Spiceworks' free IT Desktop provides basic network monitoring for SMBs

IT Desktop is geared toward small to midsize businesses that need a simple way to inventory and monitor their networks. With its agentless processing, intuitive interface, and easy configuration, Spiceworks could be worth a test drive.

Spiceworks IT Desktop 1.0 is an advertisement-supported Windows application aimed at the SMB market, designed to perform inventorying and basic monitoring of LANs. As Spiceworks defines it, an SMB has 250 employees or less, which is important to remember when evaluating the product's functionality and feature set.

IT Desktop is targeted toward the system administrator who may not have a deep understanding of technologies or who may lack formal education, training, and certifications. As a result, the product's feature set, while being effective, offers much less functionality (and the associated jargon and complexity associated with the functionality) of products such as Solarwinds, HP OpenView, and other common network management tools. I spoke with Scott Abel, Spiceworks CEO and co-founder, to get a full understanding of the product's technical implementation and business goals.

Installation and configuration

Spiceworks IT Desktop installs itself as a desktop application. The installation was typical for a Windows application, and painless. The initial configuration was also quite easy. The auto-detected network information is fine unless you have another logical segment or VLAN to monitor. It does, however, require the username and password of a Windows administrator account.

The detections across the network went fairly quickly. The host system was noticeably slower during the process, but it wasn't too bad, and the load wasn't noticeable on the client systems. The detection process can be scheduled to be rerun periodically as well, keeping the information database up-to-date. The user accesses IT Desktop through a Web browser (it installs its own secured Web server), and the underlying process can be run either as a service or as a foreground application process. This enables IT Desktop to be used on an ad-hoc basis to get a snapshot of the network condition. It can also be run on a server and accessed remotely. The application itself, while being a bit more resource intensive than the typical desktop application, is significantly less resource hungry than the more enterprise-class entries in this space.

How it works

IT Desktop operates by examining a range of IP addresses. It uses WMI to access Microsoft Windows machines and SSH (SSH version 2 only) to log in to Linux, BSD, Solaris, and other UNIX servers. It can also monitor SNMP traps, Macs, routers, printers, switches, and other networked devices. Because of the way it performs the detections, cataloging, and monitoring of devices, it requires no software installation or physical contact with the devices on the network. In addition, you don't need to spend hours on complex configuration, MIB files, or other hallmarks of traditional network monitoring and management applications.

Once IT Desktop detects the various devices on the network, it uses standard WMI queries and UNIX shell applications, among other techniques, to determine system information and status. This approach respects the security settings on the network devices in an easy-to-understand manner. However, if anything prevents this from operating smoothly, IT Desktop marks the device as Unknown. In my tests, IT Desktop successfully identified only four out of nine devices on the test network. Some of these were excusable, such as a Windows server that had only a few ports open (file sharing and DNS). But other failures, such as one of the desktop machines and the FreeBSD server, were not understandable. It also did not recognize a Linksys-managed switch. Although it found these devices, it couldn't find a way to log in to them.

The software didn't provide any information as to why it couldn't access the systems' information. Because IT Desktop was unable to access the FreeBSD server, I couldn't evaluate its UNIX functionality. However, it correctly identified an HP OfficeJet 7210 printer with no problems and even brought up a notification of low ink levels (under 30 percent full) soon enough to order ink, as opposed to waiting until the ink runs out, like the HP software does.

On the devices that were accessed successfully, IT Desktop did an excellent job cataloging and inventorying the hardware, software, services, and basic status information. One omission is that it detects only Symantec and McAfee antivirus products. Antivirus software from other vendors, such as TrendMicro, is forthcoming, according to Abel.

IT Desktop also missed a few pieces of software, and because it relies upon WMI, any software that doesn't appear in the standard Windows listing will not be detected. Unfortunately, although IT Desktop reliably identified information for Windows services, it can't control, monitor, or manage them. At this time, IT Desktop does not allow for users to create their own customized monitoring or inventorying scripts, so they must rely upon it for updates to the detection, cataloging, and monitoring of their hardware and software.

Keeping it simple

The monitoring and management ends of the application are where I found IT Desktop to be definitely lacking. But Abel made it clear that customers stated their needs were more about cataloging and inventorying devices--to help them identify computers missing required software or patches, for example--and less about immediate notification of failed hard drives and network connectivity.

Although IT Desktop includes a basic trouble ticket system, it has a much slimmer feature set than the typical trouble ticketing system has. Indeed, it's on par with the Tasks system in Microsoft Outlook. When I asked Abel about this, he told me that IT Desktop's target audience does not require the functionality of a full-featured product such as Remedy, which is reasonable. Alerts can be sent through e-mail or SMS, as well as viewed through the Web-based interface.

Overall, it seems that keeping IT Desktop lean and easy to understand was a primary concern in the minds of the designers. Although I usually prefer a native Windows application to Web-based interfaces, the IT Desktop interface was easy to understand and had no hiccups, with the exception of an odd system of selecting multiple alerts.

The reporting system can create reports based off any of its cataloging and monitoring functions to allow you to quickly find computers low on drive space, printers low on ink, new devices added to the network, and other useful pieces of information. The system is extremely easy to understand and worked as expected.

Likewise, the browse system allows users to quickly drill down through their network, applying all manner of filters to find the exact device (or group of devices) they're looking for. Like the reports, the browse function lets you search by anything that can be monitored or inventoried.

Customer focus

Another bonus of IT Desktop is that the company appears to be forming a community of users. Through the IT Desktop software, you can submit a question to the user community. This system is fairly comprehensive and contains information from Spiceworks, various vendors, and IT Desktop users.

From speaking with Abel, I learned that Spiceworks takes its customer feedback very seriously. One example of this was the decision to host the application locally. When asked whether they would prefer an SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) solution, customers overwhelmingly said they preferred a local application for reasons of security. The IT Desktop forums make it easy to submit bug reports, request new features, and vote on feature ideas, another example of Spiceworks' commitment to customer satisfaction.

The response to customer feedback is also apparent in the product's Microsoft Windows focus. Abel said that 96 percent of their users' computers are running Microsoft Windows. He said Spiceworks focused on the 20 percent of features that their customers needed 80 percent of the time. As a result, the IT Desktop interface is clean and intuitive, particularly in comparison to a monolithic product such as HP OpenView.

IT Desktop's price is low: Free. As I mentioned, the product is ad-supported. The ads appear in the Web-based interface and are pleasantly unobtrusive, as you can see in Figure A. I'm sure that Spiceworks has to walk a tightrope, juggling the advertisers' wishes for more in-your-face ads and its customers' desire for no advertising. For now, it seems that Spiceworks is doing a good job balancing the two.

Figure A


Does it fit?

Because IT Desktop is free, requires minimal configuration, and does not install any agents or software on the devices it manages, you can give it a test run without a large commitment of time or energy. And if you find some key feature is missing, you can always request it. The customer-oriented mindset of the Spiceworks team gives the impression that if enough people ask for a particular feature, they'll work hard to include it in the future.

If you're used to an enterprise-class network management tool, IT Desktop will definitely feel underpowered. If you need highly customizable, real-time alerts, a tightly coupled ticketing system, or in-depth, device-specific information, it won't be a good choice for you. On the other hand, if you just need to catalog and inventory your network, you're primarily running Microsoft Windows, and you don't need a huge "kitchen sink" network management and monitoring application, IT Desktop may be just right for you.