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6 Tools to Help Improve Network Performance

The network is slow. This is likely the single most heard phrase by network administrators.

There’s a reason for that, though. Networks often show signs of degraded performance. What do you do when that happens? You start looking for ways to improve network performance. There are several ways that can be accomplished.

We’ll start off today’s discussion by defining network performance. It is important that we all start on the same page. Then, we’ll have a look at some of the most popular ways one can improve the performance of a network.

As you’ll see, there are ways to improve network performance that won’t cost you a penny. They only need an investment of your time. And finally, since the best way to evaluate the performance of a network and measure the impact of any improvements is to monitor the performance of a network, we’ll have a look at a few of the best monitoring tools and some of the best network testing tools.

About Network Performance

Wikipedia defines network performance rather elegantly. “Network performance refers to measures of service quality of a network as seen by the customer”. There are three key elements to that definition. The first has to do with “measuring” performance. Performance is something that is measured. The second important concept is “quality”. Performance refers to quality. And last but certainly not least is “the customer”. Performance is experienced by users of the network.

In simpler terms, network performance is its ability to meet its users’ expectations. This can add some complexity. While performance can be objectively measured using the right tools and technologies, user perception is highly subjective. In any situation, two individuals could have a different perception and react differently. The same is true of networks where everyone can have a different perception of performance. And to make thing even more complicated, some network applications have smaller performance requirements while others need more. A well-performing network is one where the actual performance matches the usage, giving users a perception that all is working well.

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How To Improve It

There are several actions one can take to improve network performance. Let’s review some of the more common ones.

1. Prioritizing Traffic

An easy way of improving perceived performance is to ensure that the most important applications get priority. To achieve that, applications are allocated to classes of service (typically called platinum, gold, silver, and bronze), and routing policies are set for each class. For example, fifty percent of the available bandwidth could be reserved for platinum traffic. At the other end, only a few kilobits per second could be allocated to bronze traffic which typically includes things such as peer-to-peer file transfers such as torrents. While three or four categories are typical, but some organizations may use as many as six. Keep in mind that the more classes you use, the harder it is to manage.

2. Educating Users

By making sure your employees understand the effect that streaming videos at lunch can have on the entire company’s network performance, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief. Most users are not ill-intentioned, they just don’t realize the impact of their actions. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of this mining company which systematically experienced network slowdowns at lunchtime. The cause was traced to Doom sessions between staff at the mine head and those down the shaft. Once the problem was explained, play ceased.

3. Using Network Compression And Acceleration

There is a definite tendency in today’s businesses to rely more and more on big data. And together with this increase of data storage, increasingly large amounts of data also have to be moved across the network. And more network data means higher bandwidth utilization which, in turn, means performance degradation.

Compressing data—in much the same way as it is done with “zipped” files or the mp3 music format—does a great job of reducing the total volume of data transferred, thereby potentially improving performance.

Acceleration, another popular way of improving network performance, relies on preemptive transfers of data or deduplication. He result is a perception of better performance. And as we said earlier, perception is everything when talking about performance.

READ ALSO: Top 10 Intrusion Detection Tools

4. Protecting Against Junk Traffic

Another way to improve performance is to reduce overall traffic by protecting your network against junk traffic. Junk traffic refers to any unwanted and unnecessary traffic that can be hogging your network. Viruses are, for one, a good example of junk traffic generators. I recall this virus that infected computers and ran some collaborative key cracking software on infected computers, causing them to send rather big quantities of data back to their home. In this context, keeping your malware protection active and up-to-date is of the utmost importance in keeping junk traffic to the minimum.

Blocking junk traffic, either using firewalls or router access control lists is another common method that is used to keep junk traffic at bay. It is alas often easier to block this undesired traffic than to try to avoid it in the first place.

Monitoring Network Performance

It is one thing to improve performance but it’s even better if we can measure the improvements. One of the best ways we can achieve that is by using some sort of network monitoring tool. They are the types of tools that use the Simple Network Management Protocol to periodically read traffic counters from networking equipment and use that data to calculate the average traffic level. There are plenty of them to choose from but here are three of our favourites.

The Best Monitoring Tools

1. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (FREE TRIAL)

SolarWinds is one of the best-known vendors of network and system administration tools. It is known for making some of the best network administration tools. Among the most famous SolarWinds products are the NetFlow Traffic Analyzer and the Server and Application monitor. The company is also recognized for making excellent free tools, each addressing a specific need of network and system administrator such as the Advanced Subnet Calculator and the Kiwi Syslog Server.

SolarWinds’ flagship product is called Network Performance Monitor, or NPM. It is a full-featured network monitoring solution with great functionality. The SolarWinds NPM can poll any device using the SNMP protocol and read their operational parameters and interface counters. The tool then stores the results in an SQL database and uses the polled data to build graphs showing each network segment’s usage.

SolarWinds NPM - Network Summary

The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor features an easy to use GUI. Adding a device is as simple as specifying its IP address or hostname and SNMP community string. The tool then queries the device, lists all the SNMP parameters that are available, and allows you to pick those you want to monitor and display on your graphs.

Price for the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor starts at $2 995 and goes up according to the number of devices to monitor. A detailed quote can be obtained by contacting the SolarWinds sales team. Should you want to try the product before purchasing it, a free 30-day trial is available.

2. PRTG Network Monitor

The PRTG Network Monitor from Paessler AG is an agentless network monitoring system. Paessler claims that the PRTG Network Monitor can be set up in a couple of minutes. Our experience shows that it can take a bit more than that but that it is still very easy and quick, thanks to an auto-discovery feature that will scan your network, find devices, and automatically add them. The tool uses a combination of Ping, SNMP, WMI, NetFlow, jFlow, sFlow, but can also communicate via DICOM or the RESTful API.

PRTG Starburst Screenshot

One of the strengths of the PRTG Network Monitor is its sensor-based architecture. You can think of sensors as add-ons to the product except that they are already included and don’t need to be added. There are add-ons for virtually anything. For example, there are HTTP, SMTP/POP3 (e-mail) application sensors. There are also hardware-specific sensors for switches, routers, and servers. In all, there are over 200 different predefined sensors that retrieve statistics such as response time, processor, memory, database information, temperature or system status from the monitored devices.

The PRTG Network Monitor offers a selection of user interfaces. The primary one is an Ajax-based web interface. There’s also a Windows enterprise console as well as mobile apps for Android and iOS. One nice feature of the mobile apps is that they can use push notification of any alerts triggered from PRTG. More standard SMS or email notifications are also available. Although the server only runs on Windows, it can be administered from any device with an Ajax-compatible browser.

The PRTG Network Monitor is offered in two versions. There’s a free version which is full-featured but will limit your monitoring ability to 100 sensors. Note that each monitored parameter counts as one sensor and, for example, monitor 24 interfaces on a network switch will use up 24 sensors. If you need more than 100 sensors, you must purchase a license. Their prices start at $1 600 for 500 sensors. You can also get a free, sensor-unlimited and full-featured 30-day trial version.

3. ManageEngine OpManager

ManageEngine is another well-known maker of network management tools. Its OpManager tool is a complete management solution that will address most monitoring needs. The tool runs on either Windows or Linux and is loaded with excellent features. One of them is its auto-discovery feature which can map your network, giving you a uniquely customized dashboard.

The ManageEngine OpManager‘s dashboard is another of the tool’s strong points. It is super easy to use and navigate and has drill-down functionality. If you’re into mobile apps, they are available for tablets and smartphones allowing you to access the tool from anywhere. Overall, this is a very polished and professional product.

ManageEngine OpManager Dashboard

Alerting in OpManager is just as good as all its other components. There is a full complement of threshold-based alerts that will help detect, identify, and troubleshoot network issues. Multiple thresholds with various notifications can be set for every performance metric.

If you want to try the ManageEngine OpManager before buying, a free version is available. But rather than a time-limited trial, this one is feature-limited. It won’t, for instance, let you monitor more than ten devices. Although this could be enough for testing purposes, it is insufficient for all but the smallest networks. For more devices, you have to choose between the Essential or the Enterprise plans. The first will let you monitor up to 1,000 nodes while the other goes up to 10,000. Pricing information is available by contacting ManageEngine’s sales.

Testing the Network

But even more than monitoring tools, especially when dealing with improving network performance, testing tools are probably what you need. These tools can be used to generate traffic allowing you to see how the network behaves under stress. Other tools can be used to run actual point-to-point performance tests by simulating real user actions and measuring the time they take. We’ve tested many such tools and we’re glad to bring you the best three that we could find.

RELATED READING: 10 Best Managed File Transfer (MFT) Tools

Our Top Network Testing Tools

1. SolarWinds WAN Killer (Part Of The Engineer’s Toolset)

The same SolarWinds which brought us the Network Performance Monitor we just reviewed make a tool which can prove invaluable when it comes to testing networks. The only drawback is that it is only available as part of the SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset. On the other hand, that toolset is so packed with great utilities that it is well worth its price. In all, the toolset comes with some sixty different tools. Some of them are also available as standalone free tools but may of them are exclusive and can’t be obtained otherwise.

That being said, we’d like to introduce the WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator. And although it’s not a network performance testing tool per se, can be very useful in combination with other tools. Its sole purpose is generating network traffic. It allows administrators to use other performance testing tools for testing performance under high traffic situations, something that not many tools do by themselves.

The tool, which is part of the SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset, will let you easily set the IP address and hostname you want to send the random traffic to. It will also let you specify parameters such as port numbers, packet size, and percentage of bandwidth to use. It can even let you modify the Differentiated Services Code Point (DSCP) and Explicit Congest Notification (ECN) settings.

SolarWinds WAN Killer Screenshot

This tool’s primary use is for tasks such as testing traffic prioritization and load balancing. You can also use it to make sure that your network is correctly set up and that huge amounts of unimportant traffic—as generated by this tool—won’t have adverse effect critical traffic. The level of fine-tuning the tool allows will let you simulate almost any type of situation.

The SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset (including the WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator) sells for $1 495 per desktop installation. You’ll need one license for each user of the tool. But considering all the included tools, this is a very reasonable price. If you want to give the toolset a test-run, a 14-day trial version can be obtained from the SolarWinds website.

Wait! There’s More

The SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset includes several dedicated troubleshooting tools. Tools like Ping Sweep, DNS Analyzer and TraceRoute can be used to perform network diagnostics and help resolve complex network issues quickly. For the security-oriented administrators, some of the toolset’s tools can be used to simulate attacks and help identify vulnerabilities.

SolarWinds Engineer's Toolset - Home Screen

The toolset also features some excellent monitoring and alerting capabilities. Some of its tools will monitor your devices and raise alerts for availability or health issues. And finally, you can use some of the included tools for configuration management and log consolidation.

Here’s a list of some of the other tools you’ll find in the SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset:

  • Port Scanner
  • Switch Port Mapper
  • SNMP sweep
  • IP Network Browser
  • MAC Address Discovery
  • Ping Sweep
  • Response Time Monitor
  • CPU Monitor
  • Memory Monitor
  • Interface Monitor
  • TraceRoute
  • Router Password Decryption
  • SNMP Brute Force Attack
  • SNMP Dictionary Attack
  • Config Compare, Downloader, Uploader, and Editor
  • SNMP trap editor and SNMP trap receiver
  • Subnet Calculator
  • DHCP Scope Monitor
  • DNS Structure Analyzer
  • DNS Audit
  • IP Address Management

With so many tools included in the SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset, your best bet is most likely to give it a try and see for yourself what it can do for you. And with its free 14-day trial available, there is really no reason not to try it.

2. LAN Speed Test

LAN Speed Test from TotuSoft is a simple but powerful tool for measuring file transfer, hard drive, USB Drive, and network speeds. All you need to do is pick a destination on the server where you want to test the WAN connection. The tool will then build a file in memory and transfer it both ways while measuring the time it takes. It then does all the calculations for you and gives you an evaluation of the transfer’s performance.

LAN Speed Test Screenshot

You can also choose a computer running the LAN Speed Test Server instead of a shared folder as a destination. This effectively takes disk access component out of the equation, giving you a true measure of the network’s performance. The tool is initially set up in its Lite, feature-limited version. To access the advanced features of the standard version, you must purchase a license which is available for only ten dollars, with quantity discounts available. The tool is portable and will run on any Windows version since Windows 2000.

3. LAN Bench

Despite the fact that its developer’s site no longer exists, LAN Bench from Zack Saw is still readily available for download from several software download websites. It is a free and portable TCP network benchmarking utility. The tool is based on Winsock 2.2, a rather old framework but one with minimal CPU usage. That way, you can be reasonably sure that poor CPU performance won’t come and pollute your network performance test results. All the tool does is test the network performance between two computers but what it does, it does well.

LANBench Screenshot

You’ll need to run LAN Bench on two computers, at either end of the network segment you want to test. One instance runs as the server and the other one is the client. The server-side requires no configuration. All you need to do is click the Listen button. The tool’s testing configuration is all done on the client-side, before starting the test. You will need to specify the server’s IP address and you can adjust several testing parameters such as the total duration of the test, the packet size used for testing, as well as the connection and transfer mode.

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