Traceroute — or tracert if you’re coming from the Windows world — is, together with ping, one of the most basic network troubleshooting tool. As its name implies, traceroute will trace the route from one computer to another. It’s a pretty useful tool that will not only test the connectivity to a host but also reveal a lot about the path to get there and some issues that may be plaguing it. But as useful as traceroute is, it’s also a pretty limited tool. Fortunately, many developers have worked on trying to create better versions of traceroute. This is what this article is all about. We’re uncovering some of the best alternatives to traceroute. We have a mix of GUI and command-line tools and even a couple of online tools.
Before we reveal our top 5 alternatives to traceroute, we’ll start off by explaining what traceroute is and how it operates. We’ll then discuss some of the limitations of the utility. And to address the limitations, we’ll discuss the possible improvement that could be made to traceroute. We’ll try to define our ideal “traceroute on Steroids”. After we’re done with all this theory, we’ll dive right into our core matter and review the best five traceroute alternatives we could find. We have three locally-installable packages and two online utilities.
What Is Traceroute?
The definition of traceroute from Wikipedia is pretty straightforward: “Traceroute is a computer network diagnostic tool for displaying the route (path) and measuring transit delays of packets across an Internet Protocol (IP) network”. As good as that description is, it fails to give much detail on what it is concretely. We’ll try to explain. Traceroute will tell you the IP address of every router located between your computer and the remote computer. But that’s not all, traceroute will also report on the response time of each of these routers.
Traceroute is a very old tool. The first version was released back in 1987. This is over 30 years ago; an eternity in computer years. It is also a very common tool. First introduced on the Unix operating system, it is now present on every Unix-like OS including Linux and OS X. It even eventually got ported to the Windows platform where it was renamed to tracert for reasons that I’ve never been able to understand.
Traceroute is a tool that every network administrator should understand and use. Unfortunately, many of its users don’t completely understand how it works and can, therefore, run into some of the utility’s pitfalls. For example, the path could be asymmetrical with traffic in taking a different route than traffic out and the tool wouldn’t see it.
How Does Traceroute Work?
First, a few prerequisites. The Internet–or any IP network, for that matter–is made of interconnected routers. Routers talk to each other, exchanging information about what networks they know how to reach. They use this information to build routing tables. Whenever a data packet reaches a router, it looks up the destination in its routing table and proceeds to send it to the next router on the path. The router only knows about the next router and has no idea of the complete path. It doesn’t have to.
In order to limit propagation delays due to excessive routing hops, the header of every data packet contains a field of data called the TTL or Time To Live. This is a true misnomer as the value of the TTL has nothing to do with time but with distance instead. When the packet leaves its origin, the TTL is set to 32. From then on, every router that handles it decrements the TTL by one before routing the packet. When the TTL value reaches zero, the router will not route the packet and will instead return an ICMP “Time Exceeded” message back to the origin.
Traceroute exploits this error detection and reporting system to perform its magic. Traceroute will first send a packet to the destination with the TTL set to 1. The very first router on the path will decrement the TTL and return the Time Exceeded message, allowing traceroute to learn about the IP address of that first router–or hop, as it is often referred to. Traceroute will then send another packet with the TTL set to 2 and learn about the second hop. And it will keep doing that, incrementing the TTL each time until it eventually gets a response from the destination, telling it that it has been reached.
Traceroute will typically also measure the time it takes to get each successive response, allowing it to build a table of the response time for each hop. It will often also do a DNS lookup of each hop’s IP address to display each host’s FQDN instead of IP address in its results.
What’s Wrong With Traceroute?
The easy answer to this question is simple: There’s nothing wrong with it. Does that mean it’s perfect? Certainly not. Traceroute, as good and useful as it is, could be improved. Here are a few of its shortcomings.
As we indicated earlier–and it’s obvious now that we know how it works–traceroute will only show you the path to the destination but has no way of discovering the path back. That could pose a problem, especially in situations where the return path is somehow delayed. Traceroute measures the time it takes to get each response but it has no way of knowing if any delays were encountered on the way out or on the way back, potentially providing misleading results.
There’s also a potential problem with destinations that are load-balanced on several hosts. Nothing guarantees the user that each successive packet is sent to the same host. And if the two are in different locations, this could lead to widely inaccurate results.
And finally, some routers are configured, for security reasons, not to respond to the type of requests that traceroute uses. This won’t stop traceroute from functioning and the utility will simply ignore those hops and report them as unreachable.
What If There Was A Traceroute “On Steroids”?
Using traceroute is not the most exciting task one can think of. And anyone who used it extensively has dreamed of a better traceroute. Fortunately, some developers have also thought of it and have done something about it. This is why we can find many alternatives to traceroute.
Some only have cosmetic improvements and will, for instance, wrap the tool with a nicer looking GUI. Others add some seriously useful functionality. Some advanced traceroute utilities will, for example, pull extensive information about each hop from the Internet. That could include information such as the owner of the router or it’s physical location, gleaned using IP address-based geolocation techniques.
Some will push the envelope even further and will plot the results of the traceroute on a map giving the user a way to effectively visualize the path to the destination.
Our Top Three Plus Two Best Traceroute Alternatives
We’ve searched the web for the best traceroute alternatives. Some of the products we’ve found are profoundly different from the original traceroute. Others offer more minor improvements. Those that made our list either have the best feature set and/or reputation or are the most used.
We’ve also included a mix of locally installed tools that you run from a computer and a couple of web-based tools as well. Both types of tools can be useful. The local software can help you figure paths on a large corporate network and identify which segments of the network experience issues such as latency.
Web-based traceroute tools are run from a remote server–with some tools allowing you to choose the source server or running the test from several sources simultaneously–and are best used to troubleshoot issues such as poor website response.
SolarWinds is a well-known name in the field of network management tools. The company makes some of the best monitoring tools starting with its flagship product, the Network Performance Monitor, a complete network monitoring solution. SolarWinds also has a solid reputation for making great free tools that address specific needs of network administrators. Traceroute NG is one such tool.
TracerouteNG leverages the SolarWinds Netpath technology to offer continuous TCP and ICMP tracing. It claims to be faster than other traceroute utilities and to return results in mere seconds. Of course, this mostly depends on the network.
But Traceroute NG not only improves on the speed of traceroute. It also returns quite a bit more information, giving you a deeper insight into the situation. For each hop, Traceroute NG will use ping to return the packet loss percentage, the current and average response time as well as a latency bar graph. Also important, Traceroute NG will use a reverse DNS lookup to find and display the Fully Qualified Domain Name, or FQDN, of each hop.
Another great feature of Traceroute NG is its automatic detection of path changes. If there are multiple paths to a given host, the tool will figure it out and display each path individually. This is very useful when troubleshooting load-balanced environments. The tool will also let you choose to perform the test using either TCP or ICMP packets. This can be useful if some device along the path blocks ICMP, for example. And last but not least, Traceroute NG will write the results of its test to a .txt log file.
Traceroute NG runs on Windows only but, deceptively, it’s not a true Windows application. While it does run under the Windows OS and inside a window, it is mostly a text-based tool. But then again, would a GUI increase the tool’s usefulness? Probably not.
The tool, which is downloaded as a .zip file requires no installation but it relies on Winpcap which must be installed if it’s not already present on your computer. Traceroute NG, however, will detect its absence when it starts and will automatically launch the Winpcap installer which is included in the .zip file.
TRACEROUTE NG (official download link): https://www.solarwinds.com/free-tools/traceroute-ng
2. Open Visual Traceroute
If what you’re after is a true GUI-based traceroute tool, Open Visual Traceroute is what you need. The tool, which is available for Windows, most flavors of Linux, or Mac OS X is simply amazing. The tool is free and open-source, released under the LGPL V3 license.
The main component of this software is the Visual Traceroute per se. It is a visual, GUI-based utility that will let you see on a World 3D map–or 2D if you prefer–what path the data is taking to go from your computer to the target host. The map can be zoomed and scrolled at will, providing any level of detail you might want.
Open Visual Traceroute also comes with a few more tools, making it an even more useful product. First, there’s a “packet sniffer”. It’s not a packet sniffer like Wireshark, though. Its purpose is solely to allow you to see what data is being sent back and forth from the local system to the Internet. There is also a Whois feature that will pull information about domain names from the Internet.
3. MTR (My Traceroute)
MTR was first developed by someone named Mike and the acronym stood for Mike’s Traceroute. Someone else has taken over and renamed it to My Traceroute but it’s still the same product. The software has been around since 1997. If longevity is a testament to quality, this ought to be a pretty good tool.
And it is. Functionally, it is almost identical–or at least very similar–to Traceroute NG reviewed above. The main differences between the two are that while Traceroute NG is a Windows application, MTR runs on Linux and can be used with a GUI or from the command line.
Concretely, MTR combines the functionality of traceroute and ping in one network diagnostic tool. When you run MTR, it first operates exactly like traceroute to learn the network path to a specified host. Once it knows the path, MTR goes a bit further. It will send a sequence of ICMP ECHO requests to each hop to measure the quality of the link to each router. And as it does that, it displays the measured statistics on the screen. In fact, it prints it to the standard output, meaning that it can be redirected to a file.
4. Monitis Online Visual Trace Route Tool (Online Tool)
Monitis is a TeamViewer company that makes a well-known website performance monitoring platform. The cloud-based virtual service will allow you to monitor your websites, servers, applications, and more anytime and from anywhere. With close to a quarter million users, this is a rather popular platform.
Like many other vendors, Monitis has a few free tools available on their website. The Online Visual Trace Route, despite the unusual spelling, is exactly what it says it is. It will trace the route between Monitis’ server and the host you specify and plot it on a map of the World. Unfortunately, the map display rarely includes all hops. This is normal as the tool won’t be able to geolocate every hop and some hos won’t respond at all. And this is true of any such tool, not just this one.
If you scroll down the screen, you’ll see that the tool also present the information in a tabular form, much like a traditional traceroute tools would. You might also notice that, at the top of the tabular display, there are three tabs labeled United States, Europe, and Asia/Pacific. You’d be lead to think that clicking on a tab runs the test from a different source located in those three geographic areas but, looking at the results, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Both the table and the map display change from one tab to the other but I haven’t been able to figure how they operate.
5. G-Suite.Tools Visual Traceroute (Online Tool)
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the name, G-Suite.Tools is in no way related to Google. The website proposes a handful of useful network and Internet tools. Among those is a visual traceroute tool. Using it is pretty simple. You simply type in an IP address or FQDN and click the TRACE button. Pretty soon, a smallish map on the page will visually display the path to the specified host.
Like most other similar tools, a table is available. It shows IP address and FQDN (when resolvable) as well as the cumulative round-trip time to each hop. One thing we particularly loved about this tool–and it is particularly well-suited for newcomers–is the wealth of information about the traceroute process that can be found on the page.
While you’re there, G-Suite.Tools has a few other tools you might want to use. Each can be easily accessed from a ribbon menu at the top of the page. There’s DNS Lookup, Whois lookup, ping, my IP address, IP address location as well as a tool to verify the operation of email addresses.
Traceroute has been with us for a while and it’s b=obviously here to stay. It is one of the most used–and most useful–basic diagnostic tool one can find. And with all the improved versions of traceroute that can be found, it has become an even better and more useful tool. There are way more than 5 such tools but we had limited space and decided to limit our selection to the best five we could find but that doesn’t mean that there are not many more great traceroute tools available.