Every IT professional needs to know what's going on in the networks that they manage, and an important part of that is having a detailed inventory of the computers and devices that are connected. This arduous task is often born out of necessity: an audit is being conducted or a software upgrade is planned, and you need to know, for example, whether the computers on your network are ready to support the upgrade without requiring additional RAM.

If you're in the market for a software tool to collect these inventory details for you, you'll find that there's a plethora of software products available. On the surface, they all do the same basic thing: they scan your network, attempt to connect to any computers and devices they find, and pull down inventory details from anything they were successfully able to connect to.

Where these products differentiate themselves is in the inventory details that they capture and the reporting that they produce, which were my primary areas of interest when reviewing ClearApps Network Inventory Advisor.

ClearApps offers a 15-day, fully-featured downloadable trial version of their product. You don't have to sign up for a follow-up sales call or register for an account on their website to access the trial, which is always a very welcome touch and eliminates one of the main barriers that prevents folks from giving products like this a shot.

After a quick installation process, you're asked to provide some simple details about your network, including the number of computers (or nodes) that you have, whether you're interested in looking for non-Windows nodes (including SNMP devices and Macintosh computers), and whether you want the scanning method to be Fast or Accurate, as Figure 1 shows. There's no option for Both. The software states that selecting Fast may skip some computers that are connecting wirelessly and selecting Accurate may take longer to resolve names. Although it's possible to simply skip this setup screen, for my test, I opted to scan SNMP devices and Macs, and I selected Accurate for the scan method.

After completing this screen, the software launched and immediately began to scan the subnet I was on. I didn't want this to happen at all, and this is my main complaint with the product. While I was obviously going to scan something, I wanted the ability to select what I wanted to scan first and not have the software start scanning for me.

After stopping this automatic scan, I found it easy to select the assets that I wanted to scan either by name or by IP address range. The software uses the Fluent user interface pioneered by Microsoft with Office 2007, so I felt right at home within the UI. I provided administrator-level credentials as the software suggested and let it scan the handful of assets I had selected. After the software finished its scans, I began to explore the inventory details that it was able to capture.

One thing that stood out for me was how comprehensive the scan was. On my Windows Vista test machine, the software detected basic details, such as operating system version, and also details that I didn't expect to see, such as the date Windows was installed, product keys and serial numbers for Windows and Office, and visible and hidden Windows shares. I was also impressed to see details that other products don't usually bother to include, such as the configuration of PCI slots, the BIOS date and version, and the system's serial number, as Figure 4 shows. In fact, the software can be configured to scan for even more details, such as the Windows services that are installed.

Reporting on these collected inventory details is nice and easy to configure. Lots of predefined reports are available based on the hardware details (RAM, manufacturer, and so on) or based on the software details (operating system, services installed, antivirus installed, and so on). If the included reports don't suit your needs, you can create your own. 

I have only one complaint about the product, aside from the automatic scan on startup. It correctly detected that Windows Defender was disabled, and it warned me about this situation. However, it did not realize that this warning was unnecessary, even though it had also detected that I had Forefront Client Security (FCE) installed and that it was providing antivirus and anti-malware services.

Overall, despite my few complaints, I was impressed with Network Inventory Advisor. Pricing is available to match the size of your network, but even the site-wide pricing won't make you scream in terror. Take advantage of the 15-day trial and see if this one works for you.

ClearApps Network Inventory Advisor

Pros: Easy to use, nice reporting, captures details other products don't

Cons: Automatic scan on first run should be a choice, antivirus detection wasn't as smart as hoped

Rating: 4 out of 5

Recommendation: Fits the bill for a comprehensive inventory product that won't drain your budget

Price: Under $1,000 for a site-wide license

Contact: ClearApps, www.clearapps.com