Managing every application, server, workstation, and mobile device in your network can be time-consuming and overwhelming. But you're in luck. There are several network-monitoring tools on the market that can help you reduce the amount of time and effort you expend on this vital task. Before you buy a network-monitoring tool, however, you need to know the particulars of your environment. Let's take a look at what you need to know before you buy a network-monitoring solution and at several network-monitoring tools that might fulfill your needs.

Feature Considerations
The features you need depend on the requirements of your environment. Examine your network carefully to determine the particulars of your infrastructure, the types of monitoring you require, the alerts you need, and the ways you want to receive those alerts. When you've completed your network examination, you'll be able to start zeroing in on the best tool for your environment.

Types of monitoring. The network-monitoring solutions in this buyer's guide contain everything from email and database monitoring to WAN monitoring. Some vendors, such as Argent Software, NETIKUS.NET, Paessler AG, and TNT Software, even offer environment monitoring, which measures, for example, the temperature and humidity of your computer room and warns of water infiltration. Although such bonus features are nice, you might not need them, so be wary of spending money on features you might never use.

Alerting and reporting. A key component of any network-monitoring product is how it alerts you to problems that occur in your network. The solutions in this buyer's guide alert you about everything from application, server, and device failures to threshold overruns to troublesome services. You'll need to decide what aspects of your network you require alerts for and how you want the software to alert you. For example, you might want alerts to come to you over your pager or cell phone.

Most network-monitoring products offer two basic types of reporting: real-time and historical. Knowing what's happening in your infrastructure as problems occur is critical in most environments; historical reporting is useful if you're looking for trends or if you require documentation about a particular system event. The alerting and reporting features listed in the buyer's guide table are only a sample of what's available. You'll find complete lists of the products' alerting and reporting capablilities on the vendors' Web sites.

Scalability. You want to buy a product that's scalable enough to monitor all the hardware in your network, but if you're a small-to-midsized business (SMB), you don't want a product that's intended for a large-scale environment because you'll end up paying for scalability that you'll never need.

Licensing. Whether you manage an SMB, branch office, or a full-blown enterprise, you need to have an idea of the most appropriate licensing scheme for your infrastructure. Some vendors (e.g., AdventNet) license their products per user, whereas others (e.g., Argent Software, NETIKUS.NET) license their products per server—which could be costly if you manage hundreds of servers.

Other Points to Consider
You'll find a lot of common ground in the basic functionality of most network-monitoring solutions, so one way to approach your decision-making is to consider the features that not every product offers. For example, vendors such as Argent Software and Paessler AG provide automatic-discovery features, which might reveal network-infrastructure components that you didn't even know you had and that you now know you need to monitor. Also, consider solutions that offer a topology map, giving you an easy way to view your entire environment.

Put a premium on simplicity. Any number of bells and whistles won't help you if you can't understand the data that these products present to you, so buying an easy-to-use solution might be one of the smartest moves you make. Make sure the product you buy can easily discover and isolate problems in your environment. You also want the product to present data with easy-to-understand steps for remediating problems. (Some solutions even offer automatic remediation.) Most vendors offer free trial versions, so take the time to download the product you're considering and see if it's easy to use.

A Hands-Off Approach
Network-monitoring tools are designed to make your life easier—not more painful. These solutions work around the clock and typically remediate problems automatically so that you don't have to. If you find yourself manually fixing problems on a daily basis or taking a reactive approach to network management, you should consider buying a network-monitoring tool.

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