Just like large organizations, small businesses need to keep an eye on their networks to ensure that all is running smoothly. However, smaller enterprises don’t always have the resources—both financial and human—to deploy larger network monitoring tools. This is why we’re about to review the top small business network monitoring tools.
We’ll start off by discussing network monitoring in the specific context of small business. We’ll see how due to their limited resources, the challenges can be quite different. Next, we’ll briefly introduce the Simple Network Management Protocol as it is the most common technology used for network monitoring. And since it helps to have at least a basic understanding of how it works to implement it, this is what we’ll tackle next. And we’ll finish by reviewing the best network monitoring tools to be used by small businesses.
Network Monitoring Tools for Small Business
Network congestion is the number one enemy of all network administrators. If you compare a network to a highway where traffic is the network’s data, network congestion is similar to traffic jams. But unlike automobile traffic–where congestion can easily be spotted by simply looking at the road–network traffic happens within cables, switches, and routers where it’s invisible. Furthermore, it all happens at blazing fast speeds. Even if you could see it, it would happen too fast. This is why network monitoring tools are so important. They provide network administrators with the visibility they need to keep things running smoothly. This is especially true in small businesses where the typical administrator wears several hats and is the network guy, the server guy, and often the tech support guy all at the same time. This is why monitoring tools are so important to small businesses, they free their IT team—which is often just a single IT guy—to work on more important or pressing tasks while the tools monitor the status of the network.
Another major reason for monitoring networks is capacity planning. There doesn’t appear to be a way around the fact that network usage always grows over time. The current bandwidth of your network might be sufficient now, but they’ll eventually need to be increased. And in small businesses, you’ll want to delay the upgrade as much as possible in order to save costs. By monitoring bandwidth usage, you’ll be able to plan network updates before over-utilization becomes a problem.
SNMP—which stands for Simple Network Management Protocol—is a complex system that can be used to remotely monitor, configure and control different types of networking equipment. Despite its misleading name, the only thing simple about this technology is its name, and implementing it can turn out to be a daunting task.
Fortunately, you don’t have to know everything about SNMP to use it to monitor your network’s bandwidth utilization. For now, suffice to say that SNMP is used by monitoring tools to read a device’s interface counters and use that data to calculate and graph network bandwidth usage over time. In the next section, we’ll go into more detail on the inner workings of this monitoring technique. Understanding SNMP will help you better appreciate the upcoming product reviews and help you configure and use any SNMP monitoring tool.
How SNMP Works
Most texts explaining SNMP will tell you about MIBs, OIDs, and several other TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). We think this is overkill, especially in a post such as this one. Our goal today is instead to give you enough information so that you can understand, use, and configure SNMP network monitoring tools, not to make you an SNMP expert. That will come in due time, with experience.
The first thing you need to know about SNMP is how the connection to an SNMP-enabled device is established. On most SNMP devices, two parameters called community strings can be configured. You can think of these as the SNMP (very crude) passwords. By default, the two community strings are called public and private but you can name them anything you like. The public string is used for read-only access while the private string will let you modify parameters as well.
Once the connection is established between a monitoring tool and a monitored device, some parameters can be remotely read. Of particular interest when it comes to bandwidth monitoring are a couple of parameters called interface counters. There’s usually a pair of them for each network interface of an SNMP-enabled device, one counting the bytes in and one counting the bytes out of the interface. They are aptly called Bytes In and Bytes Out. By reading these values periodically at know intervals, the monitoring tool can compute the number of bits per unit of time—usually per second—which is exactly what bandwidth is.
Concretely, here’s how it’s done: The monitoring tool will poll a device and read its counters. A fixed amount of time later—five minutes is typical, it will read the same counters again. By subtracting the previous value of the counters from the current one, the total number of bytes transferred in and out over the interval is obtained. It is then a simple matter to multiply these numbers by 8—the number of bits in a byte—then divide the results by the number of seconds in the polling interval to get the bits per second bandwidth utilization figures. Those figures are typically stored in some sort of database and used to plot graphs or tables of utilization over time.
A few other SNMP values can be interesting for network monitoring. For instance, there are interface input and output error counters. Similar to what’s being done with bytes in and out, these values can be used to compute the number of errors per second, a figure that tells you a lot about the general health of a network link. CPU load and memory usage gauges can also be read through SNMP. In fact, several hundred parameters are typically available in any SNMP-enabled device.
SNMP Traps — Another Feature Of SNMP
While not directly related to SNMP network monitoring SNMP traps are another important element of the protocol. We won’t go into great depths about them, though. This is beyond the scope of this post. In a nutshell, SNMP traps are alert messages that are sent by SNMP-enabled devices to a “trap receiver”, a process running on a computer that receives the traps and perform various actions such as logging them, displaying on-screen alerts, sending out email or SMS alert messages, etc.
The Top Network Monitoring Tools For Small Businesses
Monitoring networks in small businesses is not much different from doing it in larger organizations. In fact, it is exactly the same, albeit on a smaller scale. But as for the best tools, they seem to be the same no matter what size of network you need to monitor. The main restriction that small businesses typically have when selecting a network monitoring tool is their budget. This is why we’ve tried to include a few free tools on our list.
SolarWinds is one of the biggest players in the network administration tools field. The company has been around for some 20 years and has brought us some of the best tools. It also has a solid reputation for making excellent free tools that, even though they can be feature-limited, they are still excellent tools. The company’s flagship product is called the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, or NPM.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor
- Official Download Link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-performance-monitor/registration
Like most network monitoring tools, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor uses SNMP to poll multiple network devices and gets traffic statistics from their interfaces. The results are shown visually on graphs depicting each interface’s usage statistics. The tool will let you add a device simply by specifying its IP address and SNMP community string. It will then query the device and list all the parameters that are available and let you decide which you want to include on your graphs. For example, a network switch will, among other parameters, expose each interface traffic and error counters.
There are many more features to the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor. One of the main ones is its scalability, The tool will work with small business networks but will easily scale up to large networks consisting of tens of thousands of hosts spread out in multiple locations. If you set out to use this tool in your small business, you’ll be able to keep using it as your organization grows. A great feature of the product is how it can build network maps and display a visual representation of the critical path between two devices or services.
Prices for the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor vary according to the number of monitored devices and starts at $2 955. If you would like to try the tool before purchasing it, a full-featured 30-day trial is available.
2. PRTG Network Monitor
The PRTG Network Monitor from Germany-based Paessler AG is known to be one of the easiest and fastest monitoring tools to set up. The publisher claims that you could be up and running within minutes. Although our experience shows that it can take a tad longer, setting up the product doesn’t take much time at all. Accessory to this fast installation and configuration is the product’s auto-discovery feature that will scan your network and automatically add the components it finds. And it’s not only fast, setup and initial configuration are also very easy.
But the PRTG Network Monitor is not only fast to install, it is also loaded with great features. For instance, you can choose between multiple user interfaces. There’s a native Windows enterprise console, an Ajax-based web interface as well as 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 the Windows console and affix to your devices to be instantly taken to that device’s graphs. Talking about graphs, this is another area where the product excels.
The PRTG Network Monitor can not only monitor and graph bandwidth utilization. It can record many more parameters using SNMP, WMI, NetFlow, and Sflow, thanks to the clever use of sensors. You can think of them as add-ons or plugins, but they come bundled with the software. There are over 200 different sensors available, each providing a different type of monitoring. The tool also has some amazing reports which can be run on-demand or be scheduled and then be viewed as HTML or PDF. You can even export them to CSV or XML to be processed externally.
You can choose between two different versions of PRTG. There’s a free version that is limiting your monitoring ability to 100 sensors, with each parameter you want to monitor and each sensor you use counting 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. For more than 100 total sensors, several levels of paid licenses are available, depending on the number of sensors you use.
3. ManageEngine SNMP Bandwidth Monitoring Software
“ManageEngine has complete and easy solutions for even the most difficult IT management problems.” This bold statement is how the company self-describe itself, and with reason. ManageEngine is well-known for its high-quality software, including several network monitoring tools.
ManageEngine also has some free tools available. One that small businesses will undoubtedly like given its price is the ManageEngine SNMP Bandwidth Monitoring Software. It is part of the free ManageEngine OpUtils bundle, which includes a selection of some 16 network management utilities. The software runs on both Windows and Linux. You can get a free edition that lets you monitor up to 10 devices and their interfaces. There is also has a paid version available with no device limitation. Furthermore, ManageEngine offers a free 30-day evaluation version of its full OpUtils software. Actually, the free version is first installed as a 30-day trial which reverts to limited features on the thirty-first day.
As far as configuring the tool goes, you simply specify a subnet to scan as well as the SNMP community string to use. The tool will then auto-discover devices on the specified subnet that are responding to the specified string. Once the devices are discovered, the inventory tab will let you view the status of each device’s interfaces. And of course, you can also display graphs of network bandwidth usage by unit of time. Reports are another of the tool’s strong suits, You can, for instance, create reports of bandwidth usage over the past 12 hours to one month. And finally, the tool’s alerting features leave nothing to be desired. You have the possibility to set thresholds and be notified by email or SMS text messages when they’re exceeded.
The Multi Router Traffic Grapher, or MRTG, is considered by many to be the granddaddy of SNMP monitoring tools. It’s been around since 1995 yet it is still in widespread use. There’s a reason for this longevity: it simply gets the job done. It is not a fancy tool but it is a free and open-source system available at no charge. Although that tool might not be the prettiest, it is possibly the most flexible. It can monitor many parameters besides bandwidth. In fact, it can monitor, log, and graph any SNMP parameter.
The two main components of MRTG are 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 creates web pages with bandwidth utilization graphs. Being mostly written in Perl, anyone should be able to easily customize the software to their specific needs or add any extra features they need.
The product is available for Windows or Linux. The initial setup and configuration might be somewhat more complicated than what you’d experience with other monitoring systems but documentation is readily available.
Installing MRTG requires that you first install and configure Perl. It won’t run without it. There’s also a way you can run the tool as a Windows service instead of an application but it requires some further manipulations including some registry modifications. Once installed, MRTG is configured by editing its configuration file in a true old-style Linux fashion. Administrators used to GUI configuration could face a steep learning curve.
MRTG is best downloaded directly from its developer’s website. It is available as a .zip file for windows or a tarball for Linux. As of this writing, the latest stable release is 2.17.4. This might not be the most user-friendly monitoring system but it is possibly the most flexible. And the fact that it’s the first monitoring system and that it is still around is certainly a testament to its value.
Cacti is best described as MRTG on steroids. If you look at any of the tool’s graphs, you’ll find that the resemblance between the two is striking. This product is built upon RRDtool which is from the same developer as and is a direct descendant of MRTG.
Cacti is more polished than its predecessor with a web-based configuration interface that makes configuring it much easier and more intuitive. It is a complete network monitoring and graphing package. The tool boasts a fast poller, advanced device and graph templates, several acquisition methods, and user management features. It is excellent for smaller LAN installations but just as good for complex networks with thousands of devices over multiple sites.
To better understand Cacti, you need to know about RRDtool. According to its developer “RRDtool is the Open-Source 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.” Do you recall how we said that MRTG uses a C program for data storage and graphing? Well, RRDTool is the evolution of that C program.
Simply put, Cacti is a front end to RRDTool. It stores the necessary data to create graphs and populate them with data in a MySQL database. It is entirely written in PHP. The software maintains its graphs, data sources, and round-robin archives in a database and also handles the data gathering, leaving the graphing to RRDTool. This product is a step up from its predecessor. In fact, many of its users are former MRTG users who made the switch when they needed to replace their monitoring tool with something that was easier to configure and use. Cacti can be downloaded directly from its website.
While some tools we’ve just reviewed are scalable and can be used in larger organizations just as well as in small businesses, they are all a good fit for smaller networks. And if your monitoring budget is severely limited, the free tool we’ve described can provide excellent value at no cost other than the efforts you’ll spend deploying them which, considering the typical size of a small business network, do not necessarily amount to much.