Mapping your network is vitally important for keeping on top of how it’s performing, as well as for pinpointing bottlenecks or network issues, and troubleshooting problems. But approaching this process manually with a large or complex network can quickly become overwhelming.
I’ve found using a network mapping tool is a much better approach—especially if it can map your network for you automatically. There are a number of quality tools on the market, paid and free, which I’ll go into after a review of the network mapping process. For top-line solutions I recommend SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor and Network Topology Mapper, both easy-to-use tools capable of mapping your network along with providing important data and performance metrics.
What Are Network Maps?
There are two main levels of maps to consider: physical and logical. While open-source network mapping tools can create a physical network map, they may not offer automated scanning to ensure the map is always up to date.
There are three levels of maps to consider—physical, logical, and functional.
A physical network map diagrams all the actual components of your network, including cords, plugs, racks, ports, servers, cables, and more. A physical network map gives you a visual representation of all the material elements of your network and the connections between them.
A logical map is more abstract than the physical network map. It shows the type of network topology (bus, ring, etc.), and how the data flows between the physical objects in your network. This includes IP addresses, firewalls, routers, subnets and subnet masks, traffic flow, voice gateways, and other segments of the network.
To note: Since logical and physical network maps depict the same network environment from two different perspectives, it’s best to use both types to get a more comprehensive look at your network.
A functional network map shows you how application traffic flows through the network physically. These types of network maps are only as useful as they are accurate, which means you need an appropriate and high-quality tool.
How Does Network Mapping Work?
Network mapping is the process of visualizing all the devices on your network, how they’re connected, and how the overall network is structured. The network map generally equips you with information about whether the network is functioning properly or whether any particular device has a problem.
Networks are set up in different structures, also called topologies. The structure can have a major effect on how your network functions, what happens when a device or server goes down, and how complex it is to manage. When you map your network, you’re basically mapping its topology into a visual network diagram.
Here are the main network topologies to be aware of:
- Bus – A bus network is set up in a straight line, allowing data to flow through the network from the server to each node one by one
- Ring – In a ring, network the nodes are arranged in a circle, and data can flow around the circle in one or both directions
- Tree – In a tree topology, a server has multiple branches of nodes coming off it. This is a bit more robust than a bus or ring topology, as with a tree topology, if one of the branches has a problem with a node, the rest of the network will still function. With ring and bus topologies, a problem with one node can cause the whole network to go down
- Star – A star topology has one central node with all others coming off it in a star pattern
- Mesh – A mesh network has connections between all the nodes and servers, like a lattice or mesh. It has high failover protection because if one node goes down, the network can reroute the data to get it where it needs to go
- Hybrid – A hybrid topology is simply a combination of any or all the above network structures and is very common as networks get larger
Best Network Mappers
Of course, all these types of network maps are only as useful as they are accurate, which means you need an appropriate and high-quality tool. While mapping can be done manually using tools like ping and tracert, followed by a visual mapping or vector program, this process can be prohibitively time-consuming. Similarly, if you’re considering a free network mapping solution, you should check which kind of network map it offers and whether it will give you the full visibility you need to optimize network performance.
Below, I look at some of the best network mappers on the market and what makes them stand out from the pack.
- Network Performance Monitor – Free Trial
My top pick is SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (NPM). NPM is extremely useful for both mapping networks and determining how your network is performing. It includes a feature called NetPath, which maps your network and then provides you with information on network performance, traffic, and configuration along the entire service delivery path. You can also see performance metrics with hop-by-hop data between your central servers and your satellite offices.
NPM also features a number of network visualization graphs and charts. Insights from NPM network mapping features can easily be viewed alongside your other performance tools to provide troubleshooting assistance of your entire network. Try out a free trial of NPM for 30 days.
- Network Topology Mapper – Free Trial
SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (NTM) is focused on network mapping. Unlike NPM, the tool doesn’t include network performance measurement capabilities. However, NTM shines in its ability to automatically plot your network to build multiple different kinds of network maps from a single scan.
The automatic scanning function is useful if you have an already established network needing to be properly mapped. It automatically detects any changes in your network topology and updates the maps accordingly. You can choose whether you want it to determine your network using SNMP, ICMP, WMI, CDP, or another method of discovery. You can also try NTM free for up to 14 days.
Paessler PRTG Network Monitor is a well-known software with monitoring and performance tools as well as reporting features and dashboards. It lets you create maps to show you devices and connections, as well as live status information for your network, so you can detect problems in one glance and troubleshoot effectively using maps as a primary source of information. You can customize your map using HTML, and you can share the map with whoever you want (company-only or external). While the maps are extremely useful, you must create them manually using the drag-and-drop map editor, which can be time-consuming.
Device42 is a configuration management database with auto-discovery and application mapping tools. You can set up a schedule and Device42 will automatically scan your network and infrastructure and detect any changes as they’re made, so your network information is always up to date. It can track IP and non-IP based devices and assets, hardware, software, and interdependencies between devices, as well as resource utilization. You can also generate dependency and impact visuals using the Device42 NetFlow collector, which allows you to view topologies at different levels. Overall this is useful software, but the auto-discovery can be difficult to implement if the network is very complex, as it tends to pick up unnecessary information.
Intermapper allows you to create custom maps quickly and effectively, automatically mapping all the IP-enabled devices in your network. You can customize your maps with colors and different background options, as well as color-coded statuses to show you how the network is performing. It provides you with real-time text or email alerts if there are any issues, helping prevent your users from being affected. Intermapper works for Mac, Linux, and Windows, and offers a 30-day trial, a free version, and an enterprise version.
Nmap is a free and open-source network mapping tool that uses IP packets to determine what hosts are on the network, what services are offered by those hosts, and identify operating systems, firewalls, and other information. It runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, and can link in with other Nmap suite tools including Zenmap, Ncat, Ndiff, and Nping. Nmap comes with a learning curve, but it’s a great option if you’re working with a small business without the budget for a professional tool.
Spiceworks is a manual network mapping tool that allows you to view an interactive network diagram of how your devices work together and relate to each other. You can add, edit, move, and resize devices on the map to show how your network is structured, as well as using filters and views to show only the most important data. The network map displays lines between each node—the thicker the line, the more bandwidth is being used. However, the mapping is manual, which means you need to redo your network map every time your network changes. The Spiceworks network mapper is free, though, so it’s a good choice for someone who has the time to map a smaller, less complex network rather than a changing enterprise system.
Best Network Mapping Solution
There are a number of good network map tools on the market, but in my view, some are better equipped to handle the task than others. Some are tools you can use to help you map the network yourself. Others look at your network and map it automatically. Automatic network mappers result in fewer mistakes and missed devices, and are designed to adapt when a new server or node is added to the network. I recommend trying Network Performance Monitor as an all-in-one network map and performance tool for any size environment.
Best Network Monitoring Software – If you need to do more than map your network, look into a complete network monitoring solution. I’ve written reviews of what I consider to be the best network monitoring software.
6 Best FREE Patch Management Software – Network maintenance involves more than monitoring the topology—you need to make sure you’re keeping on top of all your patches and updates, among other priorities. There are a number of free patch management solutions that can help you. Here are my top picks.