IT management tools are as varied as blades of grass on a freshly mowed lawn. It's often difficult to slice through vendor marketing-speak to obtain the details you need to determine if a management tool is right for you and your environment. For example: Does the tool support all the OSs you use? What about non-computer devices, such as routers and switches? Does the tool take a software inventory from your computers, or just a hardware inventory? How do you obtain technical support if you need it? How much will the product cost you in licensing fees?

One product that aims to solve all of your IT management woes is Spiceworks. This software includes management, monitoring, inventory control, and a ticketing system, all in one package. You might have already heard of Spiceworks from a colleague, because it’s reasonably popular for one key reason: It's free. The caveat of the software being free is that you have to see ads while you use it—but I found the ads to be unobtrusive. You can purchase a version that has the ads removed if you find them to be too cumbersome.

I reviewed Spiceworks 4.5 from the perspective of someone who has heard good things about the software but doesn't know much about it other than the fact that it’s a free IT management product. I installed Spiceworks on a Windows XP SP3 machine and ran it against a mixed test network consisting of XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS X 10.6, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 10 computers. The network also contains a variety of networking gear from Cisco. Spiceworks’ system requirements are modest; the documentation states that a machine with a 1GHz Pentium III processor (remember those?), with 1GB of RAM, running XP SP2, Windows Server 2003 SP1, or Windows Server 2008 is sufficient. For a comprehensive list of the items Spiceworks can discover and manage, see the Spiceworks Requirements page.

Installing Spiceworks appears to be a cinch at first. You go to the Spiceworks website and click any of the bright orange links that invite you to download and install the product. A single executable file downloads to your computer without you having to sign up for any type of account or provide an email address. The file is reasonably sized (about 20MB) and downloads quickly.

When the installation routine launches, the first screen asks which port you want to have Spiceworks listen on. The default is port 80, which is a clue that indicates how Spiceworks will interact with you; the software installs the Apache web server. This is important to note if you plan to install Spiceworks on a machine that’s already running a web server on port 80. You'll either need to adjust one of the servers to run on a port other than 80 or install Spiceworks on a different machine.

The installation process proceeds quickly from that point and offers to launch Spiceworks when the install is complete. Here is where I ran into my only real technical issue. The initial launch of Spiceworks took an abnormally long time, about two minutes, with the Spiceworks.exe process consuming 50 percent of the CPU usage. This occurred only on the first launch of the product, however.

One annoying requirement is that you must sign up for a Spiceworks account when you launch the product for the first time. It's unclear from the sign-up form if this is a local account, isolated to your own Spiceworks installation, or if your information will be sent to Spiceworks even if you clear the check boxes for receiving partner offers and participating in surveys. I cleared both check boxes and signed up with a valid email address that I use for testing—and I did receive a few email messages of the “Welcome to Spiceworks” variety.

The next screen is where the good stuff starts to happen. You can configure the product to start with an inventory, the Help desk (ticketing) feature, or Spiceworks community support. I was most interested in the inventory functionality because I wanted to see how well Spiceworks could find and analyze my network, so I selected Start with Inventory.

To avoid immediately subjecting my network to any invasive testing, I opted to have the software first scan the machine it was running on. Isolating the selection process to target just the local machine by IP address and selecting an account with administrator-level privileges to run the scan with was easy. A dialog box launches to indicate that the scan is in process.

Scanning a machine is a quick yet thorough process. If you have a host-based firewall installed, you need to ensure that exceptions are created to allow Spiceworks to access the system. After this is done, Spiceworks can determine a myriad of details from the base hardware (e.g., CPU, RAM, free disk space), as Figure 1 shows, all the way to a list of installed software, including various updates to the software, as Figure 2 shows. The software also captures details such as the last time the system was rebooted.

After my local machine was successfully scanned, I expanded the scan to a local subnet, supplied the appropriate credentials, and received results with similar details. One item to note is that Spiceworks never detected any antivirus software on any of the machines I ran it against, although I do have up-to-date antivirus software installed. Some quick investigating on the Spiceworks website proved this behavior is to be expected. Spiceworks claims to be able to detect any antivirus software that integrates with Windows Security Center. Although all the test machines I was using had managed antivirus software installed, Windows Security Center was turned off.

 

 

I attempted to have Spiceworks scan a subnet consisting primarily of networking devices. This was far less successful, because many of these devices are desktop switches and consumer routers that don't respond to SNMP queries. Spiceworks can’t query a networking device that doesn't respond to SNMP, even if the device supports Secure Shell (SSH) access, as some of my devices do. This might also explain why when I asked Spiceworks to create a map of my network, several intermediary switches were missing from the map. I had to manually add some devices that Spiceworks couldn’t capture automatically.

The product was also unable to monitor the health of an Exchange 2007 server on my network. Unfortunately, Spiceworks can monitor only Exchange 2003 servers. This limitation is especially disappointing because Exchange 2003 will soon leave Microsoft’s Extended Support phase. It would be nice to see support for newer versions of Exchange.

Despite the few shortcomings, overall I was impressed with Spiceworks’ inventory capabilities. After I was done giving the inventory functionality a thorough test, I moved on to the Help desk component.

Spiceworks provides a comprehensive ticketing system in the Help desk arena. Creating a new ticket is a straightforward process. The ticketing system is fully aware of the gathered inventory and lets you reference any of your assets. A list of open tickets and their assignees is provided. Editing an existing ticket is also very straightforward. Any IT professional who has used even the most basic of ticketing systems will feel right at home with the Spiceworks system.

The software also includes the ability to track services, such as support contracts and ISP subscriptions. This is a great feature because it lets you see the status of your services at a glance. You can also reference your services in Help desk tickets just as you can reference your assets. These features all tie together nicely with Spiceworks’ monitoring and alerts.

The product lets you specify a plethora of options for monitoring not only your connected computers and devices but also your services (e.g., the end date of a contract). Options range from the basics, such as remaining disk space, to the advanced, such as software compliance. At a periodic interval that you can adjust, Spiceworks sniffs your connected computers and devices to ensure they are in compliance. No agents are necessary, although you need administrator-level access to the scanned machines. Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) must also be configured for Spiceworks to gather information.

Spiceworks 4.5

PROS: Comprehensive; easy to use; free
CONS: More involved setup and installation than the documentation suggests
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: Free
RECOMMENDATION: Recommended for administrators who want a comprehensive management package that won’t break the bank.
CONTACT: Spiceworks • 512-346-7743 • www.spiceworks.com

Overall, I was impressed with Spiceworks. The most compelling feature of the product, aside from the $0 price tag, is the way all the components tie in together. You don’t have to maintain separate lists of assets or use another interface to query a network device. Everything is integrated in the single Spiceworks interface. My only concern with the product is that its simplicity is a bit deceiving at first. If you dive right in like I did for review purposes, you could be caught off-guard. You need to think about where you will install Spiceworks, especially if you already have a web server installed. In addition, you need to make sure you have the proper credentials to access your devices and computers and ensure that any host-based firewalls are configured to allow Spiceworks access.

Taking these few preliminary steps before you jump in will ensure a good experience from the get-go. Uninstallation is also a cinch, leaving little to no cruft behind. You have little to lose and a lot to gain by giving Spiceworks a try. I highly recommend it.