A Comprehensive Guide to Network Monitoring Tools

Network outages and performance issues are among the biggest concerns for businesses—they’re challenging to deal with and incredibly expensive to revive and maintain. To proactively deal with potential network outbreaks, businesses are embracing various technological tools focused on improving network performance.

What Is Network Monitoring?

Networks are dynamic environments often introduced with new users, applications, and technologies. These changes affect the network’s ability to deliver consistent performance and hamper various critical business operations. Network monitoring is the practice of consistently overseeing and evaluating network components like switches, routers, firewalls, and servers for fault and performance through dedicated network monitoring tools to help you proactively identify issues and prevent network downtime and failures. Network monitoring solutions keep track of various network performance metrics and help your business applications run flawlessly.

Benefits of Using a Network Monitoring Solution

Outages can occur due to environmental factors, human error, and configuration issues. Incorporating network monitoring tools is one of the best ways to prevent these network outages. Monitoring tools not only provide visibility into the network issues but also help businesses to stay one step ahead. The tool displays live network performance data in a user-friendly interface, which helps in identifying outages that could cause bottlenecks. Besides optimizing network performance and resolving issues, monitoring tools provide various other benefits to the organizations listed below.

Discover Security Threats

As businesses continue to send crucial information over the internet, it becomes important to secure the network used to communicate with various applications. Besides tracking network performance, these solutions help discover security threats in real time and monitor traffic to identify potential risks, security threats, vulnerabilities, and suspicious behavior. Having a real-time network monitoring solution helps businesses identify flaws otherwise undetectable to the human eye.

Check Bandwidth Utilization

Bandwidth is one of the most important metrics when it comes to monitoring network performance issues. It refers to a network’s capacity to transfer data between devices and the internet within a given timeframe. Higher bandwidth allows devices to connect quickly and data to flow at a faster rate. Network monitoring tools constantly monitor LAN and WAN bandwidth utilization to help you understand bandwidth needs and network capacity. Network monitoring software integrates with dedicated tools to give accurate measures of bandwidth utilization.

Optimize Performance and Network Availability

Keeping track of network availability and performance helps businesses ensure various operations run consistently for end users. Due to multiple processes and applications running simultaneously, it’s difficult to achieve optimal network availability and meet SLA requirements. Network management and monitoring tools gather and analyze data from various network devices via SNMP (an application layer protocol), helping administrators understand network flaws and take proactive measures.

Save Money

Network monitoring tools reduce business costs by maximizing asset utilization. They help businesses make full use of existing software and hardware with asset tracking features. They keep an eye on networking issues such as overwhelming traffic and unauthorized devices, which, when accessing sensitive assets, can lead to massive data loss, network downtime, and, unfortunately, lost business opportunities. Network monitoring tools increase business ROI by reducing the risk of such threats and incidents.

Meet Compliance and Regulations

Businesses need to maintain compliance and meet specific regulatory requirements. Traditionally, network operators handled customers and dealt with service level agreements. However, today network monitoring tools help businesses meet compliance by providing essential features to monitor and analyze the network. Real-time monitoring, intelligent topological mapping, critical path visualization, and advanced alerting help businesses stay on track.

Key Features of Network Monitoring Tools

Network monitoring tools may differ in their functionalities. Some tools focus on monitoring performance, others on optimizing resource usage. However, every network monitoring tool should provide certain key features, no matter what it’s designed to serve.

SNMP Compatibility

Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is an application layer protocol for exchanging data between network devices. Part of the TCP/IP protocol suite, SNMP is a widely accepted protocol and comes with professional-grade networking elements. Devices such as computers, switches, routers within a network are compatible with SNMP. SNMP is used to collect and organize information about device behavior and IP networks.

Real-Time Alerts

Network monitoring tools help teams to identify the root cause of the issues by sending real-time alerts. These alerts need to be informative and actionable. Some sophisticated network monitoring tools allow you to set alerts based on the severity of the network issues. This helps teams know where they need to start the troubleshooting process. Network performance monitors are also equipped with an intelligent alerting engine whose job is to flag certain conditions with custom actions such as sending mail, text, and audio alerts.

Easy-to-Use Dashboards

A dashboard is an essential feature of a network monitoring tool, as it collects and displays pertinent information to summarize a network environment quickly. Network monitoring tools offer default or customizable dashboards to view and analyze logs of events through graphical widgets. Some allow users to create new or customize existing dashboards and even share personal dashboards with other users to show network performance at a glance.

Network Mapping

A network mapping feature helps visualize all the devices within a network. It allows teams to look at the overall structuring of the network to get a single unified view of network connections, dependency relationships, applications, and topology. With visualization and topology, IT teams can easily understand the relationship between routers, interfaces, and switches, and identify network performance issues. Network mapping with critical hop-by-hop analysis provides information on the overall network’s health, including traffic, performance, and configuration along the entire delivery path.

Bandwidth Usage Reporting

One of the most important features every network monitoring tool needs to have is bandwidth utilization reports. Bandwidth usage reports help teams identify which applications, endpoints, or protocols are consuming the most bandwidth. The report includes data collected from continuous streams of network traffic from networking devices. Easy-to-understand graphs, charts, and tables help IT teams understand which devices use the most bandwidth.

Open-Source vs. Commercial Tools

Deciding on whether to choose an open-source or commercial network performance monitoring solution depends on specific business needs and the number of devices a business uses within a network. Initially, open source may seem the better option, as it offers various features at no cost. Still, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of both types of solutions before implementing them in business.

Open-Source Network Monitoring Tools

Open-source network monitoring is free software designed to monitor network performance issues. It’s used under a licensing agreement, so its code is visible to the public and can be shared and modified by users and organizations. The functionalities of open-source tools are limited to its supporting source code. While some tools have crucial add-on features, others are limited versions of commercial solutions. The performance of these tools highly depends on community input or the ability of users or organizations to improve their source code to meet specific requirements.

These tools usually offer support in the form of articles and forums. Some tools might give support to businesses as needed, but the quality of advice and speed of reply can be slow and unreliable. Open-source monitoring solutions can be helpful to IT teams willing to customize the code and improve the tool. The major benefit of an open-source solution is the lack of monetary investment required. However, to use extra features and added functionalities, subscription charges are often involved.

Commercial Network Monitoring Tools

Commercial, paid tools can easily be upgraded and improved as the providers have dedicated teams to update their functionality, features, and security. Commercial solutions come with a suite of tools to cover a range of network monitoring needs. These tools can easily be incorporated in a business’s existing system to get enhanced monitoring of network and devices. Unlike open-source tools, which need to be monitored for their functioning, commercial tools don’t require regular monitoring and instead are updated on a schedule.

Robust commercial tools typically provide superior technical support. As internal source code cannot be changed or modified quickly, tool providers can rest assured lingering issues won’t happen. If issues arise, businesses can always contact 24/7 support teams. The source code of commercial tools cannot be customized, modified, or viewed by the public for security reasons. This may be a significant drawback for those looking for open-source tools where code modification is a general practice. Commercial tools also provide a limited free trial to test the solution for its functionality and features. Businesses pay for the features they choose.

Best Network Monitoring Tools in 2020

  1. Network Performance Monitor
  2. NetFlow Traffic Analyzer
  3. ipMonitor
  4. ManageEngine OpManager
  5. PRTG
  6. Zabbix
  7. Prometheus

1. Network Performance Monitor

screenshot of solarwinds network performance monitor showing an overview of hardware health

SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (NPM) is a comprehensive software designed to help businesses monitor and take control of the devices within a network. NPM helps analyze network availability, performance, and faults. It reduces network downtime by automatically detecting network flaws and generates a network availability report before users start complaining. The tool displays the historical and current performance metrics in the form of customizable charts and dashboards. This graphical representation helps teams identify whether the problem is caused by hardware health, flapping routes, downtime, or an application. NPM uses packet analysis to determine the real cause of poor user experience.

With its NetPath network mapping feature, NPM helps you understand how traffic flows between devices. It performs a hop-by-hop analysis to view network performance, traffic slowdowns, and configuration details of devices and on-premises or cloud applications. Moreover, NPM features intelligent mapping to create custom network maps within the Orion® Platform.

As it can be challenging for teams to keep track of several performance metrics at once, the tool comes with in-built default alerts. These alerts notify teams about network flaws via email or text. They can also be customized or preset for specific nodes or according to the severity of an issue. You can try NPM free for 30 days.

2. NetFlow Traffic Analyzer

screenshot of solarwinds network traffic analyzer showing top 10 application performance

SolarWinds NetFlow Traffic Analyzer is a tool designed to collect, monitor, and analyze the real-time flow of data within a network by leveraging flow technologies (Cisco NetFlow, IPFIX, sFlow, NetStream, and J-Flow) built in to routers and switches. It captures network traffic data from these continuous streams and transforms those raw numbers into easy-to-understand graphs, charts, and tables. This helps teams distinguish who’s using the network and why. The tool monitors bandwidth utilization of protocols, applications, and IP address groups with IPv4 and IPv6 flow records. If there’s a sudden increase or decrease in application traffic, the tool sends alerts via text or email. Teams can program the tool to gather data including network traffic patterns of months, days, or even minutes displayed on easy-to-understand dashboards or the web-based interface. Create, schedule, and view in-depth reports of network analysis, bandwidth usage, and malicious or malformed traffic. NTA requires SolarWinds NPM to be installed on the same server.

Note: To get the enhanced monitoring and analytical capabilities of both SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor and NetFlow Traffic Analyzer, you should try Network Bandwidth Analyzer. These SolarWinds tools can be used together to detect, diagnose, and resolve network performance issues quickly and hassle-free. It gives you combined benefits of both tools, such as tracking SNMP-enabled devices, monitoring bandwidth consumption, and hop-by-hop analysis for devices along the delivery path. You can try NPM and NTA free for 30 days.

3. ipMonitor

screenshot of solarwinds ipmonitor showing top 10 devices by bandwidth utilization

SolarWinds ipMonitor® is a network performance monitoring tool designed to monitor critical IT environments. ipMonitor includes a built-in database and web server, making it lightweight and cost effective. The tool also provides an easy-to-use web interface with a centralized NOC dashboard to provide visibility into the health of IT infrastructure. The dashboards are highly customizable and ensure teams get the data they need (statistics, graphical data, and reports) at their fingertips. One of the best features of ipMonitor is how it automatically discovers network devices and creates dynamic maps of those devices to show the connection between them and the network. The tool also offers more than 14 different types of notifications to inform teams about network issues and application failures. ipMonitor configuration restores services automatically if a failure occurs, including restarting failed applications, executing scripts, rebooting servers, and restarting Windows to minimize downtime. To try ipMonitor, you can download a free 14-day trial.

4. ManageEngine OpManager

screenshot of manageengine opmanager's overview dashboard

ManageEngine OpManager is an easy-to-use network monitoring tool designed to monitor the performance of devices such as load balancers, switches, routers, firewalls, wireless LAN controllers, servers, or any device with an IP connected to a network. The tool also provides real-time monitoring with periodic health checks and performance audits. Monitoring of memory, CPU, and disk utilization of Linux and Windows servers is also possible with this tool. Teams can set multiple thresholds to monitor network performance proactively and get instant alerts if there’s a violation. With its hop-by-hop analysis, teams can easily monitor key metrics such as jitter, latency, RTT, and packet loss. The tool enables users to create custom dashboards using 200 performance widgets to view network performance at a glance. Usually, businesses need to analyze multiple tools, graphs, and GUI to identify the faults. However, OpManager offers detailed insights into problematic areas and drills down to the root cause of the issue with its smart run-time features.

5. PRTG

screenshot of paessler prtg's overview dashboard

PRTG offers an all-in-one package of tools including network monitoring, network analysis, and network diagnostics. These tools collectively provide centralized monitoring of networks and devices. With custom and easy-to-use dashboards, teams can get a summarized view of network performance. Setting threshold values for each parameter helps notify relevant teams before a problem occurs. Network analysis gives you an overview of the traffic flowing between devices within your network. The tool helps identify bandwidth hogs due to applications, video streams, or big files clogging the network, helping teams optimize data consumption. Although professionals must perform network diagnosis, PRTG offers a tool to achieve a similar or even more enhanced function. It facilitates complex searches to localize possible issues quickly and packet sniffing to log traffic by capturing packets of data flowing across a computer network.

6. Zabbix

screenshot of zabbix's global view dashboard

Zabbix is a leading open-source network monitoring tool to monitor networks, servers, applications, cloud, and services. The tool helps analyze and track various performance metrics, including packet loss rate, interface error rate, system status, device temperature, power supply, disk space, SNMP data collection, and more. The tool allows you to use out-of-the-box templates to monitor the devices of popular brands such as Brocade, Cisco, Dell, Juniper, and NETGEAR. These templates come with pre-configured applications, graphs, triggers, screens, and web-scenarios. The tool uses SNMP, IPMI, IPv6 support, and active/passive modes to collect various performance metrics. The tool can also auto-detect network devices (addition or replacement of switch) and their configurations (network module added, deleted, or modified). The tool has proactive network monitoring abilities to detect anomalies, predict bandwidth usage, and network downtimes.

7. Prometheus

screenshot of prometheus's instances dashboard

Prometheus is an open-source network monitoring tool with a large community. It implements dimensional data models to store information. The data is stored as a time series consisting of timestamps, labels, and metrics. PromQL queries collect time-series data to generate tables, alerts, and ad-hoc graphs with the help of its slicing and dicing features. The visualization features of Prometheus have multiple modes such as Grafana integration, built-in expression, and a console template language, making visualization easy to understand. The alert manager sends notifications every time an event occurs to the relevant admin member via email, text, or PagerDuty. The tool integrates well with third-party data sources such as Docker, JMX, and StatsD. Its onboarding integrations and easy-to-use alert manager makes it one of the best choices and capable of handling any workload. The tool works for organizations of all sizes and is free of cost, but may require additional charges to use extra features. Prometheus is community-driven and all its components are available under the Apache 2 License on GitHub. The tool is used by popular brands such as branch, Argus, Amadeus, CoreOS, Loodse, Maven, and more.

Get Started

Network monitoring tools are vital to maintain, regardless of the industry you work in. They allow teams to monitor network issues and their performance and let them troubleshoot, minimize, and prevent security breaches. Regular network maintenance can help prevent network outages, but not as efficiently as these dedicated tools can do. Network monitoring tools are invaluable resources providing with all-time visibility of your networks and devices.

When it comes to choosing a network monitoring tool, you can opt for either an open-source tool or a commercial/paid tool. Both are equally qualified solutions with their advantages and disadvantages. However, commercial tools are highly recommended over open-source. Open-source tools may offer cost benefits and innovations, but they can’t compete with the security, analytics, and other features of commercial/paid network monitoring solutions. If you can choose commercial tools over open source, we advise using SolarWinds network performance monitoring solutions. Besides offering striking features, SolarWinds tools provide a free trial version for businesses to test monitoring and analytics capabilities in their environment.