgrade, but also create temporary solutions to ensure the customer is still served.

Conclusion

In my mind, Spiceworld was a success. From the execution, to the way the vendors interacted as community members instead of high-pressure salespeople, Spiceworks has an awesome event in their company arsenal. As many of you know, I've spent a good amount of time visiting different conferences over the years, so I have the experience to understand when they work well, and when they don't. If you are a Spiceworks customer or might take the plunge in the next year or so, I highly recommend attending. Spiceworld 2014 will be back in Austin, Texas (yay!) and it will run September 23-24. Early bird pricing is $149 (yes, $149!) and $199 after that. You can find out more HERE.

Incidentally, there's a UK version in May 2014 in London. Find out more about that HERE.

In the end, Spiceworks is a unique company with a solid solution for managing and monitoring technology. It is a community-driven solution, meaning that utilizing the application and taking time to participate in the community, brings a much higher value than just remotely delivering software or deploying the latest security patches. Spiceworks does all that, and does it well, but the company is delivering a unique value that truly puts them on a competitive level with the big systems management vendors. The other vendors provide much of the same feature sets, but with the community integration, the new platform, and the upcoming APIs, if you think seriously about it, it might just push them to the top of the stack.

As a long-time community guy myself, I truly see the value of what Spiceworks has developed. And, also as a long-time systems management evangelist, I can't help but compare Spiceworks to the other offerings that I'm familiar with. And, when it gets right down to it, they are all very similar, except that Spiceworks takes customers and community very seriously. They are one vendor that I can safely say makes the customer community their focus. And, not only that, but they are the only vendor I know that really does "get" what community really means. That's important to me.

Spiceworks can be downloaded to install on a Windows computer, a tablet (Android and iOS), and a smartphone (Android and iOS). It can even be deployed to remote machines and setup to manage multiple clients in multiple locations. It can work through the entire company, or used just to serve a single department.

The latest version of Spiceworks can be downloaded from here: Download these apps and use Spiceworks everywhere.