Product review: NetCracker still hasn't cracked enterprise

The beta version of NetCracker Professional 2.0, from NetCracker Technologies, shows promise as a network diagramming tool that allows network administrators to quickly visualise and validate data, voice, and video networks from the application to the cable layer.

With its automatic connectivity checking and new interactive simulation model, NetCracker provides real-time "what-if" statistics that can help network administrators optimise a network before ever laying a cable.

Nevertheless, NetCracker's feature set appears to be limited when compared to some rival packages, and because it requires an additional investment to manually lay out your existing topology, I think NetCracker is best suited for small to midsize network environments.

NetCracker includes a communications library that holds thousands of containers for applications and vendor-specific devices, providing detail on networking properties and tolerances. The property sheets allow for features such as customisation by serial number and the inclusion of pricing data for budgeting purposes. This is one of the most comprehensive product databases I have seen on the market.

NetCracker really shines in its simulation capabilities. Once all network devices are assembled and connected, NetCracker 2.0's network simulation engine puts your design to the test. The simulator animates your model to illustrate network traffic and demonstrate performance based on router protocols and interface connections.

Beyond simply testing data flow, NetCracker allows you to break and restore links to view the effect of downed connections and inspect rerouting scenarios. Devices can be added or removed to test bandwidth utilisation and expose potential growth bottlenecks. In addition, devices and packets can be clicked on to reveal real-time feedback on performance statistics such as packet size, protocol, source, and destination.

Included in this version of NetCracker is a "Say Notes" function that provides audible, voice-synthesized feedback of these statistics. Although this feature might add some punch for presentation or sales purposes, its usefulness to network administrators is lost to me.

Although NetCracker does not provide collaborative development support, Version 2.0 does include an HTML export feature. I was able to quickly post a multilayered network topology for Web-based viewing by any frames-compatible browser.

In addition, the tool's comprehensive print facility not only allows for reporting on network behaviour using graphs and statistical tables but also includes purchase orders and bill-of-materials support.

Despite its flexible simulation features, NetCracker does not make it easy to incorporate existing networks. I found that building networks in NetCracker's drag-and-drop environment was easy enough when dealing with small networks, but the tool cannot ferret out devices on an existing network and requires administrators to manually build up a model of the existing topology from scratch.

Although this type of feature was previously found only in higher-end design packages such as ImageNet's CANE (computer aided network engineering), autodiscovery features are becoming part and parcel of even midrange design tools such as Visio's Visio Enterprise 5.0.

In spite of NetCracker's Device Factory for building custom components and a replication feature to duplicate like-devices, the process of re-creating every element on a large corporate network would nevertheless prove far too tedious for my liking.

However, to NetCracker's credit it does provide superior connectivity checking. For example, the automated Link Wizard intuitively prevents mismatched pairings of incompatible devices, ports and protocols.

Although NetCracker can simulate traffic-density changes and modify routing protocols, I was unable to modify protocols without effecting a global change to my entire network. According to NetCracker officials, this is an anomaly in the beta release that will be corrected in the shipping version.

NetCracker would certainly provide more comprehensive detail than those back-of-a-napkin sketches I always seem to get, but it strikes me as an application aimed more toward product vendors or consultants looking for a midrange presentation tool. Its animation and sound capabilities that network managers may not have much use for might add an extra edge to that next client pitch.

In short, NetCracker's sizeable database and link-checking capabilities are very effective. However, the lack of a rapid discovery utility or integration with a network management solution, such as Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, limits the tool's potential usefulness in large-scale corporate environments.

James Borck is an IS director at Industrial Art & Science, in Connecticut. He may be reached at james.borck@industrialArt.com.

The bottom line

NetCracker Professional 2.0, beta

This design utility speeds the layout of new networks and provides comprehensive connectivity testing. Though it does offer effective "what-if" scenario testing, the setup might prove cumbersome in a larger networking environment.

Pros: Rapid development; extensive product database; good reporting capability; automatic connectivity checking prevents mismatched product types.

Cons: No rapid autodiscovery utility; no real-time team development support.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows NT.

US Ship date: December.

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