Start-up offers free management tool - with a Google twist

Spiceworks IT Desktop will monitor systems and networks for free, as long as IT managers don't mind ads running in the GUI.

An Austin start-up intends to shake up the IT management market for small to midsize users by making its monitoring software available for free.

The catch is that customers of Spiceworks' IT Desktop software have to agree to allow technology-related ads, via Google AdSense, to appear on their management console screens.

Spiceworks says its software can be used to manage networks with up to 250 devices. The agent-less application can provide inventory, status and monitoring data on networked systems.

The company, founded in January by former executives from management automation software company Motive, garnered $5 million in venture funding in June. The start-up says the bulk of its revenue will come from the clickable ads featured in its IT Desktop console program. For users, that means they see a list of clickable ads regarding the subject they are monitoring, though more than three-quarters of the screen will still be devoted to the management program, the company says.

For instance, if an IT manager is checking the status of a storage device, the links listed could point to data backup and recovery companies. When users click on the links, Spiceworks gets a cut of the action.

"We will get paid for referring that person that clicked on the ad to the online Web site," explains Jay Hallberg, Spiceworks founder and vice president of marketing (and former vice president of product management at Motive).

About 200 users have already downloaded and participated in an alpha testing program.

Spiceworks IT Desktop software installs on an IT manager's workstation and inventories systems, clients and other IP-based devices through agent-less discovery methods using open protocols such as Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) and Secure Shell (SSH).

The software is best suited for small to midsize companies, says CEO Scott Abel, who says he saw a gap in network and systems management products available from industry veterans such as BMC, CA, HP and IBM Tivoli. It's not a full-blown enterprise management platform, he adds, and would more likely compete with applications from AdventNet, Alloy Software and Solarwinds.

Will Ballard, vice president and CTO of another Austin start-up called Pluck, downloaded Spiceworks IT Desktop about five weeks ago to help him keep tabs on dynamic DNS updates - which can make a device unavailable and cause network tests to break down. Ballard supports about 40 servers, 30 workstations and 30 employees at the Web-based company, which helps traditional publishing companies with Web tools such as blogs, podcasts and other online community-building programs. He says he tracks application performance by monitoring response time from external sources, and relies on Spiceworks to monitor internal systems.

"I'd like to see the application grow to support our network as it grows beyond 300 machines, because it's not a clunky application and seems to fit in well with our Web-based environment," he says.

For Lee Colvin, network administrator at Nanocoolers, also based in Austin, Spiceworks software helps him "generate a detailed network map including software applications installed on all machines connected to the network," which includes eight servers and 32 workstations.

Despite the unpopularity of adware -- and the more malicious spyware -- Spiceworks users seem to remain unfazed by the ads populating the management interface.

"The software doesn't have access to private files or databases. It can only populate the ads based on the Web page that is right in front of you," says Ballard. "It is adware, but compared to the cost of actually buying network management software, seeing the ads don't bother me a bit. It's worth the trade-off."

Spiceworks IT Desktop will be available for download Monday from the company's Web site.

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