Managing your small business' computer assets becomes a challenge as your number of employees increases. When you start off with just two or three PCs, one person in the business probably knows most of the details of the computers and the software they run. But once you acquire more than five or ten PCs, keeping track is more difficult.

Does that Dell PC in payroll have 2GB of RAM, or does it have just 512MB and need a memory upgrade before you install Windows Vista? If you own 12 PCs and have 10 user licences for Microsoft Word, do you need to purchase more software licences or do you have some Word licences that remain unused since not all your PCs run the application?

You could track your computer assets manually by visiting each PC and taking notes of its hardware and software configuration. But a computer asset management tool such as Total Network Inventory can perform this task on demand by querying PCs on your network. You can easily update your asset list at any time and create reports such as a tally of the total number of software installations, organised by application.

Standardisation helps

Standardisation of hardware and software - using the same systems and applications - makes supporting and managing computers easier because you'll know what everyone uses. But while large enterprises typically do standardise on one or more computer models over a period of 12 to 18 months - for example, they will buy a certain Dell notebook or HP desktop during that time frame - most small businesses don't. Rather, they tend to purchase computers opportunistically - that is, they'll buy a PC when the need arises. And when that happens, they make their buying decisions based on special deals, sales, or bundles available at the time. The typical result is a mix of brands and varying configurations.

But while this makes asset management tools especially useful for small businesses, the big names in the sector - such as Tivoli from IBM and Unicenter Asset Management from Computer Associates - are aimed at, and priced for, large enterprises that manage hundreds or thousands of computers.

Total network inventory for small businesses

Total Network Inventory from Softinventive Lab doesn't have all the bells and whistles of a Tivoli or Unicenter, but the price - as low as $89 (£45) - is right for a small business.

The product is actually misnamed: Total Network Inventory does not track inventory, which includes goods you plan to resell to customers. Unless you're a computer store and want to track your demo gear, Total Network Inventory won't help you keep accurate records.

But it will help you tally and manage your computer hardware and software fixed assets - items you expect your business will use over a period of several years.

Setup can be time-consuming

Installing TNI is simple enough. You download the software from the company's website and install it on one PC. You don't need to install it on your other computers, provided they are all connected to the same network.

Getting TNI to survey all the PCs in your network may take time. You may need to adjust software firewalls on your PCs to permit access. And unless you already have a common Windows administration account, you'll need to provide TNI with a valid user account name and password for each networked PC you wish the software to scan.

But after this one-time setup, the scanning wizard requires just a minute or two to survey each PC. When the scan is complete, you can view hardware configuration details, including attached peripheral devices; installed software, including Windows updates; user accounts; and other information such as shared resources like printers and files.

You may opt to manually add additional information for each PC scanned, such as date of purchase, price, and physical location. You can also have TNI prepare reports on any or all of the assets scanned.

For Windows only

TNI does have a few limitations. For example, it works only on Windows PCs, so it's not suitable for managing mixed-OS systems. While TNI recognised the Linux-based network-attached storage device on my Windows network, it could not determine its configuration - even such basics as how many disks it contains or its total storage capacity.

If you have older PCs running Windows 95, 98, or NT, you may also have to install WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) software, a free download from Microsoft.

TNI didn't drill down as deeply as I would have liked on a few hardware details. For example, while it recognised a RAID hard drive configuration, it didn't get a good handle on the individual hard drives that made up the array, describing them as based on the SCSI interface when in fact they are SATA drives. Furthermore, while the reports are comprehensive, they aren't as customisable as I'd like.

Keep tabs on growth

You can use a free evaluation copy of TNI for up to 30 days to manage up to 25 networked devices. If you want to use it after the month is up, you'll need to buy a licence.

While TNI has its limitations, it's an inexpensive tool that lets you keep tabs on your computer assets and helps you manage them better. For this, it definitely beats a pen and notebook.

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