Of all the “monitorings” one can do (server, application, storage, cloud, etc.), network monitoring is often the first foray an IT professional makes once they get past simply pinging a device to see if it’s up. This is when many of us begin to consider how CPU and RAM affect bandwidth processing; when we start to truly wonder how many big buffer misses there have been in the last two hours; and whether, had we known about that flapping route a little sooner, we could have avoided the Sev1 call with the CIO.
At the same time, networks continue to grow, both in size and complexity, so that those simple (and admittedly simplistic) metrics of yesteryear have given way to a need to monitor complex and varied elements such as virtual port channel status, ACL rule mismatches, and switch-stack failover cabling.
The good news is that network monitoring tools have been keeping pace with network growth, resulting in a wide range of options that can do everything from simply monitoring up/down time to receiving real-time information about devices on your network.
While I’m not going to list out every open-source, free, freemium, or paid network monitoring tool out there, this list covers many common network monitoring pain points for which I’ll provide my choice of best tool to solve the issue. My hope is that this will help you during your own research process, whether you are looking for your first tool or want to replace or upgrade your current solution because it no longer meets your network monitoring needs.
Best Overall Network Monitoring Software: Network Performance Monitor
When it comes to a tool that combines a wide range of features, scalability, and ease-of-use at an affordable price, the network monitoring tool that really sticks out among the crowd this year is SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (NPM).
Not only is NPM easy to install and maintain, it also comes with over a hundred pre-built reports out-of-the-box to get you up and running in no time. Need to schedule a custom network performance or availability report? No problem—the customization and automation features included in NPM can help you do that too.
With its exclusive PerfStack™ feature, you can more easily pinpoint and analyze the root cause of network issues. PerfStack allows you to drag and drop network performance data from multiple sources into a single chart to create a better view of what’s happening across your network.
What’s great about NPM is that it’s one of those tools that’s stuffed with “I-didn’t-know-it-could-do-that” features, like mapping your routes hop-by-hop through the network to remote services, creating wireless heatmaps, and automated network mapping based on detected network traffic.
Best Open-Source Network Monitoring Tool: Nagios Core
Nagios comes in two different flavors: Nagios Core is open-source and free with limited monitoring capabilities, and Nagios XI is the commercial network monitoring tool based on Nagios Core but with added features. The active development community and support for external plug-ins are some of the reasons for this tool’s popularity. One word of caution: beginner techs as well as organizations without sufficient IT support may find that installing, setting up, and configuring Nagios can be overwhelming. However, users can get help from the Nagios community or opt for a commercial support package from Nagios Enterprise.
Best for Smaller Orgs Dipping Their Toes into Network Monitoring: PRTG
For many folks, PRTG hits the right notes: small, cheap, and easy to wrap their heads around. It’s a good choice for organizations with little to no experience in network monitoring. You get a blend of infrastructure monitoring, flow and packet sniffing, and a REST-ful API to hook into if you like to dabble with customization.
Best Software for “It’s Midnight and I Need Something Installed and Working NOW”: ipMonitor
Monitoring is valuable. It’s important. It’s even, when done right, essential. But it’s not always easy to install, configure, or get working. Which is why—when the chips (and network devices) are down, and it’s late, and there’s an unwelcome crowd of executives demanding you find out what happened—it’s good to know there are tools like SolarWinds ipMonitor® out there. It installs typically in minutes on just about any machine you have lying around, including that spare laptop under your desk. It can connect to a vast array of network devices, perform a comprehensive set of tests, store data in a local database (so no additional software to configure or licenses to acquire), and has enough robust alerting to let you know what’s going wrong and where to look first. Tomorrow morning, when the dust has settled, you may finally be able to convince management that it’s time for a more robust solution, but right now, ipMonitor is going to get you the information you need in a pinch.
Honorable Mention: Free Network Monitoring Tools
When people talk about “free,” they typically mean “free” (but only for a certain amount of time) or “freemium” (where all the features you really want you have to pay for). But there are several network monitoring tools that are just “free-free.” Check out my list of the best FREE network monitoring tools for 2020.
The Mostly Un-Necessary Summary
As you can see, there are so many different network monitoring tools on the market today that can help solve almost any use case. If you are just beginning your search for the best network monitoring tool for the job, or already have one but are considering what else is out there, I hope this has helped you start to think about the benefits of finding the right tool to meet your needs. As for what I think is the best overall network monitoring tool in 2020, SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is my pick based on the tool’s features, ease-of-use, and price.