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How the Economic Downturn is Driving IT Innovation

Executive Summary:
Tough economic conditions could give innovative IT vendors--like Spiceworks and NComputing--an opportunity to grow their businesses while simultaneously helping IT pros improve efficiency and trim expenses.

Many IT pros have been forced to cut budgets and trim staff over the last 12 months, a situation that often results in fewer people working longer hours to get the same amount of work done. Trying economic times like these have led some IT pros to look for IT solutions they may not have considered in better economic conditions. Necessity is most definitely the mother of invention, and two IT vendors may find themselves well-positioned to fit the needs of resource-starved IT staff: Spiceworks and NComputing.

Spiceworks: Free (and Community-Powered) IT Management Software
Launched in 2006, Spiceworks is a free, ad-supported IT management app that is aimed at small and medium businesses with up to 500 devices. Spiceworks can be used to monitor, inventory, and troubleshoot IT networks. It also includes a fully-featured help desk module, and the latest version adds a slick visual network mapping feature and support for management plug-ins from Intel, Trend Micro, Microsoft, and other vendors. It also adds a community-powered Windows event feature that lets IT pros leverage the knowledge of thousands of other Spiceworks users in the Spiceworks IT Network to help them troubleshoot and solve network problems. Scott Abel, co-founder and CEO of Spiceworks, claims that Spiceworks is currently used by more than 700,000 IT pros, who in turn support more than 22 million end users.

Craig McCarty, the corporate IT manager for Soil & Environmental Consultants in Raleigh, NC, has been a Spiceworks customer since version 1.5. "I was initially looking for an inventory system and help desk application, and Spiceworks seemed to have the features I needed," McCarty told me in a phone interview. "Being very easy to use—and free—made it an even more attractive product."

McCarty is the only IT administrator at his organization, and uses Spiceworks to manage 35 employees using about 70 different computing devices. The new network inventory feature is a favorite, but McCarty sees the extensive Spiceworks online community—which is integrated tightly with the Spiceworks application—as an even more valuable feature. "The community is tightly integrated with the Spiceworks product," McCarty said. "The community provides valuable information that I couldn't get from just using the application alone."

NComputing: The Next Generation Thin Client?
Over the last few years, rapid advances in virtualization, network performance, and computing power have combined to potentially create a unique environment for a new class of computing devices. NComputing president and CEO Stephen Dukker thinks so, and has spent the last few years creating an ultra low-cost desktop virtualization platform that Dukker claims offers huge improvements over the traditional thin-client computing approach.

The NComputing model has multiple dumb terminals sharing a single, low-cost server running NComputing's custom desktop virtualization software. Dukker—who was also the former chairman of low-cost PC manufacturer eMachines—told me that NComputing has deployed at least 2 million seats in more than 100 countries over the last few years, with the bulk of their business coming from countries outside the U.S. NComputing inked a deal with the United Nations to provide more than 500,000 computer workstations in developing nations, and also joined forces with manufacturing giant LG Electronics to embed their virtualization software in a new line of LCD monitors that can serve thin -client workstations, driving down the cost of a potential NComputing solution even further.

So what does NComputing offer that traditional thin-client solutions don't? "We provide a much better PC experience for the end user," says Dukker. "Our system doesn't provide a laggy or 'half-a-PC' experience. Our desktop virtualization software is developed in-house. Let's put it this way: It's as if VMware married Citrix and had a better looking kid."

Matt Kandefer, a programming supervisor at Altek Electronics, opted for the NComputing platform to supply workstations providing instructions to employees working on an assembly line. In a phone interview, Kandefer told me that the switch was roughly half the cost of comparable systems from other vendors. "We've had very few problems. We did have some initial issues with virus scan software, but NComputing helped us solve those problems," Kandefer said. "We started off with traditional Windows XP workstations—which ran great—but this \[NComputing\] approach is less expensive and gets us out of being forced to upgrade our software every 5 years."

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