Network management software offers IT professionals access to their peers' best practices while providing a free basket of first-rate tools.
When aviator Steve Fossett disappeared on a solo flight over Nevada in 2007, searchers had little to go on. Someone (billionaire Richard Branson comes to mind) came up with the bright idea that if the search for Fossett were crowdsourced--i.e., if enough people were brought into the effort to look for his airplane--eventually someone would find him. Needless to say, not everyone owns a private plane and belongs to the Civil Air Patrol, so it's tough to re-create a World War II scenario in which thousands of planes fly over the suspect territory and one lucky aviator shouts over the radio, "Look! Down there! I think I see it!"
You use the tools you have, and today it's satellites. Eventually, some 50,000 Internet users were brought into the search for Fossett through Amazon Mechanical Turk, not to pilot planes, but to search high-resolution satellite imagery from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. That effort, which proved unsuccessful, led to claims that Fossett may have faked his own death. After all, 50,000 people couldn't be blind wrong, could they? If I looked at a satellite image of my backyard, I think I would know whether or not there were a crashed airplane lying in it. But after combing 6,000 square miles of Nevada, all this group found was nada (OK, it's supposed to rhyme).
So anyway, now we know what crowdsourcing is, so we can move on to the important stuff: how do you get the help of thousands of IT professionals--for free--when you have questions regarding your business network when you're just one person? Answer: You install Spiceworks.
Spiceworks is Windows-based network management software that combines a host of well-developed tools into one, easy-to-use application. Available for free, the Spiceworks IT Desktop includes modules to inventory hardware and software and everything in between, including routers, switches, firewalls...you name it. It senses IP addresses and then queries for information, including serial numbers, configurations, capabilities, and installed software. It will monitor your network for problems, help you with troubleshooting through a "compare" feature, and even monitor your licenses to ensure they're up to date. You can generate asset and inventory reports, usage reports, and numerous other reports to show that you're on top of things at your job (even if you think you're not). Spiceworks also includes a mature helpdesk that let's you log and track trouble tickets and longer-range IT projects. It also provides users with an easy-to-use interface for emailing in their complaints...er...requests (who needs those irritating phone calls, anyway!).
Perhaps the best part of Spiceworks is that it lets you draw from the collective wisdom of thousands of other Spiceworks users (some 400,000 altogether, the company says) who are available to help you with your problems if you're only willing to ask. Maybe they can't find a downed airplane, but certainly they can decide what the best backup software on the market is today!
The interface has been enhanced recently with a feature the company calls SpiceLists that enables users to collaboratively develop, share, and rank IT practices, products, and services. Designed for IT professionals in small and medium-sized businesses, Spiceworks uses crowdsourcing to assemble the collective experience and knowledge of thousands of IT professionals around the world to rate products and solve problems. The idea is that the cream will naturally rise to the top. So far, more than 5,000 reviews of products and services are available.
The Austin, Texas-based company has been in business since 2006 and has had time to develop a large following. Although venture capital groups are funding it, its business model is one in which it earns revenues from advertising, not expensive license fees. If you don't like ads on the desktop, you can opt for the company's $110-per-year alternative that gives full access to the software without the advertising.
Seven tabs divide the interface into different pages that include MySpiceworks, Inventory, Help Desk, Reports, Community, Store, and Settings. MySpiceworks combines onto a single screen a variety of important alerts set for daily or weekly monitoring. No, there is no client software that needs to be installed on anyone's PC, and yes, you can log onto network computers remotely using free remote control software outlined in the Spiceworks tutorials or basic Windows XP Pro utilities.
As impressive as Spiceworks is, nothing in computing is perfect, and this application is no exception. The company continues to come out with new and upgraded versions, but be prepared to manually input hardware devices, such as Mac and Linux clients, on occasion. Neither are there many diagnostic tools in Spiceworks, even though you can easily locate where the trouble may be coming from. And this is still largely for Windows-based networks for the time being, though for it to stay competitive, it will have to develop its cross-platform capabilities.