The Best Network Monitoring Software for 2020

It’s a misty five o’clock in the morning, and suddenly a few key servers on your network go down. You’re busy sleeping, so you don’t find out about it until your users get in at 8:00 to raise the hue and cry. By the time you get in, your boss is frothing and you’re looking for somewhere to hide. Welcome to the world of being an IT manager. And, no, this hasn’t gotten easier now that we’re all working from home due to the pandemic. If anything, it’s become more difficult, since you’ll need to find out about problems and solve them, all without setting foot inside your data closet. Fortunately, the tools to make that process easier are numerous and mature. They’re general purpose network monitoring tools and we’ve tested and reviewed all the top players.

There are two major categories of monitoring tool to choose from. The first is what’s called an agentless platform. This is typically installed on premises, meaning on a server or workstation that’s physically attached to your network. This system will also need all the access credentials for each of the systems and services that you want to monitor. This approach has advantages in that it doesn’t need to be installed on each individual device, and it can automatically discover and categorize the devices on your network with minimal to low effort on your part. The drawback is that you typically need a dedicated system with enough horsepower to run the software, and if you have more than one office, you’ll probably need such a muscled machine in every one of them.  

The other method is an agent-based system. These tend to deliver a large part of the solution in a software as a service (SaaS) model, which just means you’ll be accessing most of the software via the web. Agents, or monitoring programs that live on the end user devices, will run and report back telemetry. The advantage of this method is that you can typically get more in depth data than agentless systems, since the agents will generally have a greater level of hardware access.  However, the disadvantage is that the agent application will need to be installed on each individual device you’re monitoring and that can get sticky even with automation. For one thing, tt can cause problems if devices don’t support the operating systems that the agent software wants for installation.

The Capabilities We Test

In either case, agent-based or agentless, there are several aspects that we look at when scoring these solutions. Likely the most important component is ease of use. No matter how sophisticated a piece of software might be, if the learning curve is cripplingly high then that’s time lost where your devices aren’t being monitored and your IT staff is doing something other than managing infrastructure. In many cases, support and documentation play a significant role, but there are also cases where the interface is clearly lagging behind other systems in the same class.

The key working feature for any of these solutions is the ability to add devices. After all, these are essentially tools for monitoring a large number of different devices. To do that you need to tell it exactly which devices you want it to track, where they are, and what it is you want to know about them. This can be done individually, meaning device by device, or via something called, auto-discover. This simply refers to a monitoring system’s ability to scan a network, report back on all the devices it finds, and then automatically add them to its list of monitored targets. While this tends to be a non-issue in agent-based systems, for agentless systems, it needs to be as painless as possible as it’s a big part of the overall installation process. The best systems will default to the most commonly used options but make advanced features available for those users that need them. 

After this, we consider how easy it is to add individual devices. Typically, no auto-discovery process finds everything, so you need the ability to force the system to look at a particular device. This should include setting up services to monitor as well as adding endpoint devices, like wired and wireless routers, switches, and firewalls. These tend to be a bit more complicated to monitor, but they’re no less important, so during testing, we treated this as a major consideration.

Also very important these days, especially now that so many networks are being managed remotely, is the ability to support virtualized infrastructure and software-defined environments. Many companies today run most of their on-premises servers mainly as virtual machine (VM) residents on a large hypervisor ecosystems. The benefits are many, including lower costs and much more flexible management, but there are consequences that management and monitoring tools need to address. Mainly, it’s that these hypervisor environments, notably VMware’s ESXi and Microsoft’s Hyper-V on the commercial side, have their own set of standards that need to be supported by any management tool seeking access to or data from the hypervisor. Vendors need to specifically support the ability to detect and monitor hypervisor environments and their virtual machines, many of which bring their own challenges. For example, VMware ESXi has a free tier called ESXi that doesn’t include the company’s vSphere management environment. Being able to support ESXi without this is a huge bonus. Also, not having to install additional plugins in the environment is helpful, too. IT managers want to use these tools to manage environments as quickly as possible so avoiding long learning curves and finicky installation hassles is very important.

That’s why, aside from testing all the components and processes above, we also looked at them as a whole to decide how easy each system was to setup and use overall, both from the perspective of setting up the solution as well as configuring it with the device and service information for whatever targets it needs to track. Generally defining monitoring targets hinges on some form of template being available for different kinds of device types and service applications. Some options might include things like HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), SSH (Secure Shell),  SFTP (Secure FTP), or SNMP (Simple Network Monitoring Protocol). These are filled out with the appropriate device or service information and then added to the solutions database. The fewer clicks we had to make and fields we had to fill out the better as far as our testing results. If advanced options are available but not in the way nor too difficult to access, this added to the final score.

Naturally, aside from monitoring individual devices and systems, informing administrators of problems is critical, so we put a high degree of value on how each system goes about setting up alerts. Knowing immediately when there is a severe problem can often mean the difference between getting a problem resolved quickly and causing a disaster on the front lines of the business. While email is the primary method with which most notifications work, today’s plethora of online collaboration technologies can give you many more options.

For our testing, that meant looking for things like the ability to launch third-party response applications, initiate SMS messages, and kick-off other online services, like IFTTT (If This Then That).  The more flexible the overall alerting process is, the better we ranked it due to the number of options it gives customers. However, that flexibility needs to be balanced by ease of use. If it takes a long time to figure out, then that detracts from the user experience and sacrifices valuable time that could have been used more productively.

Reporting is yet another very important capability for these tools, and we looked at it carefully. IT administrators need to know immediate network data, especially with regard to problems, but their managers likely want longer term metrics. While knowing whether a system is up or down is important, it’s also paramount to know details on items like system performance across various time slices, total up-time, average up-time, time-based fluctuations in connection speed, and many other items that not only make the boss happy, but also help IT professionals understand long-tail problems and solve them. After all, just because something is working doesn’t mean that it’s optimal. While this can take multiple forms, we’re looking for either a searchable interactive means of extracting this information or something we can regularly schedule to deliver whatever metrics we want.

Other Important Features to Consider

A number of key features also stand out as important considerations to today’s network monitoring purchasers. For one, from an administrator’s perspective, it’s nice to have visual graphics that give you a quick overview of the current system status. This isn’t the same as reporting and several of the tools we tested clearly stood out in this regard. Having the ability to tweak the arrangement of graphical elements on a dashboard is an added plus.

IP Address Management (IPAM) has become a vital capability for many large organizations, and having the ability to monitor this capability is an important part of an overall network management tool kit. Keeping track of statically assigned addresses, along with a large number of DHCP pools, can’t be adequately managed with a manual system. Integrating IPAM with a network management tool just makes sense as the same person quite frequently handles both functions.

Automation is also key to managing large numbers of devices. The more you can automate small administration tasks, the more efficient the process becomes. This is a difficult feature to quantify since vendors tend to approach it differently, but automated alerting and repair fall into this category and represent a key differentiator between products. Add to that the ability to remotely connect to your monitoring system, especially now that so many of us are working from home for the long term, and you have the makings of a solid product.

How to Buy the Right Network Management Solution

The first step for any IT project is to define the requirements. For network management tools, the foundational pieces include the ability to see detailed information about key pieces of hardware such as switches and routers. Many organizations don’t have the staff to monitor computer screens 24/7. Automated alerting and remediation would be a key requirement in that case to help reduce the administrative manpower required. Trend-based reporting and monitoring help determine utilization levels and identify potential bottlenecks before they become a problem. Good reporting tools would be another requirement, to include the ability to create customized reports and queries.

Once you have that list of essential requirements, you should be able to look at each one of these products and determine if they meet those requirements or not. If more than one product qualifies, you’ll need to do some testing on your own to see which one best suits your needs. That’s where a free evaluation version is paramount, and you’re looking to access it for 30 days at least.

Finally, there’s pricing, though for most network managers this isn’t a paramount criteria for the overall purchasing decision. Match your needs to the tool, then worry about pricing at the end. That’s a good approach because pricing is quite varied in this segment, likely because so many of the contenders still use an on-premises deployment model, which also necessitates on-premises licensing models.

Where To Buy

  • Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold

    Pros: Sleek and intuitive user interface
    Uses an agentless model that covers most widely used management protocols
    Many out of the box alert types

    Cons: Must be installed on premises
    Must be deployed in a Windows environment

    Bottom Line: Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold strikes an excellent balance between visual pizzazz and the ability to track common network devices. While the extensible plugins aren’t as freely available as with some competitors, the core product more than makes up for this in most cases.

    Read Review

  • Paessler PRTG Network Monitor

    Pros: Very extensible
    Deep support for most devices

    Cons: Sensor-based licensing can become expensive
    Requires dedicated, on-premises server

    Bottom Line: As long as you understand what kind of infrastructure you need to monitor and you don’t mind the licensing structure, PRTG is a powerful and even user friendly product. While the feature set can be a bit overwhelming, IT pros will find it hard to run out of options.

    Read Review

  • LogicMonitor

    Pros: Service is cloud based
    Agentless operation
    Rich and useful user interface

    Cons: Requires web connectivity
    Alerts missing local network actions
    Quote-only pricing

    Bottom Line: If your devices are geographically distributed and all your sites have internet connectivity, then it’s hard to find a solution better than Logic Monitor. For smaller networks that could be walled off from the internet, you will need to look elsewhere.

    Read Review

  • Nagios XI

    Pros: Extremely flexible
    Massive community of users
    Plugins are easy to write

    Cons: Dated interface
    Steep learning curve

    Bottom Line: If flexibility and extensibility is what you are after, then Nagios XI is the way to go. An easy agentless model and an unlimited number of targets are only slightly marred by a lack of design flash.

    Read Review

  • NetCrunch

    Pros: Fast performance
    Robust visualization tools
    Fine tuned control over alerts

    Cons: Web access lacks administrative capability
    Requires local installation

    Bottom Line: NetCrunch is beautiful and feature-rich, but it hasn’t fully adopted the web-based interfaces used by nearly every other product out there. While some ability to view the network status is in place in the browser, true remote management is currently out of reach without installing a fat client.

    Read Review

  • Datadog

    Pros: Simplified cloud hosted model
    Supports just about any service stack
    Delivers depth that service providers will appreciate
    Customizable views tailored to each application

    Cons: Not primarily targeted toward monitoring routers and network hardware
    No automatic detection of devices
    Significant initial setup process due to agent-based architecture
    No standard reporting

    Bottom Line: Datadog is a good network and service monitoring service for IT shops that can fully leverage its automation, application programming interface (API), and data analysis capabilities. If you can get past the initial setup and the agent-based architecture, Datadog offers many integrations, dashboards, and alerts that smaller companies will find useful.

    Read Review

  • Idera Uptime Infrastructure Monitor

    Pros: Can be installed on Windows or Linux
    High level of flexibility in alerts
    Can be used with or without agents

    Cons: Requires local installation
    Agents are needed for the best experience
    Some process require a steep learning curve

    Bottom Line: Idera Uptime Infrastructure Monitor gets a lot of things right and you’ll certainly find most of the features you’ll need in a network and device management tool. But its tendency towards complexity and a hard push toward using agents might bother some.

    Read Review

  • ManageEngine OpManager

    Pros: Easy to use
    Intuitive map creation

    Cons: Monitoring devices across multiple networks requires upgrading to the Enterprise Edition
    Default install doesn’t include reports
    Requires on-premises installation

    Bottom Line: ManageEngine OpManager primarily focuses on infrastructure management, but also gives IT generalists some good application performance management and network monitoring features.

    Read Review

  • Vallum Halo Manager

    Pros: No assistance required for install
    Free for under 15 devices

    Cons: Lack of a solid reporting feature
    Limited alert capabilities

    Bottom Line: Vallum Halo Manager is an inexpensive tool that could work on elementary networks. However, if you need to be proactive and have more in-depth insight into a larger network, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

    Read Review

About the Author

August 3, 2020

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