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.