Whenever you suspect something wrong with the performance of a network, your best course of action is to run some tests to confirm that there is indeed an issue and also to help you locate it and, eventually, fix it. There are many network performance testing tools available. So many that picking the one that is the best fit for your specific need can turn out to be a hefty challenge. Luckily, we’ve done some of the hard work for you and we’ve compiled a list of some of the best network performance testing tools and we’re about to review them, highlighting each product’s core features.
Before we begin, we’ll briefly discuss network performance in general. We’ll do our best to describe what it is. As you’ll see, it is, more than anything, a matter of perception. The factors affecting our perception of a network’s performance is going to be our next order of business. Next, we’ll discuss network performance testing, how it’s done and what it entails. We’ll also insist on the distinction between network performance testing and network performance monitoring, two related but different concepts. And once we’re all on the same page, we’ll proceed with reviewing the best network performance monitoring tools.
- 1 Testing Network Performance
- 2 The Best Network Performance Testing Tools
About Network Performance
As eloquently defined in once sentence on Wikipedia, “network performance refers to measures of service quality of a network as seen by the customer”. There are three essential elements to that definition. The first is the measures part. It established clearly that network performance is something one has to measure. The next important bit is the service quality of a network. Service quality is a generic concept but, as you’ll see, a few specific metrics are associated with it. The last important part is the customer. We’re not interested in network performance as a theoretical thing. What we need to measure is the true user experience.
Several different factors affect perceived network performance and are generally considered important. The first two are bandwidth and throughput but there is often some confusion between these two terms. Bandwidth refers to the carrying capacity of a network. As an analogy, think of it as the number of lanes in a highway. Throughput, on the other hand, refers to the actual usage of the available bandwidth. To keep our previous analogy, a four-lane highway has a bandwidth of 4 000 vehicles per hour but its current throughput could be only 400 vehicles per hours or 10% of its capacity.
Latency, delay, and jitter are more factor affecting the perceived performance of networks. Latency refers to the time data takes to travel from source to destination. It is mainly a function of the signal’s travel time and processing time at any nodes it traverses. It is a physical limitation that cannot be reduced. Delay, on the other hand, can sometimes be improved. It has to do with the time it takes for networking equipment to process, queue, and forward data. Faster, more powerful equipment will generally add less delay to the transmission. As for jitter, it refers to the variation in packet delay at the receiving end of the conversation. Real-time or near-real-time traffic is particularly affected by it as it can cause data packets to arrive out of sequence. In the case of voice over IP, for example, this could result in unintelligible speech.
Many other factors can also affect network performance. The error rate is one of them. It refers to the number of corrupted bits expressed as a percentage or fraction of the total sent.
Testing Network Performance
How does one go about measuring performance from a tue user’s perspective? Well, there is, of course, the possibility of having real users running tests but this can tend to be rather impractical. The next best thing is using a network performance testing system that uses probes deployed at strategic location throughout your network and that can run actual simulation tests between each other to measure true performance using specific types of traffic. This, however, can also tend to be impractical as it requires some preliminary setup. It won’t be of much assistance to help troubleshoot a sudden issue.
In these cases, what you need is a quick and dirty solution. A simple application that you can quickly deploy or install at either end of the segment you need to test and that will let you manually configure and run simulation tests.
Testing vs Monitoring
Another important distinction to be made is the one between performance monitoring and performance testing. These are two similar concepts but there are a few differences. The basic idea is the same: simulating real user traffic and measuring the actual performance of the network. Where it differs is in how and when it is done. Monitoring systems run constantly and perform recurring tests between preconfigured locations and using predefined simulation models. A dashboard will typically be available to display the latest test results and reports can often be generated for various purposes.
Testing is different in that it is typically an ad-hoc process that is run manually whenever a problem is reported or suspected. Tests are also typically run between two specific points on the network where one suspects a problem is. The test will often help identify and pinpoint the problem.
The Best Network Performance Testing Tools
We’ve searched the market for some of the best network performance testing tools. Here’s the result of our efforts. We hope it will help you pick the best tool for your specific needs. If your looking for performance monitoring tools, this is not what this post is about and we suggest you read some of our other posts on the subject. For now, let’s have a look at the features of the best tools we could find.
1. SolarWinds WAN Killer (Part Of The Engineer’s Toolset)
SolarWinds is a common name in the field of network administration. The company is famous for making some of the best network administration tools on the market. Its flagship product, the Network Performance Monitor is generally recognized as one of the best network bandwidth monitoring tools available. And as if it wasn’t enough, SolarWinds has also gifted us with several free tools, each addressing a specific need of network administrators. Such tools include the famous SolarWinds TFTP Server and the Advanced Subnet Calculator.
Although it’s not a network performance testing tool per se, the WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator 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.
- FREE Trial: SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset
- Official download link: https://www.solarwinds.com/engineers-toolset/registration
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 WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator is part of the Engineer’s Toolset, a bundle of over 60 different tools. The toolset includes a mix of the most important free tools from SolarWinds combined with many exclusive tools that you won’t find elsewhere. And most of the included tools are integrated into a common dashboard from where they can be easily accessed.
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.
Other Components Of The SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset
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.
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
- 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 a 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.
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.
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.
4. NetIO & NetIO-GUI
NetIO-GUI is actually a free front end for the multi-platform command line utility NetIO. Together, they form a very potent performance testing tool. It can be used to measures ICMP response times as well as network transfer speeds for different packet sizes and protocols. All the results are stored in an SQLite database and can easily be compared. This Windows tool is available either as an installable software or as a portable tool.
In order to run tests, you need two instances of the tool, one at either end. One side will run in client mode while the other will run in server mode. Using it is rather simple, once you have it running at both ends, you click the start button on the server (typically running at the far end) and, on the client, you simply enter the server’s IP address and pick the protocol (TCP or UDP) that you want to use to run the test. You start the test and let NetIO test the connectivity using various packet sizes before it returns the test results.
Initially created as an internal tool by Nuts About Nets, NetStress has since started being offered to the public. It is yet another free and simple network benchmarking tool. Like most other similar products, you’ll have to run the tool on two computers at either end of the network that you need to test. It is somewhat easier to use than other tools because it can automatically find the receiver IP address.
Running a test with NetStress is very simple, although some might not find it self-explanatory. What you need to do is click on the 0.0.0.0 next to Remote Received IP. You then select the IP address that is listed in the window and click OK. Doing that will enable the Start button. Once enabled, you simply click it and the tool starts testing and measuring the TCP and UDP throughput. An interesting option found in this tool the ability to modify the MTU size used for testing. Despite some quirks such as the inability to resize its full-screen window, NetStress is a pretty good tool.
Aida32 is officially a discontinued product that has been replaced by Aida64 but this older version still very popular and easy to find. Aida is a hardware information and benchmarking tool that can perform many different tests. The reason this specific—and older—version has made it to our list is because it includes an excellent Network Benchmark tool which is no longer available in recent versions. Using the plugin is easy and it can be started from the tool’s Plugin Menu
Aida32 tool is not very different in its operation from most others on this list and you’ll need to run it at both ends of the path you want to test. On one of the computers, you need to select Master from the drop-down list that you’ll find at the bottom of the tool’s window. You then go to the Bandwidth tab and click the Start button. On the other computer, you select Slave instead of Master and enter the IP address of the master. Just like you did on the master, you go to the Bandwidth tab and click Start. Once the test completes, the Save button can be used to conveniently save the bandwidth chart in bitmap format.
PassMark’s PerformanceTest is a complete PC performance benchmarking software. It made it to our list because it features a pretty decent advanced network testing tool that one can use to run network performance tests. The too can run tests on both IPv4 and IPv6 networks. Furthermore, it will let users set the data block size used for testing. It will also allow you to enable UDP bandwidth throttling if you so desire. The network module is well-hidden within the PerformanceTest application. You can access it by clicking advanced and then Network from the tool’s menu bar.
This is a limited tool where the results are shown in the status area and display the amount of data sent to the server, the CPU load, and the average, minimum, and maximum transfer speeds. While this is not much, it should be enough to determine the consistency of the network’s performance. PerformanceTest is a paid shareware but can be used for free without any limitations for up to 30 days.