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6 Best Tools for Monitoring Networks, Servers and Applications

One of the primary tasks of any network and system administrator is to ensure that every system and component they manage is up and performing according to expectations. While this may appear simple, it can actually be quite complex. Today’s IT environments can be rather large and it is almost impossible for anyone to keep an eye on everything. This is especially true when you factor in the fact that servers and other components are often located away from their administrators. This is where monitoring tool can really come in handy. Today, we’re having a look at some of the best tools for monitoring networks, servers, and applications. They are the types of tools you’ll use to ensure that all is running smoothly and that, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you’ll be quickly notified.

We’ll begin today’s exploration by discussing the need for monitoring tools. We’ll try to explain what they are and what they bring to us. Then, we will talk about the different types of monitoring tools available. As you’ll see, different tasks call for different tools. Next, we’ll review the benefits and drawbacks of using integrated monitoring tools as opposed to using individual tools for each monitoring job. Finally, we’ll dig into the core of the subject and review some of the best network, server, and application monitoring tools we could find.

The Need For Monitoring Tools

The main reason why anyone needs monitoring tools is rather simple. There’s just too much to monitor. Given the typical size of today’s IT environments, manually monitoring everything to ensure that all is running smoothly would require an army or administrators. When I first started as a network administrator, the company where I worked had about half a dozen servers and they were all located right next to me, in the same room where my desk was. It was easy for me and my two colleagues to constantly keep a watchful eye on everything. Whenever something went wrong, it wasn’t long before one of us noticed it.

Fast forward some twenty-something years and things are very different. Many organizations have dozens if not hundreds of servers. And today’s environment is not only made of servers anymore. Between networking equipment, security appliances, and every conceivable type of network-attached devices, modern administrators tend to have their hands full. This is where monitoring tools can come in handy. They sit in the background and become your eyes on every device on your network. Whenever something goes wrong or is out of its normal range of operation, alerting kicks in and sends some type of notification. This allows administrators to concentrate on more useful tasks while ensuring that they’ll be able to quickly react in case of trouble.

Different Tools For Different Monitoring Tasks

There are mainly three different things most network and system administrators care to monitor. First, they need to monitor that the systems and/or devices they manage are up and running but also that they are performing within their normal acceptable range. This can mean many things, in terms of monitoring. At its most basic level, the monitoring tool will ensure that equipment is up and running and that the IP ports which are supposed to be open are. For instance, a web server should be responding to requests on port 80. Monitoring systems also use the Simple Network Management Protocol, or SNMP to read operational parameters from devices. The CPU load or percentage of available memory could be monitored just as CPU core temperature could. Different devices have different operational parameters available via SNMP. The best tools will let administrators which parameter of each device to monitor.

Another type of tool is the bandwidth monitoring tool. These tools also use SNMP to read bytes in and out counters from networking equipment to then calculate the average bandwidth utilization and typically plot it on a graph depicting its evolution in time. The technique is used to monitor bandwidth utilization of various parts of a network and is particularly useful for watching low-bandwidth circuits—such as WAN links—for signs of congestion.

The other major type of monitoring is application monitoring. This one can take many forms and it seems like every developer of application monitoring tool has his own idea of how it should be done. Suffice to say that the basic idea is to ensure that applications are available to end users when they need them and that they are behaving normally. This is most often accomplished through the use of local monitoring agents installed on the application servers.

The Advantages And Drawbacks Of Integrated Tools

In order to make administrators’ lives easier, a few vendors offer integrated monitoring tools. These are tools that combine two or more different type of monitoring tools. For instance, it is not rare to see tools that can monitor servers and the applications running on them. Some even include the three types of monitoring described above.

There are several advantages to these integrated tools, the main one being having all your monitoring data at the same place. Other advantages include an easier installation and not having to learn to install, configure, and use multiple tools. There’s also a definite cost advantage as integrated tools are often less expensive than purchasing individual tools.

As nice as integrated tools can be, they do have a few drawbacks too. Generally speaking, integrated tools tend to be poorer in terms of available feature. They can often do everything OK but not necessarily amazingly. They typically don’t go as deep in their monitoring. They can also be somewhat cumbersome in large organizations where different teams manage different types of equipment and each team would benefit from having its own dashboard.

The Best Network, Server, And Application Monitoring Tools

Or list mostly includes integrated tools. After all, this is the primary topic of this post. However, we’ve included a couple of individual tools, mainly to give you an idea of what extra features you could get when going for individual tools.

1. SolarWinds ipMonitor (Free Trial)

First on our list is a tool form SolarWinds, a publisher of some of the very best network and system administration tools. The twenty-year-old company enjoys a solid reputation and its flagship product, the Network Performance Monitor, consistently scores among the top SNMP monitoring tools. And as if that wasn’t enough, SolarWinds also makes a handful of free tools, each addressing a specific need of network administrator. The Advanced Subnet Calculator and the Kiwi Syslog Server are two examples of those free tools.

With a rather large product portfolio, it’s no surprise that SolarWinds does offer an integrated monitoring solution that goes by the name of ipMonitor. It is a relatively simple integrated tool which offers essential up/down and performance monitoring for networks, servers, and applications.

SolarWinds ipMonitor - Dashboard

This tool will quickly discover infrastructure and will recommend SmartMonitor settings which are designed to make setup simpler and faster. It also provides an easy-to-use web interface and network maps for clear, at-a-glance views of your environment. The tool can send customizable alerts and reports to help ensure you are the first to know about issues or application failures. In addition to alerts, it also has automated remediation capabilities to minimize downtime.

On the application monitoring front, the system can simulate end-user experience for web and other applications and it uses standard protocols such as SNMP and WMI for agentless, monitoring of applications and systems. The system includes its own embedded web server and database and it is designed for a simple, integrated installation experience without the need for installing separate components.

The ipMonitor web-based interface offers centralized and customizable summary views. It helps provide visibility into the health of your IT infrastructure. The tool supports drag and drop, and is designed to make it easy to add and remove elements from the view and help ensure you have the reports, statistics, and gauges you need—right at your fingertips. ipMonitor’s dashboards make it easy to identify problem areas at a glance, letting you resolve issues quickly.

Prices for ipMonitor start at $1 495 for up to 500 monitors. This one-time cost includes the first year of maintenance. For those who’d prefer to try the tool before purchasing it, a free 14-day trial is available.

2. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (FREE Trial)

Our next entry is another tool from SolarWinds, the Network Performance Monitor. It is probably SolarWinds’ best-known product. It is not an integrated monitoring tool, though. This one specializes in network monitoring. We’re including it to give you an idea of what extended features an individual tool can bring.

SolarWinds NPM Summary

The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is a feature-rich professional SNMP monitoring system. It boasts an easy to use web-based dashboard, it is easy to set up and configure and, more importantly, it does a great job. The tool has customizable alerting features that can notify you whenever specific metrics exceed a predefined value.

An interesting advanced feature of this tool is how it can build intelligent maps of your network. It will also show you the critical path between any two points, allowing you to quickly troubleshoot issues. There’s also wireless network monitoring and management built right into the software. This software truly has too many features to be able to mention them all here. You might want to take advantage of the 30-day free trial and see for yourself what this great tool can do for you.

Prices for the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor starts at $2 955 and varies according to the number of monitored devices. It is highly scalable and upgrading its capacity in order to add more monitored devices is a simple matter of upgrading the license.

3. SolarWinds Server And Application Monitor (FREE Trial)

Not as integrated as ipMonitor, the Server and Application Monitor, also from SolarWinds is a great example of a smaller integrated tool. But since it shares the same Orion platform as the Network Performance Monitor, together they form a truly integrated tool with many more features that can be found on ipMonitor.

SolarWinds Server and application Monitor - Appstack environment

This tool was designed to help administrators monitor servers, their operational parameters, their processes, and the applications which are running on them. It can easily scale from very small networks to large ones with hundreds of servers—both physical and virtual—spread over multiple sites. The tool can also monitor cloud-hosted services like those from Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

The SolarWinds Server and Application Monitor is very easy to set up and its initial configuration is just as easily done with the help of its auto-discovery process. It is a two-pass process. The first pass will discover servers, and the second one will find applications. This can take time but can be sped up by supplying the tool with a list of specific applications to look for. Once the tool is up and running, the user-friendly GUI makes using it a breeze. You can choose to display information in either a table or a graphic format.

Prices for the SolarWinds Server and Application Monitor start at $2 995 and vary based on the number of components, nodes, and volumes monitored. A free 30-day trial version is available for download, should you want to try the product before purchasing it.

4. ManageEngine OpManager

The ManageEngine OpManager is another all-in-one package that will monitor your servers’ (physical and virtual) vital signs as well as those of your networking equipment and alert you as soon as something is out of its normal operating range. The tool benefits from an intuitive user interface that will let you easily find the information you need. There is also an excellent reporting engine which comes loaded with pre-built reports while still supporting custom ones. The product’s alerting features are also very complete.

ManageEngine OpManager Dashboard

The tool runs on either Windows or Linux and is loaded with great features. One worth mentioning is its auto-discovery feature that can map your network, giving you a uniquely customized dashboard. The ManageEngine OpManager dashboard is super easy to use and navigate, thanks to its drill-down functionality. For those of you who are into mobile apps, client apps for tablets and smartphones are available, allowing you to access the tool from anywhere.

The ManageEngine OpManager is available in two versions. The Essential edition is intended for small and medium organizations with up to a thousand devices with prices starting at around $700 for 25 devices. For larger organizations, the Enterprise edition can scale up to ten thousand devices. Its price starts at under $20 000 for 500 devices. If you are interested in giving the tool a try, a free 30-day trial is also available.

5. Zabbix

Zabbix is known as one of the best free and open-source system monitoring platform. This enterprise-grade system can scale from small to very big networks. Zabbix can monitor networks, both local and cloud-based servers, and the services running on them, making it a true integrated monitoring platform. Don’t let the fact that it’s free and open-source put you off, though. It would be a mistake as this tool has a lot to offer.

Zabbix Dashboard

Zabbix uses SNMP as well as the Intelligent Platform Monitoring Interface (IMPI) for monitoring devices. You can use the software to monitor bandwidth, device CPU and memory utilization, general device health as well as configuration changes. The product also features an impressive and completely customizable alerting system. It will not only send email or SMS alerts but also run local scripts which could be used to fix some issues automatically.

Although Zabbix is free, ancillary services can be purchased. For instance, you can purchase support services. Five levels of technical support are available. There is also a complete certification training program that can be purchased. This is totally optional, though, as community support is available for free and it is very good. Finally, Zabbix’s alerting features are up to par with other products on our list and so is its reporting engine.

Zabbix has all you can expect in an enterprise-grade integrated monitoring tool except the high price tag. And the only thing you’ll need to spend to put it through a test run is your time.

6. Paessler Router Traffic Grapher (PRTG)

The Paessler Router Traffic Grapher, or PRTG, is another excellent integrated monitoring system. The enterprise-grade product claims to be the fastest to set up. According to Paessler, PRTG can be set up in a couple of minutes. While our experience shows that it can take a bit more than that, it’s still pretty easy and quick to set up. Its auto-discovery process is one of the main reasons for the speed of installation.

PRTG Screenshot

PRTG is a feature-rich product. It comes with several different user interfaces. There’s a Windows enterprise console, an Ajax-based web interface, and mobile apps for Android and iOS. In the background, this tool mainly uses SNMP to poll devices and display interface utilization on chronological graphs. But it doesn’t stop there. Through the use of additional sensors, PRTG can monitor servers and applications. In fact, there aren’t many monitoring tasks that it won’t handle.

PRTG is available in two versions. There’s a free version which is full-featured but will limit your monitoring ability to 100 sensors. When using SNMP, each monitored parameter counts as one sensor. For example, if you monitor two interfaces on a router, it will count as two sensors. Each instance of a specific monitoring sensor also counts as one. If you need more than 100 sensors, you need to purchase a license which starts at $1 600 for 500 sensors. A free, sensor-unlimited and full-featured 30-day trial version is available.

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