Freeing the network with PacketTrap
Let’s face it; network administration is pretty much a thankless task if your core business isn’t technology related! Few people care if everything works ok but the moment it doesn’t work then all eyes are pointed to the network administrator. It is easy to forget that in life things sometimes go wrong and when they go wrong they don’t usually go wrong at some future date that can be planned around. No sir, they often go wrong at times when they are needed most. Some people call this the “Critical Need Factor” – in times of critical need everything goes off! Anyway back to the story, users are confused and asking “how long will the system be down?” and guess what – they are all staring at you (me in this case!). Now, I don’t know about you but as one of my many hats is network administration and troubleshooting I need all the help I can get and as an SME budgets are pretty tight.
What can be done about the network that seems to be no longer functioning? Or in fact, is there a good baseline for judging network performance in the first place? How do I get a firmware update onto a device? In fact, does the device work in the first place? Is the network performing well? Is the traffic problem on the firewall or the switch? Is our web server up or down? Can we tell if a network problem is hampering performance? Sometimes the answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no but somewhere in between, requiring investigation, and this is where network management tools can help. We have command line utilities such as Ping, Traceroute, and PathPing and to delve deeper we have Syslog viewers such as Kiwi, network protocol analysers such as Wireshark and on our firewalls we have Viewpoint or some similar package. We also have event logs and other great tools like Servers Alive, MRTG, and Nagios to monitor things.
The stereotypical images of network ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ that you might read about may tell you that network administrators and the like all love text based command lines and small hard to use utilities that produce strange information that make little sense to most people – and that may well be true for some, but not everyone, and certainly not for me – with a zillion things to do I need information and I need it fast and well presented. Graphical User Interfaces were invented for a reason so why don’t we use them? Spiceworks implements a GUI very well and so does PacketTrap. Both are extremely useful tools and it would appear – quite complementary products.
The pt360 Tool Suite product is currently free and download is currently just over 6MB. After installation and prior to using the product it has to be activated using an online registration process which takes a few moments but is relatively painless.To provide a consistent interface for the various tools included, PacketTrap implements a graphical dashboard (ptDashboard) and gadgets. If you’ve used iGoogle, myYahoo or Spiceworks you will be in familiar territory. Some people might prefer to call the technology ‘NetAdmin 2.0’ but I think I prefer to call it simply useful – and PacketTrap doesn’t need a browser in order to work (though it does include an open source browser for adding useful web pages as gadgets). Basically, you have a central screen with tabs and you can drag and drop all manner of supplied gadgets upon it and organise them how you like. The first thing that struck me about PacketTrap, as indeed it did with Spiceworks, was how clean and well laid out the interface is. You can also switch the product to full screen so if you are lucky enough to have a spare 42” plasma screen lying around you can put it to good use as network activity monitor and really impress the board of directors!
I had a problem recently on an infrastructure switch and worse still because I had a zillion other things on my mind I couldn’t remember the IP address but a quick SNMP scan using PacketTrap soon gave me the information I needed – and the built-in TFTP server came in handy too. The problem switch on the network required a firmware update. The only options were X-modem or TFTP – fortunately PacketTrap TFTP facility was quick to setup and did the job. I have also been setting up the SYSLOG server recently to gain more information from devices on the network that had previously gone unmanaged. One benefit of PacketTrap is that you can create device groups and run tests against them, so for example if you have a number of web servers you can create a web server group and run various diagnostics against it. The PacketTrap team also say that the product can work with products from 3Com, Barracuda, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Nortel, Novell, Redhat, Solaris, Sonicwall, VMWare and others. Some interesting things you can run are Ping Scan, SNMP Scan, WMI Scan, TFTP Server, Syslog, Whois, Wake on Lan, DNS Audit, and several others. Whilst it uses an open source web viewer, so you can include information from say MRTG as a gadget, I felt that an RSS feed reader would be a useful addition – something that Spiceworks hugely benefits from, it could also benefit from an email or SMS alerting function.
PacketTrap is a young product with an enthusiastic and dynamic team behind it who are keen to make it best of breed and welcome any and all feedback. Sure, you can get much of the functionality of PacketTrap from other places and combinations of other tools but not many will offer them all in one place with a great front end whilst also being free. Recently I have been fortunate to use v1.1 on the beta test program and I can already see that the development team have been extremely busy.
You can get more information about PacketTrap from its web site at www.packettrap.com