Discovery, monitoring, and management tools

\[Editor’s Note: At press time, SolarWinds.Net had released SolarWinds 2000 Professional Edition 2.2. For more information about this release, visit the company’s Web site.\]

SolarWinds.Net’s SolarWinds 2000 Professional Edition 2.1 is a powerful collection of network utilities for Windows 2000, Windows NT, Windows Me, and Windows 9x systems. The product offers several tools for IP network management, and tools for administration of Cisco Systems products, security, and SNMP devices add functional diversity. The easy-to-use interface helps administrators process and interpret the discovery, monitoring, and management information the tools collect. The tools also offer a flexible variety of exporting options in comma-delimited, plaintext, HTML, and Microsoft Excel formats. You can also export data to a Web page for online viewing.

SolarWinds.Net offers three SolarWinds 2000 tool suites. The Standard Edition’s 12 utilities concentrate on IP networking functions. The Professional Edition, which I tested, contains an additional 14 utilities for administration of DNS, Cisco routers, and SNMP devices. To these 26 tools, the Professional Plus Edition adds a traffic generator and the SNMP Brute Force Attack tool for ensuring security.

I installed SolarWinds 2000 on two Dell OptiPlex GX110 machines, each with 128MB of RAM. The machine with a Pentium III 500MHz processor ran Win98 Second Edition (Win98SE); the machine with a Pentium III 866MHz processor ran Windows 2000. Installation from the CD-ROM was painless. The product worked well on both OSs. You can choose to install either a licensed version, a free 30-day trial version, or the two free tools: Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) Server and Advanced Subnet Calculator. The multithreaded TFTP Server tool lets you send and receive multiple configuration files. As Figure 1 shows, the tool also lets you enter trusted IP addresses to increase TFTP server security.

Installation on the Win98SE workstation required that I also install Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC), which the product’s CD-ROM provides. I also needed to reboot. Installation on the Win2K machine didn’t prompt me for an MDAC installation or require a reboot. Before I started the program, I needed to enter a license key and customer ID. You must verify these entries at SolarWinds.Net’s Web site, then you’re ready to go.

You can use either the Windows Start menu or the SolarWinds 2000 toolbar to access the utilities. The toolbar offers quick access to the tools and organizes the tools into groups. Figure 2 shows the toolbar’s default groups: Discovery, Cisco Tools, Ping Tools, Address Mgmt, Monitoring, MIB Browser, Security, Miscellaneous, and Help & Web. When you click a group name, the toolbar expands to list the group’s tools, as Figure 2 shows. You can then click a tool’s icon to launch the tool. The toolbar is customizable: You can create and delete groups, drag tools into other groups, and add any executable on your hard disk to the toolbar for convenient launching.

To my annoyance, the toolbar lacks a minimize icon. Furthermore, as you resize the toolbar window, tools reorient themselves horizontally or vertically in the center of the window, thus taking up more desktop space than necessary. A toolbar that follows Windows conventions more closely and arranges icons to fill unused space would be more useful. To save space, you can change the icons’ sizes from large to small. Reducing the size of icons in one group doesn’t propagate to the icons in all groups, and the vendor didn’t enhance the toolbar for version 2.2. However, SolarWinds.Net plans to make this propagation possible in future product updates. I categorized SolarWinds 2000 Professional Edition tools into discovery, monitoring, and management groups to review the tools.

Discovery Tools
Discovery tools can scan a subnet, one device, or an IP address range. The tools then report various details about the discovered devices. The IP Network Browser tool reports with more detail than other tools. However, IP Network Browser requires that you install SNMP agents on the devices before this tool can scan them for information. A wizard walks you through initial SNMP agent configuration.

The Ping Sweep tool scans a range of IP addresses and performs a DNS lookup on discovered devices. The tool ran quickly, but when I maximized the Ping Sweep window and initiated a scan, an error message appeared. The vendor promptly fixed this bug, which was also a problem for several other tools. Ping Sweep resolves WINS names, then, on screen, replaces the WINS names with DNS names. I would have liked for the WINS and DNS names to display in separate columns so that I could see both listings.

The SNMP Sweep tool impressed me. It scanned an IP address range and provided information such as DNS names, system names, the time of the last reboot, and system descriptions of SNMP-enabled devices. I used this tool to collect detailed information about my network’s Cisco 2600 series router in less than a minute.

Network Sonar is a powerful tool that can build Microsoft Access databases of information that an IP network’s devices supply. A wizard prompted me to provide the community strings my network uses, the IP address or host name of a seed router, and the subnets to scan. Within 30 minutes, the tool had enumerated eight different Class C networks and provided the database with loads of detailed information. I could query the database, for example, for all Cisco routers running Cisco Internetwork Operating System (Cisco IOS) 11.0.

Monitoring Tools
The Bandwidth Monitor tool provides realtime traffic information for SNMP devices on your network. I could also measure the bandwidth utilization of my network’s Cisco router. Devices with multiple interfaces were cumbersome to manage because I needed to create separate gauges for each monitored interface. However, you need to configure gauge layouts only once; you can save your configurations for future use. SolarWinds.Net is also rewriting Bandwidth Monitor so that it will display historical data for network trending. The vendor hadn’t rewritten the tool for version 2.2.

The Trace Route tool traces paths and remembers the paths of the hops that network traffic takes between the host and the target device. The tool traces paths quickly because it processes hops concurrently. Trace Route marks each downed link in red, making such links easy to see.

The MIB Walk tool scans the SNMP tree for a specified device and drops the information—including device, network settings, and hardware specificatons—into a table. I pointed the tool to a Win2K server, and within 2 minutes, I was at looking more than 1600 detailed entries. I could then select fields for future analysis.

Watch It! is an applet that monitors servers, routers, and other network devices. The applet uses audible alerts to notify administrators if a network response begins to degrade or if a device goes down. The tool would be more useful if, in addition to the audible alerts, the applet sent email messages or pop-up window notifications to the administrator. You can add a Watch It! icon to your desktop for information at a glance; when a device stops responding, the icon turns red, and when performance begins to degrade, the icon turns yellow. Buttons launch Telnet and the Trace Route, Ping, and IP Network Browser tools from the applet; these tools facilitate alert diagnoses.

Management Tools
I also tested several management tools that are useful to administrators. The DNS Audit tool scans a range of IP addresses for DNS errors. The tool performs a forward and reverse DNS lookup on each address and highlights errors it encounters.

The DNS/Who Is Resolver tool retrieves information host names, URLs, email addresses, domain names, and IP and network addresses. The Network Address Recovery tool determines IP address utilization in a particular subnet. The tool is handy for reclaiming unused IP addresses.

The DHCP Scope Monitor tool scans your DHCP scopes to determine which scopes are low in available addresses; the tool alerts you by address levels you specify. The tool’s interface doesn’t display the DHCP scope options you might have configured on your servers, and you need to make sure that the DHCP servers you plan to scan have SNMP installed.

SolarWinds 2000 also includes a series of tools for managing Cisco routers. The Router CPU Load tool is useful to engineers who want to monitor realtime processor loads on networked routers or switches. You can configure alerts to notify you if CPU load surpasses a threshold you define. The tool doesn’t archive data.

The Router Password Decryption applet decodes Cisco type 7 passwords. I entered an encrypted password string from a Cisco 2600 series router configuration file, and the tool displayed the true password.

The Config Viewer tool uses a TFTP server and SNMP to list Cisco router and switch configuration files. To facilitate comparisons, the tool color-codes differences between files. This feature is useful when you need to reconfigure routers on the network.

The Proxy Ping tool can initiate a Ping test from a remote Cisco router. For example, if you manage several sites from your location in San Francisco, you can use Proxy Ping to test connections between branch offices in New York and Miami, Florida. I’d like to see SolarWinds.Net include a Proxy Trace Route tool; although version 2.2 doesn’t offer such a tool, the vendor has one in the works.

Worth It!
SolarWinds 2000 is a moderately priced, well-designed, powerful tool suite that offers functionality similar to that of more expensive, higher-end diagnostic applications. The product’s separate tools offer functionality similar to that of many shareware tools; however, shareware tools lack this product’s integration and high performance. SolarWinds 2000’s consistent and easy-to-use interface also reduces the time you’ll need to learn the product and generate meaningful network information. This product belongs in every serious network engineer’s toolbox.

SolarWinds 2000 Professional Edition 2.1
Contact: SolarWinds.Net * 918-744-5018
Price: $325
Decision Summary:
Pros: High-performance, useful, diverse tools; flexible exporting features
Cons: Minor bugs; enhancements needed for toolbar UI