From network monitoring tools to Internet filters to Office-like applications, there is a lot available for free. Companies such as GroundWork Open Source, Blue Coat Systems, Splunk and ThinkFree have taken enterprise features and scaled them down for smaller deployments to get network managers started with their tools.

"It is still a fairly significant effort for an IT person to get a network monitoring tool working in their environment. We did the integration work with other freeware tools to help them get started easier," says Harper Mann, a member of GroundWork Open Source's senior technical staff. GroundWork last year launched a commercial monitoring package based on Nagios open source code, but it remains close to its open source roots. "Organisations are continually trying to move dollars from areas that are not their core competency."

To ease the deployment of its open source application, the company worked to make GroundWork Monitor Open Source compatible with other popular freeware tools such as MySQL, PHP and Nagios 2.0. GroundWork also added a graphical user interface and clustering capabilities to enable customers to mirror network monitoring.

The software runs on a Linux server with memory in disk, and GroundWork includes in this free version real-time status views, historic trend reporting and an alerting system. This version supports a number of servers, operating systems, routers and other network devices, and GroundWork Monitor Open Source users have access to GroundWork-sponsored support forums.

Splunk, another relative newcomer to the management market, has a freeware version of its enterprise data indexing and troubleshooting software. Splunk's software runs on Linux, Unix including Solaris, and Mac OS X, and the freeware version offers users up to 500MB of data indexing per day. The software searches for management data across logs, message queues, configuration files, SNMP traps and database transactions to more quickly correlate events that could be related to a failure - and that network managers would typically have to search manually.

Splunk Server is available for download now. Users can also join online community Splunk Base to search and share IT troubleshooting experiences. And along with its freeware, Splunk offers its Splunk Professional software as a free, 30-day trial.

"Our whole business model is based on a grassroots strategy going directly at the systems administrators," says Splunk CEO Michael Baum. "It's a fundamental tenet of the company to continue to offer free services and products."

Some companies offer more than free management; they put their protection tools to work for free. Blue Coat Systems has introduced K9 Web Protection, a scaled down version of the proxy vendor's content filtering tools that company representatives say will enable customers to better monitor their home computer use.

It runs on a desktop, passively monitors Internet traffic and is programmed to block more than 55 different categories of content, including pornography, hate speech and sites that promote violence or permit gambling, the company says. It enables users to monitor and control what sites their children access, and enables them to block offensive or potentially dangerous sites, including the popular Web site MySpace.com.

For those tired of paying high prices for Microsoft Office, but who don't want to install OpenOffice locally for whatever reason, ThinkFree offers word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications free online through a software-as-a-service model. All the applications are compatible with their Microsoft counterparts, meaning one can read and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files through any browser that supports Java. Users even get a gigabyte of storage for free. ThinkFree also offers simple document sharing with check-in, check-out and revision tracking.

The company originally launched its online application suite in 2000, but was a bit ahead of its time, says CEO T.J. Kang. That version of the application suite used proprietary file formats, making document sharing more difficult. The company is now owned by Korean software maker Haansoft and after a number of starts and stops, it relaunched the free service this month. Eventually, the company will monetise the freebie users through a contextual ad service, Kang says.

Several other vendors provide useful tools as time-limited freebies. For instance, Diskeeper offers a free 30-day trial of its automated defragmentation software. According to the vendor, fragmentation causes crashes and slowdowns, because bits of software get scattered across a system. This type of software can be installed on a Windows system and it will put the pieces back together to improve performance on desktops and servers.

Shunra Software has introduced its Virtual Enterprise (VE) Desktop 2.5 software application that is available for a five-day free trial. VE Desktop 2.5 is a network simulation software tool that simulates a WAN link, including latency, jitter, bandwidth and packet loss - testing applications under a variety of current and potential network conditions - from a desktop machine. The company says the software can help prevent application problems with pre-deployment testing.

And last but not least, Datacore Software has free 30-day trials out of UpTempo, an advanced read/write disk cache. The company claims UpTempo can do a better job than Windows Cache because it includes features such as predictive caching and workload optimisation, rather than merely caching the file you're working on. UpTempo needs at least 256MB in the system, preferably 512MB or more. It isn't formally released yet, but can be downloaded now.