10 great free downloads for your network

They're useful, easy to learn ... and don't cost a thing.

Got a small network, home network, medium-size network -- even an enterprise network -- and want to get the most out of it? Then I've got good news for you: 10 free pieces of software that can make your network easier to use, troubleshoot and maintain. These freebies will help everyone from networking pros to networking newbies and everyone in between.

There's plenty here for you -- great free tools for keeping your network secure; creating a quick, navigable network map; scanning networks and putting together a list of all connected devices; checking to see if your servers are up and running; even designing networks and more.

Note that I'm leaving out extremely popular and well-known free downloads, such as the Ethereal network protocol analyzer or Wireshark and am concentrating instead on lesser-known downloads.

And as a bonus, I'm including a review of an extra, for-pay, try-before-you-buy download that can help your network as well.

Network Magic

If you're looking for a simple, free, all-in-one network management tool for a small peer-to-peer network, this is the one to get. It handles all the basic network chores, including adding new devices to the network, fixing broken network connections, setting up wireless encryption and protection, sharing printers and folders, reporting on the state of the security of each PC, and much more. Wizards guide you through all these tasks and others. If you've got network experience, the wizards may or may not be useful, but those with moderate or less network experience will certainly find them helpful. But even if you're a network pro, there's a lot in this simple program you'll find worthwhile.

For example, the network map, pictured nearby, displays every device connected to your network, shows whether it's online or offline, and displays details about each, including the computer name, IP address, MAC address, operating system being used, shared folders, and system information such as its processor and RAM. It also lets you change the machine name, and it displays alerts about each device, such as if it isn't protected properly. Overall, it's far superior to Windows Vista's Network Map.

The software's Status Center is also useful. It displays overall information about your network, such as whether there are any problems with overall security or with an individual PC. It also lets you troubleshoot connections, shows whether there are any intruders on the network, and displays information about wireless protection.

Parents will appreciate some of Network Magic's features. For example, the software can monitor the use of any individual PC on the network for the Web sites it visits, the times the computer is online and which programs are being used, and then mail a daily report about it to an e-mail address. So it's ideal for parents who want to keep track of their kids' computer use. There's much more as well, including a bandwidth tester to show you your current Internet broadband speed.

Note that there are both paid and free versions of the software. The free version includes most basic features, such as repairing broken connections, issuing security alerts, monitoring network activity and the Network Map. The paid version, which costs from US$24 to US$40 (depending on how many PCs are on your network), delivers daily reports of Internet activity, supports remote access to your network's files and includes other advanced features.

When you install this program, you may need to tell your firewall to let this application access your network and the Internet.

Spiceworks IT Desktop

This freebie can help small or one-person shops with small and medium-size networks, although the complexity of its interface and some anomalies don't make it particularly useful for home networks. It's an all-in-one network inventory and management tool with a surprising number of features for a free piece of software.

The program will inventory your network and provide information about each device on it. It goes further than Network Magic and provides a significant amount of detail about each PC and device, including free and used disk space, antivirus software being used, problems on the device (such as server connection errors), and other information, as you can see in the nearby figure. It will even provide an inventory of the software installed on each PC, in quite a bit of detail, finding not just popular applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader, but lesser-known ones such as the FileZilla FTP client. I discovered, however, that it had a more difficult time than Network Magic finding all of my network devices; you may need to fine-tune permissions and log-ins to get it to work properly.

Note that when you install this program, you may need to tell your firewall to let this application access your network and the Internet.

The program includes a variety of other tools, such as easy access to ping and traceroute functions. And it attempts to be a help desk application as well. You can create help tickets with it, assign the ticket to others or yourself, and include due dates, priorities and so on. It's certainly no replacement for a full-blown help-desk application, but for a small office with a small IT staff, you can't argue with free.

Because the program doesn't always easily find all devices attached to the network, and it has some anomalies (some antivirus software may flag one of this software's components as a virus, for example), this isn't a perfect application. But it's free and simple to set up -- and for that reason alone, it's worth the download.

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Preston Gralla

Computerworld

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