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Spiceworks 5.0 Software Reviews

High Technology Product Reviews | Trends and News | Spiceworks 5.0 Software Reviews
Affordable, feature-rich, and easy to use small and mid-sized business network management applications are hard to find, but they do exist. Case in point: The free Spiceworks, which has enjoyed popularity in the SMB network management crowd thanks to its vendor independence and ease of use. Cisco's Network Magic does a lot of what Spiceworks does, but we found it worked a bit buggy with non-Cisco networking products. More than a tool, Spiceworks is a portal comprised of network management, help desk, purchasing features, and a community of over 1,000,000 helpful users—mostly IT professionals—deemed "Spiceheads." The software is as useful as ever, but it's hampered a bit by new features that could've used more time in the oven.

Specifications
Type
Business, Enterprise, Professional
Free
Yes
OS Compatibility
Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Windows 7
Interface and Setup
Spiceworks' interface has been updated since we last took a look at it. The Device Inventory in particular is well designed with attractive icons, tabbing and detailed device information. The UI has a real-time news feed populated with latest posts from community members, many of which are useful technology tips. There are still plenty of ads on the site (it's free, after all), but they're not so intrusive that they prove distracting.

Spiceworks runs as a desktop application that kicks off by doing a full inventory of all hardware and software in a network. Alternately, you can choose to setup the help desk to manage user requests and IT projects.

People View and Active Directory Integration
One of the biggest new features—and judging by the amount of buzz about them on Spiceworks' community forum—is People View and Active Directory integration. People View allows IT pros to display and manage information about the users on a network. When I first launched People View, Active Directory (AD) was correctly detected as residing on my network. From there I had the option to visit the AD settings page or go to the AD help page.

I opted for the settings. I was impressed with the level of control you have over integrating AD with Spiceworks. In the settings screen, you provide write access to the AD server (my network's domain controller, in my case). To do so, is simply a matter of entering the AD server credentials. For security, access can be configured to use SSL. AD also has troubleshooting mechanisms built-in. When you enter the server information the connection is tested and if it fails, several remedial suggestions are displayed.

Once connected, Spiceworks can scan Active Directory to import users and devices. You can even synch the two, so that any changes made in Spiceworks will roll over to AD.

You aren't giving Spiceworks laissez-faire access to AD, though. Users can control when and if AD is scanned and how frequently that scanning occurs. This is a handy feature for networks that may have frequent guest visitors or mobile devices logging on and off. Network end-users can be setup to use their AD login to access their Spiceworks portal (to log help desk calls, check purchases, and more).

There are even more advanced settings, such as changing LDAP username attributes or the number of users and computers that can get imported from AD. Spiceworks wisely displays several warnings in the advanced settings about how changes to them can potentially do damage in your environment. Fortunately, there are also several help links that lead to informative posts, or gathering advice from other IT pros from within the vast online community.

Active Directory Drawbacks
So how did AD integration fare? It works, but needs some fine tuning. First of all, Spiceworks only imports users that have email addresses in AD. This is a problem as many in the Spiceworks community have networks using hosted email, not on-premise Exchange server (which is tied to AD, so the email addresses are populated), and the email addresses may not exist in AD. From what I've gathered from the community forum, Spiceworks is currently working on eliminating the need for the email address pre-requisite.

Second, I experienced latency when importing a modest five users from AD. The users appeared in Spiceworks at staggered times, even though I had AD scanning every 15 minutes. I initially saw three users (once I added dummy e-mail addresses in AD), but the other two took an hour. In my small test network, this is not much of an issue, but for organizations that have hundreds of users that could translate to a large chunk of time for importing users.

If Spiceworks can hone this feature it will be powerful for IT administration. Active Directory is a tricky beast in its own right, so I can understand Spiceworks having some growing pains with this functionality.

There's quite a bit of user management you can perform within People View such as adding an image or photo of the users, assigning devices, placing help tickets, and purchasing orders. You can even see when a user last logged in or made a password change. Administrators can perform user password resets all from within Spiceworks.

Automated Network Configuration Monitoring and Device Management
Network configuration monitoring is another new feature that scans networked devices, backups the configuration information for each device, and then provides the ability to restore that configuration in the event of a disaster or mishap. It's a sweet idea, but the execution wasn't particularly smooth, as it has a limited number of supported devices. Right now, you can only back up and restore configuration information for Cisco (IOS, VxWorks, ACNS, CatOS, PIX, ASA); Dell (PowerConnect, VxWorks); HP Procurve; Juniper ScreenOS; Nortel (BayStack, BayRS, Accelar); 3COM (Superstack, CoreBuilder); Vyatta.

Clicking the "Configuration" tab on my HP ProCurve 2510G-24 device's view gives the message "Did you know you can back up the configuration for this device? Simply supply the appropriate credentials in the Network Scan settings page and configuration backups will occur during scans." If Network Configuration management does not support the device you won't see this message—as I did not with an SMC switch I also have on the network.

Acquiring a device's backup information requires adding it to Spiceworks as a separate network scan entry; there's already one by default, that's a scan of the entire network. The device's configuration backup happens automatically during the scan. Once a device has been backed up, that backup can be restored to the device in the event of a configuration change. Next, you have to create an additional network scan account that uses SSH or Telnet for access to the device. I choose Telnet and left both the username and password empty as there is no authentication required to access the switch. Once the scan is done, clicking on the device's "Configuration" tab in Device Inventory displays the backups. I didn't see any backup information for the ProCurve after performing three network scans.

A Spiceworks technician there advised me to use an SNMP account instead of SSH or Telnet, which worked. Apparently, some devices will use SSH, others Telnet and SNMP for the backup process. This wasn't made clear in the instructions and Spiceworks tells me it is adjusting those directions within the on-site help documentation.

As mentioned, the Device Inventory is detailed and sharp-looking. There is one feature in Device Inventory in particular that I think is invaluable: warranty information for devices. You can scan a device and Spiceworks will pull the warranty information for that device. It only worked for the newer devices on my network, but I think it's a fabulous feature. There is no greater hassle in IT than having a device or component die that you need replaced STAT, only to find the warranty has expired.

Other Major Features
IT Professionals now have an easy way to track and manage IT purchases and services with Purchase List Management. Add products and related information like pricing to create a database of purchases. You can create purchase orders through the interface, even assigning them to individual users in the Users view. Automated status alerts display important warranty and service renewal dates. It's a great way to centrally manage what can consume a big chunk of IT's time—purchasing equipment. The "Purchase List Register" feature shows all pending purchases and their approval status.

MSP Centralized Help Desk & Client Portals provides customizable client portals as well as a centralized help desk that allows multiple client service requests to be managed from a single console. The updated help desk provides ways for IT services providers to work, track and bill for time and purchases. It's truly a wonderful feature for IT providers managing multiple sites.

Spiceworks 5.0—A Work in Progress
Spiceworks has consistently gotten rave reviews from us due to its low cost (free!) and comprehensive IT management system. However, the flawed new features prevent this version of Spiceworks from soaring quite as high as last time. Still, Spiceworks is a very good choice for your business network management needs if you can live with the kinks. I'm looking forward to giving this worthy application another look as soon as the rough edges get smoothed out.

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