System Monitoring can be a challenge for many administrators. It’s not that uncommon for today’s networks to have dozens or even hundreds of server. And you need to keep a watchful eye on each and every server’s operating parameters. This is where a system monitoring tool can come in handy. Typically, these systems will watch your servers and other devices while you can concentrate on more productive tasks. And if something goes wrong, if an operational parameter exceeds its normal range, the system will alert you. Today, we’re having a look at six of the best Windows system monitoring tools.
We’ll begin by discussing the need for system monitoring. We’ll see how the complex systems of today have so many components that it’s almost impossible to keep an eye on everything without assistance, We’ll then discuss the built-in monitoring tools that are present in every system. They’re a good starting point to understand what monitoring is all about. This will bring us to the features and operation of system monitoring tool. This is what they do and how they do it. And once we’re all on the same page, we’ll review the six best system monitoring tools for Windows.
The Need For System Monitoring Tools
Although it would certainly be useful, we can’t have eyes everywhere. Yet, we have to constantly remain aware of the status of all the equipment we manage. Today’s systems are way more complex than those of just 10 years ago. And they have many more components. Likewise, more processes than ever are running on a typical computer. Each of these processes consumes part of its host’s system resources. And when resources are all used up, things start to go wrong. Processes crash, errors happen. Things don’t go well.
In order to ensure that things always run smoothly, you need to constantly check your equipment’s operational parameters so that you can react preemptively before problems arise. It’s not uncommon for a system administrator to be responsible for the operation of dozens if not hundreds of devices, making it almost impossible to watch them all. There’s just too many of them.
Another problem is that most server operational parameters are not readily available and some tool must be used to access them. Mainframe computers of yesteryear had all sorts of gauges and light on their control panels to alert administrators of abnormal conditions. Some early PCs and networking equipment had remnants of those–I recall a home computer that had an LED that flashed every time an interrupt was raised or this ethernet hub that had a “collision” LED–but they have long since disappeared.
This is when system monitoring tools become a necessity. They allow system administrators to spend their time on more constructive and useful tasks while the tool does the monitoring, alerting the administrator when something is wrong, usually before it becomes a real issue. This gives the system administrator enough time to react and fix the problem.
Virtualized environments are a specific use case that requires specialized monitoring. When several virtual instances have to share the resources of a host server, both the host and each virtual instance need to be monitored. And hosts server have specific operational parameter and monitoring requirements that many Windows system monitoring tools lack. For those, you need specific VM monitoring tools.
Built-in Monitoring Tools
Most modern operating systems include some form of built-in monitoring tool. Windows, for instance, has the Task Manager. This is a very handy tool that every system administrator should be familiar with. Its main pane will show the processor, memory, disk, network, and graphics processor utilization of each running process. Its performance tab will give you detailed graphs of the evolution over time of several operational parameters such as processor utilization, memory, disk, and each network interface.
Another tool that has been present on Windows systems for a while but is less used today because much of the information it provides is now available in the Windows Task Manager is called the Resource Monitor. It provides much of the same information that’s available from the task manager but it is more oriented to show the usage of both hardware and software resources by the different processes currently running.
System administrators with a Unix or Linux background will likely be familiar with two command-line utilities: ps and top. The former lists all currently running processes and optionally their processor and memory utilization. As for top, it is a similar tool although it will typically include more information presented in a tabular format.
Features And Operation Of System Monitoring Tools
System monitoring tools are all different. And while each claims to be better than others, in reality, they are all much alike in their core functionality. we’ve compiled a list of the main features that you will find in most system monitoring tool. It should help you clarify your monitoring needs and compare different tools.
The most basic feature of system monitoring tools their ability to remotely monitor multiple servers. The best systems will monitor various operating systems and some will have distributed monitoring to facilitate multi-site implementations. Some tools will also provide an auto-discovery mechanism to automatically scan your network as add every monitorable device it finds. This could be a one-time, post-installation process or a continuous one that will add any new server as it is brought up. Monitoring tools should be as unintrusive as possible. You don’t want them to put an additional load on your servers. They also need to be scalable. Your network will more than likely grow over time and your monitoring tool needs to be able to follow that growth.
Typically, system monitoring tools will monitor a wide range of metrics such as server availability, CPU usage, memory usage, disk space, CPU temperature, and power supply voltages. When applicable, some will also measure response time and upload/download speeds. Application monitoring is also common with system monitoring tools. The best ones use a deep knowledge of the applications to monitor several of their specific metrics. This is particularly useful for web servers or database servers, for example.
The next big function of system monitoring tools is alerting. What’s the use of monitoring your environment if nothing happens when things go wrong? Monitoring systems will automatically alert administrators of any abnormal parameter. Most systems come with predefined alerting thresholds although customizing them to your needs is always possible and certainly recommended. Notification methods and alert thresholds can usually be customized. Most systems will pop a message box on their console but also send email, SMS, pager messages, etc. Some system will also trigger actions–either built-in or custom scripts–when alerts are raised.
Those are the basic functions that most system monitoring tools share but there’s usually more. Reporting is often an important part of monitoring tools with the best one offering both pre-built and customized reports. Reporting, of course, also implies the collection of historical data.
If servers are not the only devices you want to monitor, perhaps you’ll need a different tool. For instance, networking devices–such as switches and routers–have very different monitoring requirements than servers. Consequently, some dedicated monitoring tools exist for these devices. They rely on the Simple Network Management Protocol or on NetFlow to get networking device’s operational data and display it in a useful manner. If you want more information about network monitoring tools, these two articles will be of interest:
The Best System Monitoring Tools For Windows
So, now that it’s clear why you may need a Windows system monitoring tool and that you know some of the functionalities you should be looking for, let’s proceed and review the different tools we recommend. Some are free, some are paid or subscription -based but all will provide a much-needed assistance when it comes to keeping a closer eye on your servers.
If you don’t already know SolarWinds, it is more than about time you learn about the company. SolarWinds makes some of the best network and system administration tools. SolarWinds is also known for making a handful–actually, quite a few handfuls–of free task-specific tools such as the Advanced Subnet Calculator or the Server Health Monitor, the number one entry on our list of the six best Windows system monitoring tools.
FREE DOWNLOAD: SolarWinds Server Health Monitor
The SolarWinds Server Health Monitor, or SHM, can monitor the availability, health, and performance of up to 5 servers. This is a serious limitation although it could be enough for some smaller businesses. It is also limited in what it can monitor. It will only work with Dell PowerEdge™, HP ProLiant™, and IBM eServer™ xSeries servers. It also supports a few models of blade enclosures from Dell and HP as well as a few VMware hypervisors. The tool uses a combination of methods like SNMP, WMI, and CIM to pull operational data from the servers it monitors.
The tool’s dashboard shows you the overall health of the monitored servers. Individual servers can be clicked to get a list of all the monitored parameters that you can also click for greater detail. It gives you some insight into the general health of a small group of servers. We haven’t mentioned alert or reports for a simple reason, there are none. This is an entry-level tool that will require you to keep an eye on its screen which, of course, is better than checking five server screens.
Next on our list is another tool form SolarWinds. The Server and Application Monitor starts where the Server HealthMonitor stops. It is a similar tool but with a much broader feature set. It is part of the Orion suite of administration and management tools. We looked at another tool from the Orion suite in a recent article: Best Free sFlow Collectors and Analyzers Reviewed in 2018.
As its name implies, this advanced tool will not only monitor servers but also the applications running on them. It is a complete solution that can scale from the smallest networks to large, multi-site corporate networks with hundreds of servers, both physical and virtual. It can also monitor servers in cloud environments such as those from Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.
When first set up, the tool will auto-discover hosts and devices on your network. Only then, of course, can you start monitoring them. A second discovery scan is necessary to detect applications running on each server. Optionally, you can supply a list of applications and have the scan only look for those.
Once it’s up and running, using the Server and Application Monitor is very intuitive. Clicking on Node Detail, for instance, will show you that node’s performance and health information. Graphical and Tabular formats are available for the displayed information.
Pricing for the SolarWinds Server and Application Monitor starts at just below $3 000. If you prefer to try before you buy, a free 30-day trial version is available for download.
3. WhatsUp Gold
WhatsUp Gold from Ipswitch is another common name in the field of monitoring tools. What was once just an up-or-down monitoring tool has evolved into one of the best system and network monitoring platform. It has everything that’s expected from a Windows system monitoring tool. You get the monitoring of operational parameters–of course–and you also have completely customizable alerting and reporting.
Setting up WhatsUp Gold is easy, thanks to its auto-discovery engine that will find your devices and add them to the monitoring console. It will find physical servers, virtual servers, cloud servers, applications and networking equipment. The tool has a map view where you can see the different component’s interconnections. It is clickable for more information on each device.
WhatsUp Gold is available as a free version but it is limited to monitoring only five devices. Paid licenses are available in three levels of increasing functionality and pricing is based on the number of monitored devices. A free, time-limited trial version is also available.
4. ManageEngine OpManager
Our number four entry is the OpManager from ManageEngine. ManageEngine is also known for making some great tools to help administrators manage their equipment. The OpManager is one such tool. It is another all-in-one package that will monitor your server’s (physical and virtual) and your network equipment’s vital signs and alert you as soon as something is out of range.
ManageEngine claims its OpManager can be installed in less than two minutes. It will then discover your devices and start monitoring them without needing complex configuration steps. The package has a very intuitive user interface where you’ll easily find the information you need. It also has very good pre-built reports as well as custom ones. The product’s alerting features are also very complete.
The ManageEngine OpManager is available in the Essential edition for small and medium enterprises with up to a thousand devices at prices starting at just over $700 for 25 devices. For larger organizations, there’s an Enterprise edition which can scale up to ten thousand devices. Its price starts at under $20k for 500 devices. The price for both editions varies according to the number of monitored devices and a free 30-day trial is also available.
5. Nagios XI
You may already know Nagios Core, an open-source monitoring platform that’s been enjoying decent popularity for years. Nagios XI, a commercial version of Nagios, can be thought of as Nagios on steroids. It has a richer feature set, easier installation and setup, and a more polished feel. Nagios XI is a true enterprise-grade server and network software. It uses the same core engine as its open-source brother but bolts-in a very powerful, customizable GUI.
Nagios XI offers an all-inclusive monitoring solution for applications, services, operating systems, network protocols, systems metrics, and network infrastructure. And if that ain’t enough, third-party add-ons let you monitor virtually all applications, services, and systems.
Nagios XI is available in Standard and Enterprise editions. The latter has additional functionality and includes additional features to assist in large-scale configuration, forecasting, and scheduled reporting. If you want to try the product, a free version is available but it is limited to monitoring seven devices.
Our last entry, Zabbix is one of the best free and open-source system monitoring platform. It is over 20 years old and has a massive 300 000 users worldwide. This is a true enterprise-grade system that can scale to very big networks. Zabbix will monitor networks, servers–both local and cloud-based, and the services running on those servers.
Although the product is free, ancillary services can be purchased from Zabbix. Among the most popular are five levels of technical support and a complete certification training program. If you prefer to remain on the free side, community support is also available and very good.
Feature-wise, Zabbix has everything you’d expect from products costing thousands of dollars. Its alerting is second to none and so is its reporting engine. With a price point that is hard to beat, you might want to give Zabbix a try.
Windows system monitoring tools let system administrators worry about important things while they take care of watching servers and applications for them. Any of our top 6 best Windows system monitoring tool is an excellent option. More than anything, your choice of platform will be guided by your exact needs and personal preferences. All of our top 6 picks can be tested at no charge so feel free to experiment and try a few to make sure it does what you need.