Product review: Interface choices separate LAN tools

Network monitoring tools are a dime a dozen -- each one sporting visually appealing charts and a slew of what can be useless features. But what matters most is how easy it is to monitor the network using such a tool and how fast you can pinpoint problems. I tested two software-based network monitors -- Sunbelt Software's LanExplorer 3.0 and Proteon's LanTracer 3.0 -- and found both to be capable of advanced network monitoring and protocol analysis, capturing packets by a variety of criteria.

The biggest difference between these tools was the interface: Although it offered the convenience of browser access, LanTracer was harder to use than the Windows-based LanExplorer. Plus LanTracer comes with its own Web server and requires it to run in order for the application to work, thus requiring Windows NT as the platform.

These network monitors are ideal for keeping a pulse on network health and giving lower-level network staff a view of traffic details for individual segments. However, they are not on par with high-end network analysis tools such as Network Associates' Sniffer Pro or Shomiti's Portable Surveyor for a comprehensive view of the enterprise LAN.

To test both products I installed them on one network segment in the Test Centre and tried to monitor general network health, as well as identify potential problems. Although not mentioned during installation, I discovered that Proteon recommends running LanTracer on at least a 1,024-by-768 pixel screen: This counteracts the flexibility of using LanTracer from any browser because not every machine is configured for or capable of 1,024-by-768 resolution. The reason for this requirement is that running the views in lower resolutions causes menus and drop-down boxes to overlap.

Also, because of the small amount of real estate in a browser view compared to a standard application window, LanTracer forced me to dig down deep into the menus to find data that I was seeking. To monitor multiple segments, you must also load LanTracer Web Server on an additional machine in each of the segments.

LanTracer's default screen is a panel with an overview of monitors that resemble analog gauges. These gauges show essential network information, such as network utilization, packet rate, error rate, and broadcast rate. Below the gauges are line graphs depicting the same information over time. Clicking on the line graphs brings up a separate window with more details.

I liked the Chart View, which displayed each node that is active on a segment. What I liked even more is the color coding that quickly gave me an idea of which nodes were operating normally and which were error reporters.

On the other hand, I did not like the fact that I could not specify a filter that captured packets from multiple protocols. Instead I was forced to set up as many as 10 separate filters with a single type of protocol on each. I was able, however, to use this flexibility to add monitoring of application-based protocols in addition to HTTP, POP3, FTP, and other basic protocols. If I knew the port and a protocol identifier for IPX:LotusNotes, for example, I could monitor it as well.

LanExplorer takes a traditional Windows-based approach. The software runs on either a Windows 95 or Windows 98 machine or Windows NT Workstation or Server, and it monitors the network segment that the machine runs on. The current release can't monitor multiple segments from one location; however, an upcoming beta release has agents that reside on a segment and report to one central console.

What I liked about LanExplorer was how easily and quickly I could get an idea of what was going on in the network. I got a quick count coupled together with a chart of station-to-station traffic, individual station traffic, protocol break-down, and bandwidth usage.

Flexibility vs. ease of use

Both products do a fine job of capturing and decoding individual packets for the major protocols used in the network -- including the top users in each of various protocols -- but after spending some time with both products, I found myself leaning toward LanExplorer simply because it was easier to use. In fact, I think that almost any network staff member will feel comfortable exploring the LAN using LanExplorer. LanTracer, on the other hand, took a lot longer to figure out. Even after spending considerable time with the interface, I still thought it was difficult to use.

So if you don't need the flexibility of providing multiple access points to various staff, you should probably forego LanTracer's browser for the smooth LanExplorer console.

Andre Kvitka (andre_kvitka@infoworld.com) is an InfoWorld Test Centre technology analyst.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Both LanExplorer and LanTracer are good tools for novice and advanced network administrators. They excel at translating traffic on network segments into a useful format; however, LanTracer's browser-based interface is more difficult to learn and use.

LanExplorer 3.0: Very Good

Pros: Comprehensive interface; detailed network-traffic reports; good filtering engine.

Cons: Some sorting limitations.

Sunbelt Software Distribution, Clearwater, Florida; www.sunbelt-software.com.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT.

LanTracer 3.0: Good

Pros: Capability to view network status from any browser; some advanced features.

Cons: Difficult interface; some filtering limitations.

Proteon LAN Products by Microvitec; www.lantracer.com.

Platform: Windows NT

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