SpiceWorks is a free tool for managing and monitoring your computing, network and software assets, and for identifying problems when they occur. It runs on Windows (once installed, it runs in the background and appears as a small icon in the taskbar’s notification area) and you configure and use it via a browser-based interface.
When you fire up the package and log in, the first place you’ll go is the Inventory section, which unsurprisingly is where you tell it about your network and/or the kit attached thereto. Items ("assets") can be created manually or discovered automatically, and of course you have the opportunity to define credentials that allow SpiceWorks to connect to each entity and interrogate it. Again unsurprisingly, you can split the devices into categories, and if there isn’t a category for something on the network (as was the case with a couple of bits of kit on ours) you can define new classifications.
Having defined the stuff you have, you can leave SpiceWorks to go and find out about it, and then to monitor over time what happens to it. So having defined the various desktops and servers on our network, we let it find out what software was installed; it came back with 635 software assets (more about those later).
The Inventory page has a very nice summary of the types of kit you have; each asset type has a graphic showing the number of entities of that type, along with notifications of whether there are any errors with them or whether any of them is offline. Below the summary is an “environment summary” which is split into sections such as “scan errors” (issues that need fixing so SpiceWorks can do its job), “storage” (a summary of each computer it’s found, showing disk capacity and usage) and “DNS” (the names and addresses of IP entities on the network).
There’s also a very nice "overview" section, which summarises the various things on the network such as the split of wireless/wired network cards, numbers of machines with/without AV software, devices whose IP addresses are DHCP/statically allocated, and so on; in each case there’s a link that takes you to the specifics of the device(s) in question.
The software section’s really nice, too. As well as peeking at the list in the main "software assets" section, you can also search for packages by name and see where they’re installed and what the version IDs are. Rather cleverly it keeps track of the various versions that have been installed over time, so you can see where stuff has been upgraded.
There’s more to SpiceWorks than asset monitoring, though. The next major section is the Help Desk which does what it says on the tin – it allows you to add "tickets," relating them to particular assets and/or assigning them to be done by specific individuals (oh, and attaching files if you so wish), and then manages the flow of work and tickets as they are allocated, accepted and dealt with.
It’s not the most complex helpdesk package we’ve seen, but it’s perfectly adequate for an average SME. Oh, and there’s an associated "ask question" facility that lets you type a question and then submits it to the online SpiceWorks community forum in the hope that some other user will know the answer; unless you choose otherwise, you’re told by email if someone replies to your query.
Next is the Reports section which, as you’d expect, lets you run off lists of entities on the network that satisfy your chosen criteria. There are plenty of built-in reports (computers without AV software, summaries of disk usage by device, comparisons of installed software versus known licence counts, and so on) and defining your own customised reports is dead easy – there’s a simple screen that asks you what you want to call the new report, what criteria should be met by devices to be included, and what information to display; once you’ve defined a report you can of course run it on-screen, and if you wish you can export the definition into a “.rptx” file that you can email to someone to enable them to run the same report.
Finally we come to what is actually the front screen of SpiceWorks: the "My SpiceWorks" section. Think of this as a kind of dashboard overview of your world and you’re not a million miles away. It’s split into a series of sections, termed "widgets." There’s a default set of widgets, but it’s easy to define your own; there’s a shedload of different types of stuff you can add, from SpiceWorks-specific stuff such as lists of alerts, the inventory summary or outstanding helpdesk tickets through to free-text notes or RSS feeds.
We were tremendously impressed with SpiceWorks in our lab. We did find two little buglets, though. First of all, although SpiceWorks correctly spotted the desktops that were running AVG Professional Edition, it incorrectly said that our Windows Server 2000 machine wasn’t running any AV protection, despite the fact that it did indeed have an up-to-date release of AVG Server Edition.
The other problem we found was when specifying an RSS feed on “My SpiceWorks,” the RSS feeds Techworld lists actually result in redirects being sent, and SpiceWorks wouldn’t load the feeds until we’d told it the eventual URL (ie the result of the redirection) instead of the alias listed on our site.
When all’s said and done, though, SpiceWorks is bloody wonderful. Despite it being a free product the GUI is tremendously well done (and a darn sight better than many high-price-tag products we’ve used) and the range of features is superbly designed, implemented and integrated. Start using it now.
When I tried the “Ask a question” section, I thought it was simply going to search a knowledgebase – that is, I didn’t realise it would be posting a question to the community pages. So one of the things I asked it was: “Is this the way to Amarillo?”
Within half an hour I got an email from Tony Frey, SpiceWorks’ director of product and community, with a Google Maps link that answered my question. So not only have they made a bloody good product, they’ve got a sense of humour too!
Although the product sits happily on a random desktop machine, we’d put it on something that’s up and running all the time so it’s constantly connected and able to keep running all the time.