Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/14/spiceworks_desktop_management/

Spicing up desktop management with social networking

Bringing it all together

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Servers, 14th June 2010 11:30 GMT

Sysadmin Blog Social networking, at least that which involves computers, has evolved greatly over the past few decades. The internet has allowed many new forms of self expression and interpersonal communication to flourish. By today’s modern standards of social networking, I’m positively a luddite. I simply don’t do social networking.

I still hang out on IRC, and believe it or not I can still be found on Usenet. I have a couple of instant messenger accounts, and I am often found on the forums of technology sites. These are all forms of 'social networking', but they are not the first things most people think of when they hear the term.

Back towards the turn of the century, when these 'blog' things were popping up all over the place like weeds, I could never see myself having one. What could I possibly have to say that anyone would actually want to read? Even if I could produce useful content, would I want to associate myself with the rest of the pap that you generally find on blogs? Thanks to prejudices formed in the early years of these technologies, that I am now penning blogs both here on The Register and my own personal website is a reality that I am still digesting.

Not long after the first web browsers introduced the internet to mainstream users, the first of what would be considered modern social network sites and applications started popping up. Social networking started with sites like Six Degrees, and few of them ever truly caught on.

Someone then took the ideas behind these sites and married them to the concept of blogging. This begat horrors of the internet such as Myspace. Soon we had Facebook and Twitter. If Facebook didn’t kill the likes of Myspace then Twitter surely did. Facebook, shockingly, seems to have become a legitimate communications medium. The percentage of people who use it regularly still boggles my mind. People are using Facebook as a webpage for their business, a political tool, interpersonal communications and more.

If Facebook attracted the bulk of modern “legitimate” social networking usage, Twitter got the pap. While there is some signal on Twitter, the unfortunate majority of it is simply noise. What neither Facebook nor Twitter offer much of is useful content. The nearest thing until very recently that could be considered a form of social networking and actually produced some form of usable content are the old throwbacks: Usenet, forums and blogs.

So why exactly am I giving everyone a lesson on social networking when I am supposed to be producing something close to usable content here on this blog? Amazingly, the evolution of social networking has become directly related to my current IT project. This is the third article in my quest to find decent desktop management software that would allow me to do lights out management (LOM) of my network without costing me a significant fraction of my yearly budget.

That LOM setup would allow me to reduce my power usage and with it my cooling requirements. This would buy me time until the new air conditioner arrives, and lower long-term running costs to boot. Where it all ties together is with an application I have rediscovered called Spiceworks. The connection may seem tenuous at first, but the instant you sit down and take Spiceworks for a spin you will understand. In addition to being a network management tool of exceptional use to small and medium enterprise (SME) systems administrators, it may be one of the only modern social networking sites (other than LinkedIn - perhaps) to actually contain useful information about something.

From a technical standpoint it is an amazing program. You add in appropriate credentials and run a scan of your network. It will identify virtually everything on your network. Port scans, logging into basic services or using supplied credentials to gather all sorts of information. It will count installed applications, free space, warranty information, parse logs for errors and much more. It will even probe your active directory to make itself aware of systems not part of the scan range you gave it, and periodically re-run scans on a schedule you provide. After every scan, it will report any and every abnormality it discovers back to you.

It’s also a mature, fully functional ticket-based help desk application with remote control support for RDP, VNC vPro and LogMeIn. (Sadly, integration with my beloved Teamviewer is sorely lacking.) The depth of information it gathers is amazing; very near that of the better commercial offerings I have played with. What is more is that it offers basic LOM functionality such as working with Intel’s vPro, and wake on LAN (WOL). Sadly, it will not (out of the box) work with my APC UPSes or PDUs, something I consider a lamentable oversight. There are some threads in the Spiceworks forums about people trying to get this to work, but as with every other bit of network management software I’ve encountered, true LOM integration seems to be an afterthought at best.

Of interest to me with Spiceworks is that it integrates with other software packages to expand upon its already impressive capabilities. In particular, it integrates with Nagios; which is unreservedly one of the best open source applications ever developed. No matter what hardware, software (or quite possibly wetware) you need monitored, Nagios has a plugin for it. Nagios can check on everything you run, and even take corrective measures if something goes wrong. The integration of Nagios into Spiceworks has very neatly provided SMEs with a cheap and functional “war room” application of the kind that five years ago only the big guys could afford.

What makes Spiceworks unique though is not its technical capabilities. It’s that these seem to be almost an afterthought to the real purpose of the application - you. You, me, the sysadmin down the street. They want more bodies for the social networking side of this application - that's where the real value lies. Additional functionality can always be added to Spiceworks by interoperating with other applications. Creating a community of sysadmins sharing knowledge and information is what takes the real time. Can’t remember where the firmware cross-compatibility barrier was on the old Adaptec 2410s? Ask in the forums, your answer will be there quicker than Googling it. Need a plug-in to perform some network monitoring or management task? Chances are it already exists, or someone can knock you together one. Something like one million “Spiceheads” are always looking to “get spicy” and “max out their Spicemeter”. (It makes me wince too, but these are the actual terms in use.)

You can run your network from this thing. If you took the time to properly set it up with all of your equipment, it would be the application you have open in the foreground 80 per cent of the time. You could get lost in social interaction with other sysadmins. Not blathering aimlessly as though it was Twitter, but some sort of creepy work-focused groupthink that is what makes this application so very different.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I don’t do social networking. So for me it is the technical capabilities of Spiceworks that truly impress. Yet I need look no farther than the nearest Facebook or World Of Warcraft addict to realise that there is a huge chunk of the population for whom social networking is a powerful lure. Spiceworks is where social network actually becomes useful. It is where social networking contains information and tools to get your job done more efficiently; something you can use at work without any form of guilt whatsoever. It may simultaneously be the most brilliant and most terrifying application I have ever seen.

From a technical standpoint, Spiceworks is so very near perfect for SME desktop and network management that I think Microsoft and others need to be seriously afraid. Microsoft’s SME contender is the pathetic System Center Essentials (SCE), something that is handily surpassed by much lesser free programs than Spiceworks.

I’d go so far as to say that if Microsoft was looking for 'that something', this is it. It ticks all the boxes: 'cloud', 'social networking' and 'actually useful'. Someone should be at this very minute knocking on the doors of the folks who own Spiceworks and making them an offer they can’t refuse. After all, Spiceworks manages to continue to develop this excellent application funded entirely by either advertising or a $20 a month ad-free subscription. They’ve got to be doing something right. Once I find, (or write) a plug-in to get Spiceworks integrating with Webmin, I will have found my new desktop management application. ®