Writing this article has been quite a tough journey over the past few weeks with my having to dig out some long unused skills, particularly when it came to Linux, and some things have become apparent. Mainly that there are now two kinds of free network monitoring tools which have come about over the past few years:
- ‘Traditional’ Linux based versions which have a long history, but are stuck with a lot of legacy baggage in the way that they are configured and operated. Whilst many of these are exactly as they proclaim themselves to be; reliable, scalable and with the capability to monitoring masses of information they are now becoming unwieldy, time consuming and awkward to manage and for these packages to move on a complete re-write would probably be required which would alienate much of their existing customer base. In short, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
- Newer systems which often have Windows versions and are infinitely easier to setup and configure but lack the kind of in depth monitoring features of their more mature counterparts, but if all you want is a system that will tell you if a device is alive and reporting on basic services then often this is all that you would require.
In the end though, it all comes down to what it is you want to monitor. Nagios and Zabbix are great for keeping an eye on servers (particularly Linux/*nix), their processes and services, but are let down by the quite high levels of knowledge they required to get setup and running beyond the basic levels. If all you want to do is keep any eye on what is on your network and monitor SNMP functions then The Dude is ideal. If you want to manage those devices (serial numbers, asset tags and other data that need to record) then Spiceworks would be an excellent choice, but, if you want more features, better design, support and ease of use then I highly recommend you begin to look at commercial offerings which seem to have addressed many of the shortcomings of the free products and ensured that, for the most part, those problems are no longer an issue.
To finish, I suggest you take note of the following factors in making your choice when it comes to the setup and operation of a monitoring package:
- Knowledge – Do you have the skills to setup and configure a particular package, and especially, does anyone else around you have these skills should you not be around for them?
- Time – Do you have the time (often quite a considerable amount of hourly investment is required) to set it up and configure/maintain it? Remember, it should be there for you, not you for it.
- Purpose – What is it you actually want it to do? You could spend several weeks installing a pretty system with lots of nice graphs that you don’t actually need or will ever look at again when all you wanted it to do was alert you when a computer/device stops responding.
- Features – As with some of the points above, do you really need it to tell you what processor cores are being loaded the heaviest, or the size of a swap file? You may find you can create a mass of work for yourself for no reason. Stick to a package with the features you will actually use rather than something that looks really shiny (yes, it’s hard, I know).
- Ease of use. If you install a system that then has you spending a considerable amount of time just figuring out how to do something, or has so many dependencies’ that require constant tweaking and maintenance then look elsewhere. Network management tools are supposed to save you time. Not swallow it up.
I also noted that almost all of the systems I tested displayed 'error' messages on some network devices/computers by default even though I had not yet configured them. You can see these reported errors on several of the screen grabs I have included. This I think is an unnecessary 'feature' and can consume quite a bit of time when digging down to find out what the supposed problem is (often nothing at all), especially if you have setup the system to email you of any issues and suddenly find your inbox flooded, so please be aware of this and ensure that any error reporting options are configured correctly when you setup each network host to be monitored.
We at Edugeek hope you have enjoyed this article and found it useful. If you think we have missed out a system, or have been a bit unfair to a particular package, please feel free to post it up. When posting however please at least tell us where you think we went wrong and what steps in a package need to be taken to achieve something. Simply saying ‘You’re wrong’ does not help anybody, which, in the end, is what we are all here for.