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Best Tools to Maximize Network Bandwidth and Analyze Usage

Network bandwidth is one of those things we seem to never have enough of. And bandwidth is also one of those things that we always need more of. It’s a fact of life. No matter how much of it we have, our need will increase with use. This is why maximizing bandwidth is so important. By maximizing bandwidth, we mean making the most of what we have and making sure that what we consider to be more “important” traffic is not blocked by “junk” traffic.  This is why we’re about to present a few tips and a few tools that can help in your quest for maximizing network bandwidth.

We’ll begin our discussion by talking about analyzing your bandwidth usage because you first need to know what you’re dealing with in order to maximize it. Then, we’ll discuss bandwidth issues in general and capacity planning with regards to bandwidth. Next, we’ll talk about a few ways you can maximize bandwidth through topology optimization, traffic shaping, load balancing, and by implementing and enforcing usage policies. And finally, we’ll briefly review a handful of tools that can help you in your efforts to maximize network bandwidth.

Before You Maximize, Analyze

Before you even start thinking about maximizing network bandwidth, you need to know what you’re dealing with. You need to analyze your bandwidth usage. There are basically two types of analysis you can do. The first is measuring bandwidth usage. This will tell you if there are places on your network where allocated bandwidth is insufficient. If there are such places, you’ll most likely want to start your optimization efforts there.

The other kind of analysis you can perform is even more useful. There are several ways you can do it but it’s mostly done by flow analysis or packet sniffing. The result will tell you what is using the bandwidth. It will let you discover which applications, services or users are consuming the most bandwidth. On a large corporate network, you’ll probably have a few surprises and discover network uses you didn’t even know existed.

Our recent article: 15 Best Network Monitoring Tools Put to Test in 2018 will provide some useful tips on the best tools you can you to perform either type of network analysis.

But analysis is not only about learning about the current situation, it’s also about measuring or visualizing the improvements that your maximizing efforts will bring. By first establishing a baseline, it will be much easier to later precisely measure and report on any improvements you make.

Bandwidth Issues

Bandwidth issues are the most common problem of modern networks. It has to do with the way computing, networking, and the Internet are evolving. With the reduction in size and the increases in the power of computing devices, developers are producing more and more bandwidth-hungry products. Systems manipulate bigger and bigger amounts of data, online videos are now commonly in HD and even simple websites are richer in heavy content than ever.

The consequence of this rapid evolution is that the needs in bandwidth are ever-increasing. Any network that is correctly sized today will eventually become congested unless something is done to either increase its bandwidth and maximize its utilization. And since increasing bandwidth is so expensive–especially when considering WAN circuits, maximizing bandwidth is often the preferred solution.

Capacity Planning

No matter whether you choose to increase bandwidth or to maximize its usage, capacity planning is the key. Capacity planning implies a deep knowledge of the current situation and of its past evolution. For instance, if you’ve measured that the utilization of one of your WAN circuits doubles every year while all the others’ evolve at a much slower pace, it makes sense to address that specific circuit first. With careful capacity planning, a network administrator will be able to ensure that bandwidth issues rarely occur. Planning will also take care of the budgeting aspect of any improvement effort. Both adding bandwidth and maximizing it have a cost. If you plan interventions soon enough, you’ll be able to include the expense in your budget.

Different Ways You Can Optimize Your Network

There are a few ways you can maximize your network usage. Some of them can even be implemented at low or no cost. Others, like traffic shaping or load balancing, will require purchasing specialized equipment. The cost of this equipment, however, will often be lower than adding bandwidth, especially when considering the long term.

Topology Optimization

Topology optimization is a complex matter. In the context of maximizing network bandwidth, it can be simpler. Starting with the assumption that LAN bandwidth if often available at a low cost but that WAN or Internet bandwidth can be more costly, it’s clear to see that you can improve things by moving data as close as possible to their users.

Let’s take the example of a large corporation with multiple locations. If most of their accounting staff is located in one place, it makes sense to host the accounting system in that same location. Of course, that won’t work with Internet services or cloud-based apps. But still, some degree of topology optimization can be achieved. For instance, taking the same large corporation as before, it could make more sense for them to have localized Internet connections in each location instead of centralizing it. Each local Internet circuit could have a lower bandwidth while still providing better performance.

No matter what form of topology optimization you envision, a deep knowledge of the current network topology will assist in making the right decisions. When we discuss the tools that one can use in the context of maximizing network bandwidth, we’ll introduce a tool that can assist in mapping your current network topology.

Traffic Shaping

Traffic shaping deals with protecting “important” traffic from network congestion. It won’t stop congestion but it will ensure that even in cases of network congestion, your important traffic will go through. Traffic shapers are typically appliances that you insert between your network and your Internet gateway. They’ll first analyze traffic and let you know what applications, websites, and/or types of traffic are most prevalent. Armed with a good knowledge of the current status if your bandwidth utilization, you’ll be able to make decisions as to how you want to shape traffic.

For example, suppose we’ve installed a traffic shaper on the Internet connection of a large corporation. We let it run in analysis mode for a while–perhaps a couple of weeks–and realize that 50% of the traffic is towards social networking sites. In might be different in your organization but, in that one, there’s no reason for employees to spend any time on social networks. It is then a simple task to configure the traffic shaper to either completely block social networking sites. And if you don’t want to be that drastic–after all, some users might have a legitimate reason for using social networks–you could limit its usage to no more than 5% of the total available bandwidth. At the other end of the spectrum, instead of limiting or blocking “unwanted” traffic, you can also use traffic shapers to prioritize certain services or even reserve a portion of the bandwidth for them.

Load Balancing

Network load balancing used to be about distributing the users’ connections to several servers in order to decrease the load on each one. For instance, if you had a web server that couldn’t handle more than 1000 simultaneous users but consistently had more, you were able to add a second server and balance incoming requests between the two. In this situation, both servers were often next to one another.

But with the evolution of load balancing, it is now possible to do it between servers in different locations. How can that assist in maximizing bandwidth, you may ask? Well, you could, for example, have accounting system servers in multiple locations and have users automatically connect to the one closest to them. Some load balancing systems will also let users connect not only to the closest but, more importantly, to the best in terms of user experience, considering not only the location but also the current load on the servers and their access paths.

Implementing Policies (And Enforcing Them)

Sometimes, maximizing bandwidth usage is best done at the user level. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to maximize network bandwidth is to have a set of acceptable use policies. If you don’t think that users should go on social networking sites, you can simply inform them that it is not permitted. Just a simple communication will often do miracles to reduce bandwidth consumption. During the last football World Cup, the Internet bandwidth usage where I was working had skyrocketed to unprecedented summits, particularly at lunchtime. A communication was sent to all employees informing them that streaming football matches to their computers was not allowed. Almost immediately, we saw Internet bandwidth usage go almost back to the level it was previously.

But policies, no matter how good they are, won’t necessarily solve anything if nothing is done to enforce them. There will always be users who think they have a good reason to access something that’s not allowed. Enforcing usage policies can be as simple as properly configuring firewalls to block unwanted traffic. Especially with modern firewalls that do deep packet inspection, restricting things such as social networking is quite easy an often only requires checking a box.

A Few Handy Tools To Help Maximize Bandwidth

Of course, having some tools can make an administrator’s life much easier when it comes to maximizing network bandwidth. Most of the tools we’re about to show you deal with the analysis portion of it. After all, it is the most important part as it will allow you to evaluate the current situation and then measure the improvements that your optimization efforts bring.

1. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (FREE Trial)

SolarWinds is a household name in the networking tools market. The company has been around for a long time and has made some of the best free tools as well as some of the best paid ones. A few of their products can help you in your quest to optimize network bandwidth.

The Network Performance Monitor, or NPM, is SolarWinds’ flagship product. At its base is a network monitoring platform which uses the Simple Network Management Protocol to poll devices, get their interfaces’ bit counters and compute bandwidth utilization. The tool will store measurements in a database and use them to build graphics showing bandwidth utilization over time.

SolarWinds NPM Summary

FREE 30-DAY TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor

NPM’s primary use, in the context of bandwidth maximization, is in evaluating the current baseline in order to compare it with measurements done after modifying the network, providing a quantitative evaluation of the improvement.

2. SolarWinds NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (FREE Trial)

Another excellent tool from SolarWinds is its NetFlow Traffic Analyzer. This tool, as its name implies, uses the NetFlow protocol–or some of its variants–to gather detailed usage information about your network. NetFlow is different from SNMP polling in many ways. It gathers more qualitative information about network usage. A tool such as the NetFlow Traffic Analyzer will give you detailed information not only on the quantity of data traversing your network but also what this data is.

SolarWinds NTA Dashboard Summary

FREE 30-DAY TRIAL: SolarWinds Netflow Traffic Analyzer

The tool can show you top talkers and listeners, top protocols, top applications, etc. It is one of the most useful tools you can have to analyze your network and figure out where there’s room for optimizations that can maximize network bandwidth.

These two tools from SolarWinds complete each other quite well. Often, network administrators will want to have them both. Realizing that, SolarWinds also packages the two tools in a bundle which they call the Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack. Just like the individual tools, a free 30-day trial is available.

3. SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (FREE Trial)

If topology optimization is how you’ve decided to maximize network bandwidth, the SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper might be just the right tool for you. Recall you we said that having an in-depth knowledge of the current topology is paramount? This tool will greatly help you with that. The software will automate device discovery and mapping. It can build multiple maps from a single scan and export network diagrams to Visio. You’ll be able to edit and modify them to your liking. Another useful feature if this tool is its autodetection of changes in network topology.

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper

FREE 14-DAY TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper

As an additional feature, the Network Topology Mapper can also be used to manage your network equipment inventory. The tool also boasts a reporting engine that you can use to create detailed reports to track hardware inventory, switch port data, VLANs, subnets, and more. If you want to try the tool before committing to buying it, a 14-day free trial is available.

4. SolarWinds Engineers Toolset (Free Trial)

As useful as the SolarWinds tools we just discussed are, they can be expensive and out of reach for some organizations. SolarWinds also proposes a very useful set of tools it calls the Engineers Toolset. While the purpose of this toolset is different from the products we’ve just introduced, it still features many tools that can help with your efforts to maximize network bandwidth.

SolarWinds Engineers Toolset Desktop Console

FREE 14-DAY TRIAL: SolarWinds Engineers Toolset

This is a huge package. Too big, actually, to be able to discuss all of its features. It includes over 60 different tools. Let’s see what some of the most important are. There’s automated network discovery that will discover all your networking equipment, MAC to IP address relationships, switch port mappings, and more. The toolset also features real-time monitoring and alerting although on a smaller scale than full-featured products like NPM. You can also use it as a network diagnostics tool to help you troubleshoot network issues faster and quickly resolve even the more complex ones. It incorporates a tool that you can use to simulate attacks on your network and identify security issues. The bundle also include a tool to manage networking equipment configurations.

But the Engineer Toolset is not just a bunch of tools sold together. It comes with a centralized dashboard from where you can easily access all of the tools. And at less than $1500, the Engineer Toolset is very competitively priced, especially when you consider all that you get for your money. If you want to give the Engineer Toolset a try, a free 14-day trial is available.

5. WhatsUp Gold

Once a very simple tool whose primary purpose was to alert administrators when a device went down, WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch has grown into a full-fledged network monitoring tool. It starts with an autodiscovery process that runs right after the initial installation and will discover–and map–all your devices. Once set up, it will use SNMP to poll devices for bandwidth usage statistics. To that extent, it is comparable to the SolarWinds NPM.

WhatsUp Gold Dashboard

But it doesn’t stop there, WhatsUp Gold will also operate as a NetFlow collector and analyzer to gather detailed data about network usage. And, like they say in TV infomercials, “Wait! There’s more!”. The tool also has a capacity planning module which looks at your current utilization and trends. It also allows you to simulate the effects configuration changes, such as moving services around or increasing circuit capacity.

This tool has way too many features to list them all here. And not all of them are related to our subject anyways. You can, for instance, use it to monitor and manage virtualized environments. Perhaps the best way you can learn all there is about this tool is to take advantage or the 30-day free trial that’s offered on ipswitch’s website.

Wrapping Up

There are plenty of ways you can go about maximizing network bandwidth. We’ve shown you some of the techniques you can use that will provide the greatest benefits. And since having the right tools makes any task easier to accomplish successfully, we’ve also shown you some of the best tools we could think of to assist in your maximizing efforts. There are many more things that can be done and tools that can be used. There are simply too much to mention them all in this article. in fact, every individual technique could be the subject of its own article.

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