Like most small businesses, your company probably started out with a PC or two before adding more computers and perhaps a server. Before you knew it, your business had a small network, but with a network comes issues.
Although a network provides enormous benefits in terms of communications and computing power, it also presents headaches. Spikes in usage can slow applications to a crawl. Insufficient bandwidth can cause Web sites to bog down, driving customers away. Your phone rings constantly, with callers telling you that the network is down.
It would be nice to have a full-time IT manager to take care of such things, but many businesses can't afford one. So managing the network falls to the boss or another designated employee. Having the right management tools can eliminate some of the hassles.
Your business needs network-management tools in order to know what's going on with the network and how to fix any problems. But you can get too much of a good thing. Management systems like Hewlett-Packard OpenView and IBM Tivoli were designed for large organizations, and they come with large price tags. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — or even millions of dollars — to deploy one of these top-of-the-line network-management systems.
Fortunately, many inexpensive and even free tools are available to ease the burden of managing a small- to medium-sized network. The free tools are good enough for startups, and the inexpensive ones often incorporate features found in large enterprise systems. Most of these tools are easy to use and painless to deploy.
CyD NET Utils is a shareware suite of network-management tools. You can try the program for free up to 30 times, and registration costs only $49. The suite includes CyD Careful Observer, which monitors connections with specified computers. When a connection is broken, Careful Observer can take specified actions such as sending an email alert, sounding an alarm or rebooting a computer. CyD NET Utils also includes an IDS (Intrusion Detection System) that monitors ports unused by the system. When the IDS detects attempts to access an unused port, it gathers as much information as possible about the IP address from which the scanning is conducted and saves it in a log file. CyD NET Utils also includes simple security testing for Web sites to determine if they are vulnerable to SQL injection, cross-site scripting or PHP-include attacks. The suite also includes a port scanner, a share scanner and other utilities that make monitoring and diagnosing network problems easier.
Nagios is a popular open-source network-monitoring tool. It was designed to run under Linux but works under most Unix variants as well. The monitoring daemon runs periodic checks on hosts and services that you specify. When Nagios encounters problems, it can send notices out to administrators via a variety of channels (such as email, text messages and so on).
Spiceworks is a free network-monitoring and troubleshooting suite for Windows that is supported by Google ads embedded in the user interface. With Spiceworks, you can set up alerts for Windows events across the network so that you can easily detect, diagnose and troubleshoot disruptions. Spiceworks can automatically identify PCs with low disk space, the presence of unwanted software on the network, the status of anti-virus updates, printers with low ink or toner levels, and offline servers. The reporting function includes 20 template reports that you can share with others as PDF or Excel files.
Zenoss Core is another open-source network-monitoring tool, the first to implement a CMDB (configuration management database) that models all of the IT assets on a network. Zenoss Core automatically discovers network resources and changes to network configurations. The alerting system features rules-based alerts and an on-call calendar. The application monitors network devices using SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). It monitors network services such as HTTP, POP3, FTP, NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) and SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol). Zenoss Enterprise Edition offers monitors specifically for Microsoft SQL and Exchange.
PacketTrap pt360 Tool Suite is an impressive collection of network-monitoring tools that is also free. The PRO version costs $1,499 and comes with additional features. Either version lets you create widgets that display a specified set of data points from the tool's monitoring function. This could be basic up-down data obtained by IP address pings or more specific system-health parameters obtained via SNMP. Like Spiceworks, the program does not use agents, so you must enter required information on password-protected devices. Fortunately, you can enter this data just once and the software will take it from there. The tool can also integrate with XML-capable monitors such as MRTG and Nagios.
WhatsUp Gold, from Ipswitch, falls under the cheap-but-not-free category. While WhatsUp Gold costs $2,595 to monitor up to 100 devices, it comes with some features not found in the open-source domain. The software can be installed on any network-connected computer and doesn't need to be deployed on every client device, as some monitoring programs do. The program communicates with any SNMP device on the network. If different machines require different credentials before they will permit access, the software try can several sets of credentials when attempting to gain entry, saving you the chore of specifying passwords and other data manually for each machine. You can add custom SNMP monitors or, with WhatsUp Gold Premium, custom WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) performance monitors to collect information that the OS and devices make available. WhatsUp Gold installs its own Web server so that anyone on the network can log in and see how attached devices are performing.
The Bottom Line
These and other free or cheap network-management tools are often all that a small business needs to keep its network running in top shape. You don't have to break the bank to keep your network under control.
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