Network availability can be a source of much finger-pointing. Those of us running the network are usually the first to take the blame, victim to the premise that frantic calls to IT constitute network monitoring. SolarWinds joins the chorus of companies denying that premise in support of a safer ideology: early-warning systems. The company's entry-level package—ipMonitor—promises to provide near-instant heads-up warnings when chunks of your network hit the concrete.

Network monitoring programs are divided into two camps: those with agents and those without. Network monitoring programs are divided into two camps: those with agents and those without. Network monitoring programs are divided into two camps: those with agents and those without. Network monitoring programs are divided into two camps: those with agents and those without.

SolarWinds ipMonitor
PROS: Responsive, unpolluted web interface; easy credential/account configuration; intuitive navigation system
CONS: Use of custom SNMP MIBs requires a support request or tedious manual process; can't sort tables of devices
RATING: 3.5 out of 5
PRICE: $2000, includes unlimited monitors, 1 year of maintenance
RECOMMENDATION: SolarWinds' ipMonitor is an excellent jack-of-all-trades monitoring program, but considering its price, which is hardly entry-level, it needs equally excellent SNMP support.

CONTACT: SolarWinds • 866-530-8100 • www.solarwinds.com

On the subject of interfaces, ipMonitor’s GUI is particularly well balanced. Accessed via the product's built-in web server, it's divided into four partitions clearly marked by function. The first of these, Dashboard, contains a modular display of the network devices grouped by various properties. The Dashboard is the primary means by which you diagnose a problem’s scope, as it aggregates warnings and alerts by type and brings them to your attention. Links to subfunctions on the other tabs are also present, enabling quick navigation of all available troubleshooting resources. Two handy modes in the NOC View are intended for no-frills problem resolution.

The Dashboard’s value becomes particularly clear when you realize it’s not just a display of the worst performers on the network but rather a fully clickable menu from which you can drill your way into underlying statistics. This point-and-shoot method permits instant, fluid action rather than forcing a delay between recognizing a problem and finding the associated data.

The Devices tab, which Figure 1 shows, provides access to the network-scanning engine and its discovery process for adding new device monitors. The interface uses the term monitor to describe a built-in test that verifies the accessibility of a device or service. (SolarWinds offers 50 such tests.) These tests can check ping response, successful web page loading, and Exchange Server, Active Directory (AD), SQL Server connectivity, to name a few. The benefits of the SmartMonitor feature become obvious once a scan begins, as it intelligently adds pertinent monitors to the Devices list during a sweep of the network. Because the number of monitors can be quite high, even in small networks, SmartMonitor's simplification of the process is appreciated.

 

Figure 1: Using the Devices tab to access the network-scanning engine
Figure 1: Using the Devices tab to access the network-scanning engine

 

An unfortunate omission from the Devices tab is the ability to sort devices by characteristic, such as status, IP address, or display name. Arguably, this kind of sorting occurs automatically on the Dashboard, but a sort option is important when working with tables that can reach significant size. The ability to create groups is helpful in this regard, but you still might ache for a way to organize this tab's data.

The Reports tab lets you quickly and easily generate reports on a per-monitor or per-group basis. The basic single-monitor reports can be queued up by device or by device group, which provide quick stat-specific views, whereas custom reports can contain multiple devices in a group. Again, the tabled values here aren't sorted or sortable, which hinders the accessibility of the information.

The Configuration tab exposes the product's less-than-obvious features, including an SNMP tree browser and search utility. Here, I must mention a crucial flaw: the relative inability to add custom SNMP Management Information Base (MIB) files to the program to enable SNMP scanning of specific devices not included with the product or on the support site. (I say “relative” because you can ask SolarWinds to add them by special request.) You might not consider this a problem, but SNMP is well known and ubiquitous, and should be part of the basic feature set. Yes, you can add individual monitors by object identifier (OID), but that’s an ancient solution for what can be easily automated.

SolarWinds' ipMonitor contents itself with being a winning general-purpose solution that can’t. If you require that level of granular functionality, you'll need to step up to Orion Network Performance Monitor. So, where does ipMonitor belong in the arena of monitoring tools? It fills the need for a stable, low-overhead monitoring tool that serves as a watchful sentinel. It's a basic yet robust tool in most regards, but the lack of similarly robust, built-in custom MIB support at this price makes it a tough sell if you aren’t using it primarily for Windows servers and other non-SNMP devices.