Net Analysis in Your Hand

Network administrators understand the business consequences of a sluggish network. A common tool for pinpointing the source of network congestion is the handheld network analyzer. Handheld analyzers can detect some faults that can't be found with software-based network analyzers and can work in some instances when software-based analyzers cannot.

These products come in all shapes and sizes and have distinct features that cater to many network needs. We took a close look at three products on the market to determine which was the most efficient, affordable and user-friendly for network administrators.

Fluke Corp., Psiber, Hewlett-Packard Co., Microtest and Wavetek were invited to participate in the roundup, but only Fluke, Microtest and Wavetek accepted. We compared and tested Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter, Wavetek's LANchecker 100 and Microtest's Compas.

The network analyzers went through two types of testing. The first compared each unit to the others based on features, capabilities, size and price. Size and weight were scoring components, but merely being smallest was not enough to earn the highest score. The best rating went to Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter, which provides the greatest functionality, but is also the most expensive and the largest of the three.

The second step involved a usability test in which 12 network professionals were asked to perform cable testing and network monitoring tasks with each unit. The winner of these tests was Microtest's Compas.

Microtest Compas

The Microtest Compas is a small, lightweight device (less than two pounds) that offers the portability, reliability and ease of use that network analysts need to quickly identify problems. It comes with optional Internet and Windows NT modules that allow for IP diagnostics and provide the ability to troubleshoot domains and hosts.

The Compas can be used for broadly applied testing including NT, Novell NetWare and Internet diagnostics. It provides connections for serial ports, BNC-Coax and RJ-45 cabling. The unit can be connected to a network hub or interconnected between a workstation and a wall plate outlet. It can be connected directly to a server to simulate a file server or directly connected to a file server to test it. The unit's results can be printed on many printers.

The Compas came in second behind Wavetek's LANchecker 100 in portability and weight. This unit fits comfortably into one hand, but a black rubber protection band around the edges of the device adds to the unit's size.

The Compas came in second in the display screen, menu layout and keypad category. The display screen is small, but it is easy to read. However, limited information can be shown on the screen at one time (for example, the media access control address test will only show three or four addresses at one time).

The diagnostic menu is laid out in a question format. It asks the users what they are trying to determine about the network. For example, "Are the servers OK?," "Why is the network slow?," "Is this cable OK?," and so on. The user selects the appropriate question, and the device performs the required test to find an answer. Five buttons on the keypad are also labeled with pictures that describe the routine testing task they perform. This makes it easy to know what the buttons are used to test. In addition, the graphical readout makes it easy to understand the results.

The Compas came in second behind Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter for its on-screen help and first for its documentation. The on-screen help menu explains the results of a particular test to the user in detail. The documentation is clear, concise and fits easily into a back pocket. The table of contents and index make it easy to find directions for performing specified tasks. In addition, the annotated diagrams and charts explain troubleshooting tasks effectively.

The Compas scored lowest for its network monitoring performance, partly because it doesn't have the capabilities of the other two. However,it can determine predominant talkers (machines that talk a lot -- a sign of a possibly faulty machine), what protocols are being used, the location of an error source and who is sending the most broadcasts.

The Compas came in first for its cable testing diagnostics because it is easy to use. The user can test the cable by using the picture key or by asking the diagnostic question "Is this cable OK?" The Compas tests the cable's length, connectivity, performs a traceroute and determines if there are problems with cross talk or external noise. It also gives the results in feet and meters, depending on how the user sets up the unit. Unlike the other units, the Compas makes a clicking sound while a test is being performed. This is like an audible version of a Windows hourglass -- giving an indication that the Compas is working, rather than stalled, while performing a task.

The Compas earned the highest overall rating and score for ease of use. Although it does not have all the capabilities of Wavetek's LANchecker 100 or Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter, it offers key troubleshooting features that are easy to understand. The menu and keypad layout make it simple to use, especially for the first-time user. It is an affordable tool for network administrators who may need to easily obtain fast results.

Fluke 686 Enterprise LANMeter

The Fluke 686 Enterprise LANMeter pushes the upper limit of handheld portability with its 11.9- by 2.4- by 10.4- inch dimensions and weight of almost five pounds. However, it provides an array of cable testing and network monitoring features that would be beneficial to any network administrator. Of the three units examined, the LANMeter is the most versatile, with its ability to test Layer 1, 2 and 3 functions.

The LANMeter can be used with token-ring and Ethernet networks and can perform hardware tests on hubs, network interface cards, PCs and cables. It can also test a node's IP addresses, perform network traceroutes, determine congestion areas and even generate traffic. It also can test WANs. A 36-button keypad and a large 240-by-128 pixel LCD screen, plus the ability to print test results via the RS-232 port are additional strengths.

Fluke's LANMeter scored lowest on portability and weight in our usability test. Its large size makes it difficult to effectively use with one hand. With two hands it is manageable, but when the user needs one hand to perform another task, using this product is cumbersome. However, the unit can be placed on a table or other flat surface and propped upright with its collapsible arm.

The LANMeter scored the highest on display screen and menu layout and tied with Microtest's Compas on keypad design. Its large display screen is exceptionally easy to read and simultaneously allows for clear presentation of the data in graphical and statistical forms. The menus are well laid out, making it easy to navigate from one screen to the next or from one test to another. Its layout lets the user "drill down" into trouble areas and determine problem areas. The keypad is easy to use and is well marked and positioned to facilitate its usage.

The LANMeter also scored highest for its on-screen help and tied with Microtest's Compas for its documentation. A unique feature of the LANMeter is that you can press the help button, regardless of which menu you are on, and it will give you a detailed description about the area you are in. Sometimes the help screens are almost too detailed because they give more information than needed. This eliminates the need for carrying printed documentation.

The LANMeter's documentation is exhaustive and goes into detail about each feature. It is well laid out and easy to read.

The LANMeter came in first for its network monitoring performance and second for its cable testing ease of use. This unit can give a detailed readout of network traffic and presents the results in clear graphical format. It quickly determines network utilization, broadcasts, collisions, IP and IPX traffic.

The LANMeter can also detect cable length and cable flaws. It gives cable length in feet and meters. The tester lets the user see where opens and shorts are located in the cable. However, it takes a few seconds longer than the other testers to perform these tasks.

For the overall rating and ease of use, Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter came in second to Microtest's Compas. This unit is well-suited for first-time users but is not as simple to operate as the Compas. For the most part, the users in this roundup were more concerned with ease of use than the unit's features. The biggest downside to this unit was its size. Still, the depth of features and functionality of this product make this tester appealing to any network administrator.

Wavetek LANchecker 100

Wavetek's LANchecker 100 can be used to monitor network traffic and test cables. This small, portable unit can troubleshoot a network, generate traffic, monitor addresses and test cables and links. Two LANchecker 100 units come in a set and are used to perform specific tasks. The unit tests Layer 1 and Layer 2 functions. Unlike Microtest's Compas and Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter, which also test token ring, this unit only tests for 10M bit/sec and 100M bit/sec Ethernet. Test results can be printed on a variety of printersThe LANchecker 100 came in first for its portability and weight. At just over two pounds, this unit is lightweight and is ergonomically designed to be held with one hand. It is easy to carry and use in places where there may not be much room. However, the cord is located on the side of the unit, making it more difficult to handle when used with the power supply. The unit's weight is also not evenly distributed, making it awkward to handle.

The LANchecker 100 finished last in display screen, menu layout and keypad design. Its 128-by-64 pixel display screen and small font size make it difficult to read when network monitoring or similar tests are performed. The menu layout requires scrolling down through a list of commands using the arrow touchpad keys. One negative aspect is that when the user scrolls through the menu, there is a seemingly endless array of commands. Once the cursor gets to the end of the nine commands it simply jumps back to the beginning and starts over again. Also, it is not clear that there are more options to choose from under each command. In addition, there are syntax errors in some of the command lines. The combination of the LCD screen and the LED indicators on the LANchecker 100 lend a nice balance that allows for troubleshooting the unit itself.

The unit's keypad consists of power on/off buttons, four arrow keys, an escape key and an enter key. They are spaced in such a way that accidentally pressing the wrong one is not likely to occur.

The LANchecker 100 scored lowest for its on-screen help and documentation. Unlike Fluke's 686 Enterprise LANMeter, the unit does not have an on-screen help menu. "Help" only exists in terms of on-screen instructions that are clear but don't offer in-depth instructions. The documentation comes with a table of contents but lacks a glossary or index. This made it difficult to find specific information quickly. However, once the user located the information the documentation described, the testing tasks ran fairly well.

The LANchecker 100 came in second for its network monitoring performance and third for its cable-testing features. With its network-statistics test, the user can view the network load, packet traffic, collisions, broadcasts, cyclic redundancy check errors, spikes and other errors. It shows an actual count and total count for each of these and also gives a graphical representation of the results.

The unit's cable testing function ranked last because the documentation did not make it clear how to perform the task. It also only gives a range for the cable length -- only shown in meters. The unit's cable check feature is fast and displays a clear and concise wire mapping of the cable.

The LANchecker 100 scored the lowest on the ease of use and overall rating. This was primarily because of its small screen size, difficulty in performing certain tests and inadequate documentation. However, once the user became familiar with the unit it was easy to use. The tester provides a range of testing capabilities that would be effective for network administrators. The ability to view the testing results in statistical and diagram form also makes it appealing.

Wavetek recently changed its name to Acterna. Future LANchecker 100s may be shipped with the Acterna manufacturer name.

Network analyzers are available in software and hardware versions. For certain tests, only a hardware version will do. For many tests, the convenience and portability of a handheld network analyzer are essential.

We found the Microtest Compas was the one preferred by our testers. Particularly, its ease of use and well-designed "How do I" on-screen menus made it a winner. Excellent documentation and an easy-to-use keypad also contributed to making the Compas a favorite.

Scoring not too far behind, the Fluke 686 Enterprise LANMeter had many features that put it ahead of the other testers. Its display screen, menu layout and onscreen help were preferred by our testers. The LANMeter could also perform the most network tests of the units we tested. The extra functionality came at a price -- in dollars (it was the most expensive of the three), and in portability. At more than five pounds, the LANMeter was the least portable of the testers in the group.

For pure portability, Wavetek's LANchecker 100 was the winner, with an easy-to-carry form factor and light weight. It was also the least expensive, but the least preferred.

Kovac is a research associate with the Applied Research Institute at Ball State University. The Applied Research Institute is a nonprofit entity focused on assisting the IT field and its vendors. Fussle is a research associate with the program. Comments on the review are welcome at rkovac@wp.bsu.edu.

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