LAN monitoring is a hot topic. And it is one of the most important tasks of any network administrator. Unfortunately, one cannot just look at the network and see that all is running smoothly. However, when something goes wrong, users will notice it right away and start complaining. It is to avoid these situations you need LAN monitoring tools. However, choosing the right tool can be a handful. With so many competing products to choose from features to compare, it could take weeks to sort it all out. This is where we come in. We’ve compiled this list of the 10 best LAN monitoring tools.
In today’s article, we’ll first attempt to better explain the need for LAN monitoring tools the different types of tools that exist. We’ll then briefly discuss SNMP and explain how the protocol is your best friend when it comes to monitoring networks. Then, we’ll proceed with our actual list of the 8 best LAN monitoring tools. For each one, we’ll include a brief review of the product and its main features.
The Need For LAN Monitoring Tools
Many people compare networks to a highway and network data to the vehicles using the highway. It is a good analogy as both handle traffic and can be affected by different issues such as congestion appears whenever traffic is too high. But unlike a highway where you can just have a look and see the status of the traffic, traffic on a network in invisible. For starters, it happens within cables where current flow cannot be observed. Even worse, it happens over the air in wireless networks where it also is invisible. Furthermore, network traffic flows at–or very close to–the speed of light, way to fast for one to see it, even if it were visible.
To get some visibility over what’s happening on your network, you need some sort of monitoring tool. These tools typically take considerable efforts to set them up but, once they are up and running, they make an administrator’s life much easier.
Different Types Of Monitoring Tools
In its simplest form, a monitoring tool will simply check your network devices and ensure they are all functioning. This is not limited to network equipment, though. Any device that is attached to the network–which can include servers or even workstations–can be monitored that way. These systems will typically generate some form of alerts when a monitored device goes stops responding. Some will also generate reports that show the uptime of each device in percentage.
But the best systems go further than just checking if devices are up. The best systems will use the Simple Network Management Protocol–or SNMP–to fetch operational data from the monitored devices. For example, these tools will read a device’s interface counters to calculate each interface’s bandwidth utilization. Other parameters that can be monitored include the processor or memory utilization. Each will give administrators a better feel for the general health of their networks.
SNMP In A Nutshell
The Simple Network Management Protocol was initially created to collect and organize information about managed devices and to modify that information to change device behavior. SNMP support is typically included in routers, switches, servers, workstations, printers, and more.
SNMP-enabled devices expose a certain number of parameters. Some are read-only while other can also be written to. They are referred to by SNMP monitoring systems by their Object IDentifier or OID. Le list of all the OIDs for a particular device is referred to as the Management Information Base or MIB. Some monitoring systems will require that you manually load the MIB file for each of your devices in order to be able to access their OIDs. Others have all the common MIBs pre-loaded. Also, some MIBs are generic while others are device specific.
Here’s how it works. Let’s suppose, for the sake of this example that a LAN monitoring tool needs to know the bandwidth utilization of a particular switch port. There isn’t, unfortunately, an OID for bandwidth on SNMP-enable devices. There are, however, two counters for each interface called bytes in and bytes out that can be read through SNMP. So, the monitoring system will poll the switch every 5 minutes and read these values using SNMP. It will then subtract the previous value of the counter from the current one, the result being the number of bytes in and out since the last poll, five minutes ago. Next, it multiplies these number by 8, since there are 8 bits to a byte and we want bandwidth in bits per second. Finally, it divides the number of bits by 300–the number of seconds in five minutes–to get the bandwidth utilization in bits per second.
The rest has nothing to do with SNMP but monitoring systems will normally store that calculated data in some form of file or database and use it to build real-time bandwidth utilization graphs or reports.
The Best LAN Monitoring Tools — Our Top 8 List
So, now that you better understand–hopefully–how LAN monitoring tools operate, the time has come to reveal our top 10 list of the best LAN monitoring tools. As you’ll see our list has a mix of commercial and free software. Some are more bare-bones than others. Some will be better suited for smaller installations while other will scale up to huge networks spread over multiple sites.
Here’s our top 10 list:
- SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor
- What’sUp Gold
- ManageEngine OpManager
- ConnectWise Automate
SolarWinds has a solid reputation for making some of the best network and system administration tools. It is also famous for its numerous free tools. SolarWind’s flagship product, the Network Performance Monitor or NPM is one of the best LAN monitoring tools there are.
SolarWinds NPM uses SNMP to poll multiple network devices and gets traffic statistics from their interfaces. The results are stored in an SQL database and displayed as graphs depicting each interface’s usage. Adding a device to the system is as simple as specifying its IP address or hostname and SNMP connection parameters. The tool then queries the device and list all the SNMP OIDs that are available and let you decide which you want to include on your graphs. For example, a network switch or router will typically have traffic and error counters for each interface as well as CPU and memory utilization counters.
Oe of the best features NPM is its scalability. The tool will scale to the smallest of networks up to large networks consisting of tens of thousands of distributed hosts. Other features of NPM include the ability to build network maps and display a visual representation of the critical path between two devices or services.
Pricing for SolarWinds Network Performace Monitor starts at around USD 3 000 and varies according to the number of devices to monitor and the selected optional components. If you’re not just yet ready to invest that much money in a product you don’t know, a free 30-day trial is available.
Download link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-performance-monitor
2. What’sUp Gold 2017
The main interest of WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch is that it is both super easy to use and yet highly configurable. It also has attractive dashboards that are not only pretty but also very user-friendly and customizable to display your IT infrastructure. Of course, the tool also has configurable alerts that can be configured to respond to various events such as in interface bandwidth utilization reaching or exceeding a set threshold. What’sUp Gold offers an excellent price vs features balance. Possibly one of the best on the market.
A few other important features of the product’s latest version are hybrid cloud monitoring, real-time performance monitoring, automatic and manual failover and extended visibility to distributed networks. The pricing structure of What’sUp Gold is somewhat complicated with three different tiers and different levels within each tier. They start ar around USD 1 000 and a free trial can be downloaded.
Often simply called PRTG, the Paessler Router Traffic Grapher is another excellent monitoring solution. According to Paessler, PRTG can be set up in a couple of minutes. Our experience, however, reveals that it could take you a bit longer than that to get it fully configured to your liking.
As for the product’s features, they are as impressive as numerous. For instance, there are several different user interfaces: a native Windows enterprise console, an Ajax-based web interface, and mobile apps for Android and iOS. One feature of the mobile apps we particularly loved is the possibility to scan a QR code label–that you can print from within PRTG and affix to your devices–to access the device’s graphs.
The Paessler website lets choose between two different versions of PRTG. There’s the free version–which will limit your monitoring ability to 100 sensors–or the free 30-day trial version. The system counts each monitored parameter as one sensor. For example, monitoring bandwidth on each port of a 48-port switch will require 48 sensors. And if you also want to monitor the switch’s CPU and memory loads, you’ll need two more sensors.
4. ManageEngine OpManager
The ManageEngine OpManager is yet another excellent LAN Monitoring system from a more-than-reputable vendor. The tool. which runs on Windows or Linux has many great features. For example, its auto-discovery utility will map your network and display it graphically on the dashboard. We also liked the color-coded miniature graphs and other tools at the top of the page.
Talking about the dashboard, it has drill-down functionality. You can also opt for the app for tablets and smartphones that will let you access network status information from anywhere. Overall, this is a very polished and professional product which means it comes at a premium price.
There’s a free version if you want to familiarize yourself with the product’s features. It will let you monitor up to ten devices so it could also be used for a very small network. Although the free version has a reduced feature set, you still get the same level of system notification as the paid version. As for paid versions, there are essentially two plans: Essential and Enterprise. The first will let you monitor up to 1,000 nodes while the other goes up to 10,000. Both include the monitoring of WAN and voice systems.
When talking about Nagios, we’re actually talking about two products. First, there’s Nagios Core. This is an open-source monitoring system that runs on Linux. The system is completely modular with the actual Nagios Core as the main monitoring engine. This is complemented by some 50 plugins that can be downloaded to add functionality to the system. Keeping with the modular approach, there are also different community-developed front ends also available for download. Together, they make for a quite complete albeit somewhat “Frankesteinesque” monitoring system. Needless to say that setting up Nagios Core can be a daunting task.
Nagios XI is a commercial product based on the Nagios Core engine. It targets a wide audience from SMBs to large corporations. Nagios XI is much easier to install and configure, thanks to its configuration wizard and auto-discovery engine. Price wise, you’ll pay around USD 2 000 for a 100-node license and up to USD 20 000 for an unlimited one.
Cacti is a complete network monitoring tool. It is based on RRDTool and uses its data storage and graphing functionality. Cacti includes a fast poller, advanced graph templating, and multiple data acquisition methods. There are also user management features built right into the product. It features an intuitive, easy to use web-based interface. The product scales very well from small single LAN installations up to complex networks with thousands of devices.
To better understand Cacti, you might want to get to know RRDtool. As its developer puts it, “RRDtool is the OpenSource industry standard, high-performance data logging and graphing system for time series data. RRDtool can be easily integrated into shell scripts, Perl, Python, Ruby, Lua or Tcl applications.”
Cacti is a frontend–or, more precisely, a wrapper–for RRDTool. It uses RRD tool to store fetch and store data in a MySQL database and also to create graphs based on that data. The software is entirely written in PHP and is released under the GPL license. This means that anyone is free to modify it and adapt it to his needs.
7. ConnectWise Automate
ConnectWise Automate is a new–well, not exactly new, it used to be known as Labtech–cloud-based IT infrastructure managing and monitoring solution. The tool will automatically discover all devices in your network and proactively monitor them. Part SIEM tool, ConnectWise Automate can interpret problems and initiate pre-defined actions to mitigate them.
The tool is very aptly named as automation is built right into its core. The main idea behind the product is to automate things as much as possible, leaving network administrators free to perform other tasks. Automate even comes with ConnectWise Control, a remote control solution, making it even more of a network administrator’s multi-tool.
Primarily geared towards small and medium businesses, Automate’s pricing is based on quotes. Pricing varies mainly based on the number of managed endpoints. And if you want to try the product before committing to buying it, a free trial can be arranged.
The Multi Router Traffic Grapher, or MRTG, is the granddaddy of SNMP monitoring tools. But we’re not including it in this list just for its historical significance. It is still in widespread usage, even though it’s been around since 1995. MRTG, which is free and open-source might not be the fanciest and the prettiest but it is arguably the most flexible. MRTG can not only monitor bandwidth. It can monitor, log, and graph any SNMP parameter.
There are two main components to MRTG, a Perl script that reads SNMP data from target devices and a C program that takes the data, stores it in a round-robin database and create web pages with bandwidth utilization graphs. Cacti is mostly written in Perl, letting anyone customize it to their specific needs. Available for Windows or Linux, MRTG’S initial setup and configuration might be somewhat more complicated than with other monitoring systems but documentation is readily available.
MRTG is best downloaded directly from its developer’s website. It is available as a .zip file for windows or a tarball for Linux. It might not be the most user-friendly monitoring system but it is possibly the most flexible one. And the fact that it’s the first monitoring system and that it is still around proves its value.
If you need some visibility of what’s happening on your network, you need some sort of LAN monitoring tool. We’ve just introduced you to the 8 best such tools we could find. Some are better for smaller setups while others scale up nicely. But most importantly, all are free or have an available free trial. Setting up these tools can require some efforts so you probably won’t want to try them all. They are all excellent choices and once you’ve set one up for a trial, chances are you’ll stick with it.