Ad-Supported Software Proves Popular With Small Businesses

Spiceworks is adding more IT management features to its free, ad-supported software, for which over 5,000 customers have signed up in about a month's time.
When there's no cost, the price is right, at least for small companies. One month after its July 31 launch, Spiceworks has attracted more than 5,000 small- and medium-sized businesses in over 80 countries to its Spiceworks IT Desktop, the company's free, browser-based, ad-supported IT management software.

To help attract even more customers, Spiceworks on Friday plans to introduce its fourth beta release in 43 days. The Spiceworks IT Desktop's new features include:

- the addition of e-mail alerts that can be set up to notify administrators of certain network conditions, such as lack of storage space or the introduction of new hardware or software to the network

- the ability to attach searchable notes to network devices

- software compliance reporting

- the ability to compare device configurations

- improved Mac OS X and Linux information collection

- enhanced network printer information, such as ink and toner levels

These features are in addition to the network discovery, inventory, and monitoring tools Spiceworks had already announced.

Such a frantic rate of revision fits a market with a lot of action. In April, NetCraft Communications introduced Versiera, a hosted network management and monitoring service that includes a basic free offering as well as more expensive enterprise plans. In August, FiveRuns announced the availability of its hosted systems management service for $60 per server, per month. (August also saw the release of tangentially related hosted services from Google. That's when Google opened its free Web metrics service, Google Analytics, to the general public and launched its free, private-label e-mail, IM, and calendar tool suite, Google Apps for Your Domain.)

Jonathan Chorney, systems administrator for 47-person Wilmington, Del.-based accounting firm Master, Sidlow & Associates, gives Spiceworks high marks for helping him manage his biggest problem: staying aware of what's happening on his network. "It sounds like a really simply thing," he says, "but if you've ever looked at the log files on any Windows server, it's a nightmare."

"The Spiceworks tool is really helpful because it goes out, finds out everything about your network, and all that information is at hand," says Travis Hunter, manager for IT and administrative services at the National Partnership for Women & Families, a 30-person nonprofit workplace advocacy group. "It's a huge time-saver."

One of the things that Spiceworks does, Chorney says, is that it allows you to set up an alert that notifies you when you start running out of storage space on your system drive. This just happened recently, he explains. Prompted to investigate, he says, "I discovered that when we migrated from Notes to Exchange, all of the migration stuff was left on the system drive." As a result, he removed 2 Gbytes' worth of migration information he didn't need.

Spiceworks can also help keep networks secure. Chorney says his company, as an accounting firm, has to be very careful about protecting confidential information. "I'm sure you can understand how nervous a lot of us got when Google Desktop Search came out," he says, "because there's a potential there for an inadvertent disclosure of really critical information." (Google has since addressed this issue with administrative controls.)

Chorney credits Spiceworks with alerting him to the fact that two of the laptops on his network had Google Desktop Search installed, something he attributes to Google's deal with Sun that adds an option to get Google Desktop Search through Sun Java downloads. "In a relatively short period of time," he says, "this thing paid for itself in terms of reducing the risk of exposure of critical data."

Chorney pays the free-of-charge Spiceworks back by clicking on ads every so often, knowing that Spiceworks derives its revenue from the Google AdSense program. As a "publisher," Spiceworks splits the click cost paid by Google advertisers with Google. "I'm old-fashioned," he explains. "I'm the kind of guy that when I check out at the grocery store and I get 25 cents change too much and I recognize it, I give it back. My understanding of the way this works is they're supported by click-throughs. So when I open it up, I remember to click a few times. I'm keeping up my end of the bargain."

As it happens, this practice sounds a lot like Google's definition for "invalid clicks," a term Google prefers to the decidedly more ominous "click fraud." One of the definitions Google offers is: "Manual clicks intended to increase your advertising costs or to increase profits for website owners hosting your ads."

Though Chorney's actions appear to be well-intentioned and, unlike traditional click-fraud scenarios, his clicks provide no direct benefit to him beyond sustaining a service he finds beneficial, it's open to question whether online advertisers want to pay for clicks driven by gratitude rather than genuine curiosity about a product or a real impulse to buy.

However, the ads presented through the Spiceworks software have prompted Chorney to consider a possible purchase. He says he saw a link for an IP PBX telephone system that happens to be something he anticipates his company will need in the future.

Hunter says he doesn't find the ads particularly intrusive. He also says he hasn't made any purchase as a result of the ads. Spiceworks, he says, "is extremely useful. In that sense, it isn't such a big price to pay [to have ads]."