Favorite cheap network tools
Network World bloggers love to dish about their favorite free or low-cost network tools.
We asked our bloggers to give us a list of the free or nearly free network tools they love. They had tons of them, ranging from ways to track network device configurations to ways to keep data synched between multiple devices.The list is more or less organized by the blogger who recommended them, although in some cases (Wireshark, iPerf) more than one blogger recommends the tool. We hope you find, and try, some goodies on the list.
Scott Hogg loves:
Really Awesome New Cisco confIg Differ RANCID
Not everyone can afford Solarwinds Orion Network Configuration Management (NCM) or CiscoWorks LAN Management Solution (LMS) to manage changes to their network device configurations. That is why Really Awesome New Cisco confIg Differ (RANCID) continues to be a favorite tool among network engineers. RANCID is easy to install and configure on a variety of operating systems. RANCID's real benefit to network administrators is its ability to back up network device configurations and help you investigate changes to your environment. Since most network issues are attributable to human error, it is valuable to have that historical record of what changed. Configuration management is one of the best practices that typically go by the wayside for organizations on a limited IT budget. Oftentimes the root cause of a problem can be easily found within that list of differences between yesterday'ss and today's configuration.
You may also need to assess application performance because people tend to "blame it on the network." To validate that a problem is not within the network domain and assess application performance, a tool like JMeter comes in handy. JMeter is a simple Java application that can perform load tests on a wide variety of web-based applications, FTP, and other protocol traffic. It takes just a moment to download the package, unzip it into a directory, run the JMeter application and get started configuring your test. Just make sure you already have Java Runtime Environment (JRE) installed. There are a wide variety of tests and test options. The easiest way to get started is to first create a Thread Group and then apply your tests beneath that. Then you can run the test and look at the results/reports that you configured for your test. There are many tutorials and examples out there to help your learning curve. JMeter can be configured for multiple threads and can really generate a lot of traffic and help you determine how many connections per second your systems are capable of serving.
Dynamips, Dynagen, GNS3
Fewer of us have lab setups as extensive as Scott Morris's mega-lab. Indeed, many network administrators do not have access to a suitable lab at all. Their organizations are not financially capable of providing lab devices that are similar to those devices in the production network. However, it is often useful to configure a simple little scenario to validate an idea or to prototype a solution. Dynamips is a system that allows you to emulate Cisco IOS image files and run them in a configurable environment. You can use Dynagen 1.11.7 or Graphical Network Simulator (GNS3) 0.7.2 front-ends that utilize Dynamips' underlying capabilities to make it easy to configure a virtual lab of Cisco routers joined together. Once the lab devices and interconnections are defined within the text file, the lab can be started and you can console to your routers and commence the fun. Just be sure you are cognizant of the CPU and memory resource constraints of building a large lab environment and review the tutorial to set the idle-PC value. If you are studying for any Cisco certification that requires hands-on experience, then these free tools are invaluable.
Multicast can be one of the most elusive types of traffic to test and troubleshoot. Unlike Unicast traffic that is typically client/server in nature, multicast one-to-many traffic is more difficult to verify. With multicast you have to troubleshoot the IGMP communications, the multicast routing protocols, and the application traffic being forwarded. Multicast applications do not typically have good diagnostic capabilities so you need a simple multicast-capable source and receiver to test your end-to-end multicast reachability. VideoLANClient (VLC) is a great multicast client/server/media-player that can use an extremely wide array of stream sources and protocols. VLC can be set up as a multicast source on one end of your network and another node can run the exact same VLC version as a multicast receiver. VLC works with IGMPv2, IGMPv3, and MLDv1 and MLDv2 for IPv6 testing. VLC can stream multimedia files, DVDs, audio files, and many other media formats.
Backtrack contains most of the tools that security practitioners use for performing security assessments. Backtrack 4 organizes the tools into categories that relate to the security assessment methodology. Backtrack 4 contains many of my favorite tools: nmap, OpenVas, Paros Proxy, Burpsuite, W3AF, Metasploit Framework 2 & 3, Social Engineering Toolkit (SET), Ophcrack, XHydra, Netcat, SNORT, among numerous others.
Blogger Erik Parker also loves Backtrack. He writes:
A Linux distribution that can be booted from a Live CD, USB Thumb Drive, or installed directly to your hard drive. While it specializes in providing a full suite of security tools and is geared toward penetration testers, forensic analysts, and others in the security industry, it can also provide considerable value for people who just need to do quick network-based testing or want to add a few of their own tools in an already versatile distribution. I personally use BackTrack when I need remote technicians to validate some basic wireless network behavior. They can boot it off of almost any laptop they have laying around and pull down a set of python scripts. It neatly packages up some data using the already-installed tools on the unit and reports it back to me. BackTrack also has popular security tools like Metasploit and Kismet pre-installed and ready to go.
See screenshots of all of Hogg's favorite tools for managing a network on a budget with this slideshow.
Scott Hogg writes the Core Networking and Security blog for the Cisco Subnet community
Erik Parker loves:
A service and a software that allows you to store and view files among your computing devices (Android, iPhone, Mac, Windows, Linux) and is increasingly being used for applications to store small databases and files among multiple machines. When security isn't a concern or you have built-in encryption in whatever you are storing, Dropbox is an excellent service. It's also free if you keep your storage needs under 2 Gb.
When you need to do packet analysis, there are very few things the open-source Wireshark cannot do for you. Previously known as Ethereal, it'd be difficult to find a network engineer that doesn't have it installed already, even on the same machine as the expensive commercial sniffer software.
An open-source client/daemon for doing maximum bandwidth tests. If you want to see how quickly you can move TCP or UDP traffic across the wire, this tool gives you the knobs you need and the engine to do it. It probably goes without saying, but some other "tools" that are hard to live without are Python, Linux, Firefox and Android OS.
Scott Hogg also loves iPerf -- and jPerf. He writes:
It is important to know that your network is able to operate at its peak potential. However, it can be difficult to artificially simulate a large amount of traffic to validate the throughput ceiling. It is helpful to have a tool in your bag that can help determine the end-to-end throughput of a link or traffic path. For years network experts have used IPerf as a CLI tool to perform TCP and UDP traffic analysis.
IPerf was originally written by a group at National Laboratory for Applied Network Research (NLANR), but it has now been updated by Google. Google has also put a Java GUI on the tool to make it just that much more usable. That latest version of JPerf 2.0.2 allows you to easily adjust the buffer/MSS/TCP window size, and navigate all the lesser-known IPerf CLI options. JPerf provides a nice chart of the performance, as opposed to the table-format of IPerf, and JPerf allows you to save pervious tests for quick recall and retesting. As a bonus this tool will also work with an IPv6-capable client and server.
Erik Parker writes the No Strings Attached blog for the Cisco Subnet community.
Wendell Odom loves:
Cisco Learning Network (CLN)
Although not a classic IT tool, this is the premier place to ask questions, get answers, and interact with other engineers about Cisco technology, particularly with technology included on Cisco certification exams. The most amazing thing is how many folks will reply to questions, both simple and complex, and give you some help. It's almost like folks are fighting for the chance to answer first!
Wendell Odom writes the Cisco Cert Zone blog for the Cisco Subnet community.
Susan Hanley loves:
Windows Live Sync, MobileMe
MobileMe is not free -- yet -- although there are rumors that it might be at some point. But when combined with the free Windows Live Sync, these two products allow me to have 2 laptops and a desktop that have calendars, contacts, and documents that stay in sync whether I'm online or off. MobileMe ($99/year) syncs my calendar and contacts on my two laptops, one desktop and iPhone. Windows Live Sync keeps my files synchronized on the two laptops and desktop PC. I've been using Windows Live Sync (previously FolderShare) for years and I couldn't live without it. On the downside, MobileMe has a lot of reliability issues (pretty much every time iTunes, iOS, or MobileMe software is updated, something breaks in the sync process and there is some manual tweaking required). With these two tools, it is possible for me to grab either my powerhouse or lightweight laptop when I'm traveling or going to a meeting and I always have my current calendar, contact list and documents.
This very low-cost wire-framing tool helps create great looking wireframes very easily. Mockups is a UI prototyping tool for developers, designers and project managers. It includes a series of user-friendly icons that you drag and drop on to a background page to build a wireframe design for a web site. It only took me a few minutes to mock up a pretty reasonable approximation of a SharePoint page layout with no training or documentation -- which means this product is really easy to use. I was able to draw the design and print it out or save it as a .png file that I imported into a PowerPoint presentation. What I really like about this tool is that the output looks hand-drawn (but by someone with very good artistic skills, i.e., not me).
This is a free tool that essentially lets you save Web pages on your PC or iPhone to read later. (I usually use it for blog posts). I use the iPhone app a lot to read saved articles when I'm traveling. I've got a bunch of articles saved up for my next plane ride.
Susan Hanley writes the Essential SharePoint blog for Microsoft Subnet.
Craig Mathias loves:
The best free software ever! Maybe the best PC OS yet as well. It's absolutely amazing to me that this software is free! Ubuntu can run on just about any machine you might have sitting around, so you could try it out on a spare one to keep it off your Windows machines altogether. I've built Ubuntu PCs out of lots of things. I had a old Bissell Carpet Machine Special lying around, and, hating to throw anything away, let alone add to a landfill, I stripped out the pump-and-filter guts and was left with a suitable plastic shell - suitable, that is, for mounting the components of a PC. It runs Ubuntu 9.04.
For low cost, I like the Wi-Spy line of spectrum analyzers. Wi-Spy from Metageek isn't free, but you can pick up a basic unit for $99. Since interference is always a potential problem, and Wi-Fi adapters can't look at Layer-1, every W-Fi user needs something like this for troubleshooting performance problems.
Craig Mathias writes the Nearpoints blog for the Wireless Topic Center.
Michael Adams loves:
A good number of wireless units can be reprogrammed with OpenWR, a Linux distribution for embedded devices. The project's developers say, "Instead of trying to create a single, static firmware, OpenWrt provides a fully writable filesystem with package management."
Michael Adams writes the Life as a Sys Admin blog for Open Source Subnet and Microsoft Subnet.
Ron Barrett loves:
iland Workforce Cloud
iland is a provider of cloud computing infrastructure with high-availability datacenters across North America and Europe. iland Workforce Cloud puts the cloud on the desktop and offers some great features, including closing the loop between the desktop and the datacenter, providing printer support at virtually any user location, and storing data securely and centrally while maintaining availability even if devices are stolen or destroyed. It simplifies management of desktop deployment, configuration, and migration, centralizes patch management and so on.
The ability to encrypt the entire hard drive for your CEO is a great technology. But there are times when you only need to encrypt certain files. Open source AxCrypt integrates into the right-click menu in Windows, so encrypting a file is as simple as right-clicking and choosing a single file to encrypt.
Barret has reviewed nearly 200 mostly free tools since 2008 and created a library post that links to all of his reviews. Tons of goodies to be had for the taking are listed in this library.