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SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor vs WhatsUp Gold – Comparative Review

It’s no secret that monitoring one of the most important parts of many a network administrator’s job. It is, after all, one of the best ways to ensure that everything is running smoothly and that no unwelcome event—such as network congestion—goes unnoticed.

With the increasing popularity of virtualization and cloud-hosting of an ever-growing number of resources, the need for monitoring tools greater than ever. And although there is an impressive variety of monitoring tools to choose from, a few of them rise above the lot. The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (NPM) and WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch are two such products. Today, we’re having a comparative look at these two products with the goal of helping you determine which offer the best fit to your particular needs.

Before we have a look at our two contenders, we’ll first discuss network monitoring in general. We hope it can benefit you by helping better understand the two products’ differences and similarities. Since SNMP is one of the most-used monitoring technology, this is what we’ll discuss next. We’ll explain what it is and how it works but try to keep our explanation non-technical. Since SNMP is only one of many different technologies used to monitor networks, we’ll also have a look at other technologies that are available. Continuing, we’ll have an in-depth look at the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, its main features, its pricing structure, its pros and cons. We will then do the same for WhatsUp Gold. And to finish, we’ll briefly compare both products, trying to give you a better understanding of their similarities and differences.

About Network Monitoring

Network Monitoring is both a simple and complicated topic. However, different people have a different idea of what it is (or what it should be). Considering that there are several different types of monitoring and there’s no wonder why there is some confusion about it. At the bottom of the monitoring stack is what we often refer to as ping, or up-or-down, monitoring. This type of monitoring uses ping to verify that each monitored device is responding. This type of monitoring typically records no performance data about the monitored systems. It only cares about their up or down status.

The next type of monitoring is bandwidth monitoring. This one typically uses the SNMP protocol to read interface counters from monitored devices and to calculate the average bandwidth usage of their interfaces. This kind of tool is most useful when monitoring bandwidth-limited segments of a network such as WAN circuits. It is also a great tool in a LAN environment as it can help pinpoint areas of congestion. It won’t, however, help in determining its cause. In summary, this type of monitoring will give you a quantitative view of the traffic at any point of the network.

For a more qualitative view of network traffic, what you need is network traffic analysis, the next type of network monitoring. It goes deeper than the previous type and makes use of traffic analysis techniques to reveal what is consuming bandwidth. It will, for instance, tell you what users, what computers or what applications are using the most bandwidth.

Another type of monitoring that is often combined with bandwidth or ping monitoring reads the important operational metrics of the monitored devices. It can be used to monitor many different types of devices such as routers and switches or servers and databases. It uses various protocols and technologies to connect to devices and read their operational parameters. Typically, information such as CPU and memory loads, disk space and any other interesting operational parameter can be collected and displayed.

SNMP Explained

Since the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is one of the most-used network monitoring technology, let’s have a closer look at it. Despite its name, SNMP is far from simple. The protocol lets a management station—or a monitoring tool—read—and also set—a number of operational parameters. It is often said that SNMP monitoring is an agentless form of monitoring. But although it rarely requires installing a monitoring agent on a monitored device, there is actually an SNMP agent running on each monitored device. It is usually built into the operating system or firmware which is why it is not referred to as an agent.

Let’s have a look at how SNMP works from a monitoring perspective. Simply put, an SNMP monitoring tool sends a request to the monitored device for a specific parameter. The request, which is not encrypted, contains a “community string” which can be likened to a crude password authentication mechanism. The monitored device validates the request’s community string against its own and, if there is a match, returns the requested value. This, in a nutshell, is how it works. I left out many technical details but this overview should be enough for our purposes. Remember that our goal is not to provide an SNMP tutorial but a basic overview of how SNMP monitoring works.

If we take the example of a monitoring tool trying to monitor the bandwidth usage of a router interface facing a WAN circuit, two specific SNMP parameters are of interest: the bytes in and bytes out counters. They are read on a regular basis—typically every five minutes—and stored in some sort of file or database. The monitoring tool then subtracts the previous value of the counters from the current one, giving the number of bytes transferred during the interval. It divides these numbers by the number of seconds between the two reading, giving the number of bytes per second and divides this by eight to get the number of bits per second. The resulting values—which represent the average interface bandwidth utilization during the polling interval—are stored in a database and/or plotted on a graph showing its evolution over time.

Some Other Monitoring Techniques

As commonplace as SNMP is, it is certainly not the only monitoring technology used. Other technologies are available, depending on what type of device you are monitoring and what information you are trying to collect from them. Let’s have a quick look at some of the most common.

The Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) is a Windows-specific protocol that can be thought of as an evolution of SNMP. Its purpose is similar—managing and monitoring systems remotely—but its operation is different. It is typically more secure, more flexible and can provide more information.

WBEM is an acronym for Web-Based Enterprise Management. It is an open standard for the remote management and monitoring of systems. Sounds familiar? It should as WMI is Microsoft’s proprietary implementation of WBEM. It is typically used for monitoring non-Windows hosts such as Linux servers.

Agent-based monitoring is another common technique that relies on a local agent running on the monitored system. It differs from other methods such as SNMP, WMI or WBEM in that the agent is not built into the operating systems but is usually supplied by the monitoring tool’s vendor. It often allows the monitoring of metrics which would not be available using the other methods. The main disadvantages of agent-based monitoring are that it requires an agent to be installed on monitored systems and that running the agent can have an impact on the monitored system by consuming some of its resources.

SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor

SolarWinds has been around for about 20 years and it enjoys a solid reputation as the maker of some of the best network and system administration tools. Several of its products have received rave reviews and are considered among the very best in their respective fields. In addition, SolarWinds is also famous for its free tools, smaller tools each addressing a specific need of network administrators. Two good examples of those free tools are the Real-time Bandwidth Monitor and the IP Address Tracker.

As for the Network Performance Monitor, its primary purpose is SNMP bandwidth monitoring but it can do a whole lot more either through built-in functionalities or by combining it with other SolarWinds tools. At its core, the product offers comprehensive fault monitoring and performance management. It primarily uses SNMP for data collection and is thereby compatible with various equipment from most vendors. Its NetPath feature lets you view the critical network path between any two monitored points on your network and the tool can also auto-generate intelligent network maps.

SolarWinds NPM - Network Summary

Advanced alerting is another of the products strong suits and so is its PerfStack performance analysis dashboard. Another exclusive feature of the product is the Network Insights functionality which allows for complex device monitoring. Talking about more complex use cases, the tool can monitor Software Defined Networks (SDN) and has built-in Cisco ACI support as well the ability to monitor wireless networks and to generate network performance baselines.

The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor can be used on any network from the smallest to the largest, thanks to its smart scalability. Optional features include scalability engines, high availability and an enterprise operations console which lets you consolidate the data from multiple NPM instances into one enterprise-grade dashboard.

The pricing structure of the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is very simple. Licensing is based on the number of monitored elements. Five licensing tiers are available for 100, 250, 500, 2000, and unlimited elements at prices ranging from $2 955 to $32 525, including the first year of maintenance. If you’d rather give the tool a test run before committing to a purchase, a free, element-unlimited 30-day trial version can be obtained.

SolarWinds NPM - Wireless Summary

Pros & Cons

We’ve searched the web for user comments about the Network Performance Monitor to identify the most important pros and cons reported by users of the product. Here’s a summary of our findings.

Pros

  • The web interface is completely customizable allowing different members of your IT team to use a view that suits them. For instance, system administrators can use a view that focuses on VMware hosts while the network administrator’s view focuses on network switches and traffic.
  • NPM has excellent and easily configurable alerts. You could even create an alert to notify you when a device that is supposed to remain disconnected from the network connects. The possibilities are endless.
  • You can create device pollers combined with custom metering Which can virtually return any information you need.

Cons

  • Email configuration, while highly flexible and customizable, could be easier.
  • The NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (a qualitative network analysis module) is not built into the product and must be purchased separately, increasing the product’s price.
  • Some users have complained about the lack of filtering and searching options on syslogs and alerts.

WhatsUp Gold

Soon to be 23 years old, WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch is a rather old product. It used to be well-known as a ping monitoring tool that was primarily used to monitor what was up or not, hence its name. The tool has evolved and today, it provides complete visibility into the status and performance of applications, network devices and servers in the cloud or on-premises.

Using the product makes it easy to monitor your entire network. The tool’s powerful layer 2 and 3 discovery generates a detailed interactive map of your entire networked infrastructure. It can monitor and map everything from the server room to the cloud. This includes networking devices, wireless controllers, servers, virtual machines, applications, traffic flows and configurations, no matter what operating system they use. You can manage networks, traffic, physical servers, VMs and applications with easy-to-use and customizable maps, dashboards and alerts. Clicking on an object lets you immediately access a broad range of related network monitoring settings and reports.

WhatsUp Gold - Home Dashboard

The tool won’t only monitor devices, networks, and servers, it can also monitor the performance of applications and services running on them. Use it to monitor availability and performance of Linux systems, Apache web servers and Microsoft applications. You can also quickly generate custom application profiles or modify existing ones to meet your specific needs. This is a great tool to assist with meeting service level agreements (SLA).

Since not everyone these days uses traditional physical servers, you’ll be glad to hear that WhatsUp Gold has the ability to monitor virtual servers and their underlying VMware or Hyper-V hosts as well as cloud-based services such as Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure.

Another strong suit of the product is its network configuration management functionalities. WhatsUp Gold can help you centralize management of network device configurations and avoid the embarrassing impacts of accidental or malicious network device configuration changes. You can set up your devices to send an SNMP trap to the product and trigger a notification whenever a configuration changes. You can also use the tool to automate the management of configuration for regulatory compliance with HIPAA, SOX, PCI, and more.

Pricing for WhatsUp Gold starts at $2 656 for up to 25 devices. This is a fairly high price but it compares to other similar products. And when you think of all the functionality you get with the tool, it’s actually not that much.

However, some of the products advanced features are available through plug-ins which must be purchased at additional cost, potentially running the price up considerably. For instance, the WhatsVirtual plug-in, which adds deeper insight into vCenter and VMware ESXi hosts, has a starting price of $1 809.

WhatUp Gold Traffic Analysis Dashboard

Pros & Cons

Just like we did with the SolarWinds NPM, we’ve compiled user commentaries about WhatUp Gold and here’s a summary of the pros and cons they reported

Pros

  • Users tend to appreciate the product’s good-looking user interface and dashboards and their useful data presentation.
  • Relies on standard management protocols such as SNMP and WMI to gather its information. No local agent installation is required.
  • Factoring in the costs of the add-ons can really add to the total cost of ownership of the product.

Cons

  • Despite the user interface’s good looks, many users have complained about its usability and responsiveness.
  • WhatsUp Gold is so complete and broad that training—which is rather expensive—is often necessary to reap the full benefits the product can bring.
  • The cost of the add-ons can end up raising the cost of ownership significantly.

Comparing The Two

Comparing SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor and WhatsUp Gold is a difficult task. We’re in front of two very different albeit somewhat similar tools. If one factor in all the available add-ons and the added functionality they bring, WhatsUp Gold might appear as a clear winner. However, these add-ons end up adding to the cost of the product, potentially making it less interesting. SolarWinds has other products that can add functionality to the NPM tool. Although they are separate tools, they often integrate into the SolarWinds Orion monitoring platform.

If you compare both products on their usability alone, the Network Performance Monitor stands out mostly because of the shortcomings of WhatsUp Gold. It seems like the UI designers at Ipswitch spent more time making it look good than work well.

Comparing the two product on price is likely the hardest as their pricing structures are radically different. If you look solely at the base products and ignore any optional features, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor might be a tad cheaper but you should base your decision on price alone.

Bottom Line

As much as you’d like me to tell you that one product or the other is far better than the other, this is not what I’ll do. For starters, I’d be tempted to say that both products are equally interesting. None of the two stands out as being vastly superior. They are very different in their look and feel as well as their extra features beyond simple monitoring.

I, personally, would likely go with the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor but I might be somewhat biased. The Network Performance Monitor is one of the very first monitoring tools I’ve used. As such, I know it better than any other product. Add to that a bad experience I had with WhatsUp Gold some twenty years ago and you’ll get that you should probably not take my word for it.

The best way to ensure that the product really fits your precise needs is to give them a try. And with both vendors offering a free trial of their tool, this should be relatively easy.

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