A computer network is a set of computers sharing resources located on or provided by network nodes. The computers use common communication protocols over digital interconnections to communicate with each other
A network consists of two or more computers that are linked in order to share resources (such as printers and CDs), exchange files, or allow electronic communications. The computers on a network may be linked through cables, telephone lines, radio waves, satellites, or infrared light beams
A Local Area Network (LAN) is a network that is confined to a relatively small area. It is generally limited to a geographic area such as a writing lab, school, or building.
Computers connected to a network are broadly categorized as servers or workstations. Servers are generally not used by humans directly, but rather run continuously to provide “services” to the other computers (and their human users) on the network. Services provided can include printing and faxing, software hosting, file storage and sharing, messaging, data storage and retrieval, complete access control (security) for the network’s resources, and many others.
Workstations are called such because they typically do have a human user which interacts with the network through them. Workstations were traditionally considered a desktop, consisting of a computer, keyboard, display, and mouse, or a laptop, with with integrated keyboard, display, and touchpad. With the advent of the tablet computer, and the touch screen devices such as iPad and iPhone, our definition of workstation is quickly evolving to include those devices, because of their ability to interact with the network and utilize network services.
Servers tend to be more powerful than workstations, although configurations are guided by needs. For example, a group of servers might be located in a secure area, away from humans, and only accessed through the network. In such cases, it would be common for the servers to operate without a dedicated display or keyboard. However, the size and speed of the server’s processor(s), hard drive, and main memory might add dramatically to the cost of the system. On the other hand, a workstation might not need as much storage or working memory, but might require an expensive display to accommodate the needs of its user. Every computer on a network should be appropriately configured for its use.
On a single LAN, computers and servers may be connected by cables or wirelessly. Wireless access to a wired network is made possible by wireless access points (WAPs). These WAP devices provide a bridge between computers and networks. A typical WAP might have the theoretical capacity to connect hundreds or even thousands of wireless users to a network, although practical capacity might be far less.
Nearly always servers will be connected by cables to the network, because the cable connections remain the fastest. Workstations which are stationary (desktops) are also usually connected by a cable to the network, although the cost of wireless adapters has dropped to the point that, when installing workstations in an existing facility with inadequate wiring, it can be easier and less expensive to use wireless for a desktop.
Wide Area Networks (WANs) connect networks in larger geographic areas, such as Florida, the United States, or the world. Dedicated transoceanic cabling or satellite uplinks may be used to connect this type of global network.
Using a WAN, schools in Florida can communicate with places like Tokyo in a matter of seconds, without paying enormous phone bills. Two users a half-world apart with workstations equipped with microphones and a webcams might teleconference in real time. A WAN is complicated. It uses multiplexers, bridges, and routers to connect local and metropolitan networks to global communications networks like the Internet. To users, however, a WAN will not appear to be much different than a LAN.
WHAT IS NETWORK MONITORING
Network monitoring is the use of a system that constantly monitors a computer network for slow or failing components and that notifies the network administrator in case of outages or other trouble. Network monitoring is part of network management
Network monitoring provides the information that network administrators need to determine, in real time, whether a network is running optimally. With tools such as networking monitoring software, administrators can proactively identify deficiencies, optimize efficiency, and more
What are network monitoring systems?
Network monitoring systems include software and hardware tools that can track various aspects of a network and its operation, such as traffic, bandwidth utilization, and uptime. These systems can detect devices and other elements that comprise or touch the network, as well as provide status updates.
Network administrators rely on network monitoring systems to help them quickly detect device or connection failures or issues such as traffic bottlenecks that limit data flow. The ability to detect issues extends to parts of the network traditionally beyond their demarcation boundaries. These systems can alert administrators to issues by email or text and deliver reports using network analytics.
What are the protocols for network monitoring?
Protocols are sets of rules and directions for devices on a network to communicate with one another. Network hardware must use protocols in order to transmit data. Network monitoring systems use protocols to identify and report on network performance issues.
Key benefits of network monitoring
Clear visibility into the network
Through network monitoring, administrators can get a clear picture of all the connected devices in the network. See how data is moving among them, and quickly identify and correct issues that can undermine performance and lead to outages.
Modern enterprises rely on a host of internet-dependent, business-critical services. This includes cloud service providers, ISPs, CDNs, as well as SaaS, UCaaS, VPNs and SECaaS providers. Each service operates over the internet, making them susceptible to performance fluctuations caused by internet outages or routing issues. Visibility into the network components beyond your control allows you to monitor issues that might impact employees or customers.
Better use of IT resources
The hardware and software tools in network monitoring systems reduce manual work for IT teams. That means valuable IT staff have more time to devote to critical projects for the organization.
Early insight into future infrastructure needs
Network monitoring systems can provide reports on how network components have performed over a defined period. By analyzing these reports, network administrators can anticipate when the organization may need to consider upgrading or implementing new IT infrastructure.
The ability to identify security threats faster
Network monitoring helps organizations understand what “normal” performance looks like for their networks. So, when unusual activity occurs, such as an unexplained increase in network traffic levels, it’s easier for administrators to identify the issue quickly–and to determine whether it may be a security threat.
Types of network monitoring protocols
The Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is an application-layer protocol that uses a call-and-response system to check the status of many types of devices, from switches to printers. SNMP can be used to monitor system status and configuration.
Network devices, such as routers and servers, use the Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) to send IP-operations information and to generate error messages in the event of device failures.
Cisco Discovery Protocol
The Cisco Discovery Protocol facilitates management of Cisco devices by discovering these devices, determining how they are configured, and allowing systems using different network-layer protocols to learn about one another.
FREE NETWORK MONITORING TOOLS
Top FREE Network Monitoring Tools
By Staff Contributor on November 1, 2019
Way back in 2015, we reviewed the must-have top free networking tools. And honestly, those reviews have stood the test of time. But now that time has passed, the landscape has changed, and we think it’s worthwhile to review those old choices and possibly add a few new ones.
Laying the Foundation
To build a network, you start with an architecture, draw the design, and analyze and choose the hardware that meets your requirements. Because many organizations need their network to be up and functioning to generate revenue, having the right set of tools to monitor and manage the one you so lovingly created is critical.
But how do you find the best network monitoring tools when there are hundreds of commercial products, freeware tools, and open-source software to choose from? While the debate about free versus commercial goes on, there are tried and tested, free network monitoring tools that many network admins swear by. Below, we will share some of our favorites with you.
Open-source choices are good and can even match commercial tools, but you should know that using open-source monitoring requires a high level of involvement with the tool, which may not perfectly suit your needs. As the saying goes, “Open-source is only free if your time is worthless.”
Open-source monitoring solutions often require a significant investment in time and resources. Missing features may have to be built with the help of community support or an in-house IT team. The second consideration is security, which may become an issue, depending on the tool you select and your enterprise’s security guidelines. Additionally, immediate custom fixes may not be available unless you spend time developing and maintaining them yourself.
If you’re looking for a robust yet affordable network monitoring tool offering a greater degree of automation and insight and a lesser degree of required manual input than an open-source solution, SolarWinds® ipMonitor® may be a good option for you. ipMonitor offers scalable network monitoring for your entire network in an easy-to-use, lightweight, and fast solution designed to help minimize downtime and the amount of time you need to spend monitoring your network by hand.
The tool’s Startup Wizard guides you through the processes of alert configuration and automated discovery so you can quickly start getting insights into your network. ipMonitor even offers out-of-the-box recommendations for what you should be monitoring on each of your applications and devices.
One reason someone may want to use a free network monitoring solution is because they’re intimidated by a paid solution. In fact, paid network monitoring tools are typically much easier to use than their free counterparts. This is certainly true when it comes to ipMonitor, as the user-friendly interface helps you quickly identify current (and even potential) issues so you can get to the bottom of them before they cause even more problems for your network performance. ipMonitor helps ensure you never miss anything with its powerful, configurable alerting system. With more than a dozen different notification types built in, ipMonitor helps you make sure the right people on your team know about potential problems as soon as the tool detects them.
ipMonitor is an affordable option for businesses of any size, but if you aren’t sure whether you want to commit to a paid tool, you can try out a free 14-day trial to see if the tool is a good fit for your needs.
When we need a network monitoring tool that is easy to install, and supports monitoring and reporting out of the box, we like SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (NPM). NPM acts as a single pane of glass to provide complete and comprehensive network monitoring capabilities that complement some of the essential free tools you may already use.
Because enterprise networks are becoming bigger and more complex, it’s important to put network monitoring and managing solutions in place early in the implementation phase.
What’s on the list?
If you do decide to go the free/open-source route, you should check out the following. It’s our list of the best free network monitoring tools available today.
Nagios® is the great-grand-daddy of monitoring tools, with only ping being more ubiquitous in some circles.
Nagios is popular due to its active development community and external plug-in support. You can create and use external plugins in the form of executable files or Perl® and shell scripts to monitor and collect metrics from every hardware and software used in a network. There are plugins that provide an easier and better GUI, address many limitations in the Core®, and support features, such as auto discovery, extended graphing, notification escalation, and more.
Cacti® is another of the monitoring warhorses that has endured as a go-to for network monitoring needs. It allows you to collect data from almost any network element, including routing and switching systems as well as firewalls, and put that data into robust graphs. If you have a device, it’s possible that Cacti’s active community of developers has created a monitoring template for it.
Cacti supports SNMP polling, which itself covers a wide range of network devices. You can also extend Cacti’s capabilities to use scripts, queries, or commands for data collection, and save it as a template to use for polling other devices for similar datasets. Cacti leverages the power of RRDTool, an open-source data logging and graphing system for creating graphs from the stored datasets. RRDTool’s data consolidation lets you store collected data forever and is limited only by the size of your storage. Cacti also allows you to add multiple users and give them access with or without edit permissions, which is perfect for service providers and enterprises with a large NOC team.
Admittedly complex to set up, Zabbix® comes with a simple and clean GUI that makes it easy to manage, once you get the hang of it. Zabbix supports agentless monitoring using technologies such as SNMP, ICMP, Telnet, SSH, etc., and agent-based monitoring for all Linux® distros, Windows® OS, and Solaris®. It supports a number of databases, including MySQL®, PostgreSQL™, SQLite, Oracle®, and IBM® DB2®. Zabbix’s VMware® monitoring capabilities allow you to customize using any scripting or programming language, which is widely regarded as its best feature.
Zabbix is probably the most widely used open-source network monitoring tool after Nagios.
ntop, which is now ntopng (ng for next generation), is a traffic probe that uses libpcap (for packet capture) to report on network traffic. You can install ntopng on a server with multiple interfaces and use port mirroring or a network tap to feed ntopng with the data packets from the network for analysis. ntopng can analyze traffic even at 10G speeds; report on IP addresses, volume, and bytes for each transaction; sort traffic based on IP, port, and protocol; generate reports for usage; view top talkers; and report on AS information. This level of traffic analysis helps you make informed decisions about capacity planning and QoS design and helps you find bandwidth-hogging users and applications in the network. ntopng has a commercial version called ntopng pro that comes with some additional features, but the open-source version is good enough to quickly gain insight into traffic behavior. ntop can also integrate with external monitoring applications such as Nagios for alerting and provide data for monitoring.
ntopng has some limitations, but the level of network traffic visibility it provides makes it well worth the effort.
Built on top of MySQL and PostgreSQL, Icinga is Nagios backwards-compatible, meaning if you have an investment in Nagios scripts, you can port them over with relative ease.
Icinga was created in 2009 by the same group of devs that made Nagios, so they knew their stuff. Since then, the developers have made great strides in terms of expanding both functionality and usability since then. As the Nagios pedigree might imply, its primary focus is monitoring infrastructure and services.
Spiceworks offers many free IT management tools, including inventory management, help desk workflow, and even cloud monitoring, in addition to the network monitoring solution I’m focusing on here. Built on agentless techniques like WMI (for Windows machines) and SNMP (for network and *nix systems), this free tool can provide insights into many network performance issues. You can also set up customizable notifications and restart services from within the app.
Note that Spiceworks is free because most of its revenue comes from the sale of ad displays in its network. It’s a small price to pay for a free solution, but it’s something to think about before you install.
Observium follows the “freemium” model that is now espoused by most of the open-source community—a core set of features for free, with additional options if you pay for them. While the “Community” (i.e., free) version supports an unlimited number of devices, Observium is still careful to say that it’s meant for home lab use. This is bolstered by the fact that the free version cannot scale past a single server. Run this on your corporate network at your own risk!
The free version also enjoys a 6-month patch and update cycle. If you want fixes any faster than twice a year, you’ll have to pay for them. One of the most painful features held back from the free version is the lack of alerting capabilities. Those caveats aside, you get a full auto-discovery of your devices and metrics (using SNMP and standard protocols, as usual).
Related Top Tools for Network Monitoring
There are a few tools that aren’t monitoring solutions per-se but are so incredibly useful to the monitoring professional that we didn’t feel right leaving them out.
Wireshark® is an open-source packet analyzer that uses libpcap (*nix) or winpcap (Windows) to capture packets and display them on its graphical front-end, while also providing good filtering, grouping, and analysis capabilities. It lets users capture traffic at wire speed or read from packet dumps and analyze details at microscopic levels. Wireshark supports almost every protocol, and has functionalities that filter based on packet type, source, destination, etc. It can analyze VoIP calls, plot IO graphs for all traffic from an interface, decrypt many protocols, export the output, and lots more.
Wireshark provides unlimited opportunities to study packets, which makes it a solid go-to for network, system, and security admins.
Nmap uses a discovery feature to find hosts in the network that can be used to create a network map. Network admins value it for its ability to gather information from the host about the Operating System, services, or ports that are running or are open, MAC address info, reverse DNS name, and more.
Scalability is the other big reason why network admins love Nmap. It can scan a single host or an entire network with “hundreds of thousands” of machines.
When you need to quickly map the hosts in your network, Nmap is your tool.
Free Network Monitoring Tools
Most of the tools we’ve focused on in this post have been of the “freemium” variety—a limited set of features (or support) for free, with additional features, support, or offerings available for a cost.
But there is a whole other class of tools which are just free-free. They do a particular task very well, and there is no cost (with the exception of the odd pop-up ad during installation). We wanted to take a moment to dig into a few of the tools that are in “network_utilities” directories on our systems and frequently use.
Also, we want to be clear that the list below isn’t meant to be (or even appear) exhaustive. There are many, MANY useful free network monitoring tools out there, and which ones an IT pro uses is often up to personal preference or the specifics of their work environment. We’re listing out the ones we’ve found in our travels and use often.
Ping is great. Traceroute is better. But both fall short in modern networks (and especially with internet-based targets because the internet is intrinsically multi-path). A packet has multiple ways to get to a target at any moment. You don’t need to know how a SINGLE packet got to the destination; you need to know how ALL the packets are moving through the network across time. Traceroute NG does that and avoids the single biggest roadblock to ping and traceroute accuracy—ICMP suppression—at the same time.
If you are doing simple monitoring, the first question you’re going to want to know is, “is it up?” Following closely on the heels of that is, “how much bandwidth is it using?” Yes, it’s a simplistic question and an answer that may not really point to a problem (because let’s be honest, a circuit that’s 98% utilized most of the time is called “correctly provisioned” in our book), but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to know. This tool gets that information quickly, simply, and displays the results clearly.
We mentioned Wireshark over in the non-monitoring monitoring tools section because of its flexibility, utility, and ubiquity. But the “-ity” that was left out was “simplicity.” That sucker can be HARD to learn to use, especially for new network engineers fresh on the job. This utility will take Wireshark data and parse it out to show some important statistics simply and clearly. Specifically, it collects, compares, and displays the time for a three-way-handshake versus the time-to-first-byte between two systems. Effectively, it shows you whether a perceived slowdown is due to the network (three-way handshake) or application response (time to first byte). This can be an effective way to narrow down your troubleshooting work and focus on solving the right problem faster.
IP SLA is one of the most often-overlooked techniques in a monitoring specialist’s arsenal. Relegated to being “that protocol for VoIP,” the reality is that IP SLA operations can tell you much more than jitter, packet loss, and MOS. You can test a remote DHCP server to see if it has addresses to hand out, check the response of DNS from anywhere within your company, verify that essential services like FTP and HTTP are running, and more.
So, this free tool is something of a secret weapon for engineers who need to get miraculous tasks done on the cheap.
What have we learned?
This year, monitoring professionals have almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to free and open-source solutions to help us do our jobs. While none of these free tools are exactly push-button simple to install, maintain, or use, if your budget for tools is close to non-existing and you have the time to invest, they may fit the bill. Otherwise, we’d recommend using a tool like SolarWinds NPM, which is easy to install and supports motioning and reporting right out of the box.
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