SolarWinds is a common name with network administrators. The company has carved itself a solid reputation for making some of the very best network and system administration tools. It is also famous for making a handful of very useful free tools such as its Advanced Subnet Calculator or its TFTP server. Today, we’re about to review SolarWinds’ flagship product called the Network Performance Monitor, or NPM. This is primarily a network bandwidth usage monitoring tool but, as you’re about to find out, it packs a few surprises with unique features not often seen in competing products.
Although the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is a bandwidth monitoring tool, it is a bit diminutive to qualify it as such because, in fact, it is much more than that, As its name suggests, this product’s true purpose is monitoring the performance of networks. To accomplish that, the tool keeps a watchful eye on several components of your networks such as routers and switches but also on endpoint devices such as desktop computers, servers or mobile devices, constantly monitoring their operational metrics. The tool’s dashboard is easy to use and understand with comprehensive controls. It is also highly customizable, enabling users to tweak it to their liking. Scalability is another major feature of the product which can easily scale up to networks of just about any size.
A Word About The Orion Platform
Orion used to be the name of SolarWinds’ top monitoring solution. As other tools were released based on the same platform, each product got a distinctive name and the Orion name was kept as the underlying platform which offers several services to multiple tools. In addition to the Network Performance Monitor, the NetFlow Traffic Analyzer, the Server & Application Monitor, and a few other products are built on the Orion platform.
To the user, the advantage of this common platform is particularly obvious when you use more than one product. What it provides is a flawless integration between tools as well as a unique user interface which is consistent from tool to tool.
SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor’s Main Features
At its base, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is an SNMP monitoring tool. As such, it polls SNMP-enabled devices to read their operational metrics such as CPU or memory gauges or interface traffic counters. The Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is an industry standard protocol for the remote monitoring and administration of network-connected devices. It is built into most devices and rarely requires the installation of a device agent to enable monitoring.
But as we said earlier, there’s much more than that to this tool. Here’s an overview of several of the tool’s most interesting features.
Early in the initial setup of the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, one of the features users most appreciate is the device auto-discovery. The process scans network segments to discover network-attached devices, identify them and automatically add them to the dashboard’s configuration along with the operational parameters that are relevant for each discovered device. The process would, for example, add each port of a network switch to the dashboard. Once added to the dashboard, each device automatically starts being monitored with no further action required on the user’s part.
The performance analysis features of the Network Performance Monitor let you collect different types of data from multiple elements on your network. Using drag and drop, the tool lets you assemble performance reports and place them side by side for comparison purposes. You could, for instance, compare live and historical data. The graphics display widgets are synchronized, making performance impacts easy to visualize as all target data sources are aligned on a common timeline.
It is rare for a network to be only made of components from a single vendor. Fortunately, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is totally vendor-agnostic. The tool relies on industry-standard protocols such as SNMP to fetch operational data from devices. Other protocols are also used for some specific functions of the product but they are all standard and none requires the installation of a local agent.
The only place where you are forced into an operating system is the tool’s installation. But although the monitoring software and dashboard can only be installed on Windows, the operating system or firmware type of the devices that you want to monitor is irrelevant. The tool will communicate with devices’ SNMP agents no matter what underlying operating system they run.
Wireless Networking Tools
The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is not limited to monitoring wired networks. The built-in SolarWinds WiFi Monitor is one of the best WiFi analyzers on the market. The module will discover all your wireless access points and add them to the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor so they can be monitored. The SolarWinds Wi-Fi Monitor is almost a product-within-a-product. It will let you set alerts, it will monitor your infrastructure and it will create reports on several parameters such as IP addresses, device type, SSID, channels used, and the number of clients currently connected. Client details include client name, SSID, IP Address, MAC Address, Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), time connected, data rate, and bytes received and bytes transmitted. Other advanced features include the ability to detect rogue access points and SSIDs.
Virtual Environment Monitoring
Virtualization is a reality in a great many organizations. And if yours is one of them, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor will suit you well. The tool can monitor both physical and virtual servers. It will also add specific monitors for virtualization hosts, addressing the specific need of monitoring virtualized environments.
And since most cloud-based hosting services such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon AWS are nothing but remote virtual servers, the tool will let you monitor them as well. It is perfectly adapted to monitoring resources located anywhere, not just in the same location where it’s installed.
Network Path Analysis With NetPath
The NetPath Network Path Analysis feature of the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor provides you with a visual representation of your network topology. But the best thing is that you don’t have anything to do to take advantage of it. It is automatically constructed during the network discovery phase. The resulting network map displays traffic volumes per individual link as well as across entire paths. It further includes virtual environments and even follows data flows over the internet to show access paths to cloud services, thanks to a built-in traceroute functionality which aids in troubleshooting network delays and other issues. Traffic flows can be monitored by user, application, protocol, or device. NetPath’s network maps can help you isolate bottlenecks in your network, allowing you to allocate resolution tasks to support team experts as well as service providers.
There are two types of alerting available with The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor. First, there are threshold-based alerts which can be triggered whenever a specific parameter exceeds a given level. You could, for instance, set the tool to raise alerts when CPU load goes above 75% or when a network link has 90% of its bandwidth used up.
The second type of alerting relies on the SNMP agent running on each monitored devices. In addition to the remote reading of operational parameters, SNMP also allows enabled devices to send out alerts—called SNMP traps—to a suitably-configured trap receiver. The NPM is one such trap receiver. When it receives SNMP traps, the tool displays them immediately as alerts on its dashboard.
The treatment of various alerts can be filtered and staged so that non-critical alerts can go to log files instead of popping up on the dashboard or sending out notifications. To avoid minor warnings from being completely overlooked, a combination of conditions that could accumulate into a serious problem can be configured to trigger an action. Actions include sending out notifications by email or SMS but also launching external programs, potentially giving the tool automatic remedial capabilities.
The analysis and data visualization functions of the SolarWinds NPM dashboard are great tools for identifying performance issues. The reporting facilities of the system enable you to take snapshots of live data, aggregate sources and display analysis of historical data.
This output can be delivered in a distributable format enabling you to illustrate goal achievements, report on team performance, and check on SLA targets. A module called PerfStack generates a URL of your assembled data views, which you can email out to stakeholders to promote discussion and collaboration.
Benefits Of The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor
Salary/Staff Time Savings
Today’s complex networks require highly trained network professionals to maintain the network, configure new users, respond to support calls, and plan and support network expansions and changes. Automated technology that helps maintain or even reduce headcount offers a directly quantifiable return. In most cases, network management and monitoring solutions free network professionals to work on more strategic projects, which can help to reduce costs and drive increased revenue.
Reduced Network Downtime
Network downtime can be directly quantified by simply calculating the cost of the time a network professional spends troubleshooting and resolving the cause of the downtime. This cost, however, is simply the tip of the iceberg as far as the total cost of network downtime is concerned. Lost employee productivity, lost revenue, and lost customer goodwill are all examples of costs that are harder to calculate but have a much greater impact.
Reduction in Support Calls
Network management and monitoring solutions alert network management and support teams to potential problems before users start to complain and generate support calls. The cost of support calls can be easily calculated by looking at the number of calls per week, the time to resolve a support call, and the cost per hour of support time. By reducing the number of support calls through proactive monitoring and management of the network, you will be able to directly quantify the cost savings.
Decreased Time to Resolution
Time to resolution is the amount of time that it takes to resolve an issue once the network professional is notified. Network monitoring and management systems with real-time diagnostic data that is viewable through dynamic network maps can greatly reduce the amount of time required to troubleshoot and pinpoint the source of the issue.
Managing Service Level Agreements
Network operations teams are typically held to or measured against a quantifiable service level agreement (SLA) that is typically a percentage of network uptime. This SLA can be an internal SLA or an external SLA with your service provider, for example. If network availability is directly attributable to a company’s revenue, then the cost of downtime can be easily measured based on the average revenue that would have been generated during the downtime.
The pricing structure of the Network Performance Monitor is relatively simple. There are no licensing tiers with various capabilities which can quickly turn out to be a headache-generating puzzle when trying to figure out what elements you need to purchase. The only variable in the tool’s pricing is the number of “elements” to be monitored.
Contrary to some other products, an element does not necessarily correspond to a monitored device. In SolarWinds parlance, several different things are considered elements. The first type of elements is the network interface. This includes any interface of a workstation or server but also each and every port on a network switch. With switches commonly having 48 ports or even more, you can see that the element count can go up rather fast. Virtual interfaces and layer 3 VLANs also count as elements. The second type of elements is nodes. It refers to any monitored network-connected equipment. Nodes could be switches, routers, computers, servers, access points, anything that connects to the network. The last type of element are volumes which refers to the logical disks that you need to monitor.
The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is available in five different capacities based on the number of elements from 100 to unlimited at prices varying from $2 955 to $32 525. The purchased licenses are perpetual and the price includes one year of support and maintenance. At the end of the first year, you have to pay an annual fee to continue the support and maintenance plan. If your network grows and your current license level becomes insufficient, ti can easily be upgraded to the next level at any time.
As we indicated earlier, the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor software can only be installed on Windows. There are two components to the system. There’s an application server as well as a database server. They each need their own dedicated server and you cannot install both on the same machine. However, nothing stops you from running it on two virtual servers running on the same host. As for the size of server you need for installation, it varies according to the number of monitored nodes. As such, you’ll need a bigger server to run the 2000-element version than to run the 100-element one.
The underlying server should be running either Windows Server 2012 or Windows Server 2016 for both the application and the database servers. As for the database, you’ll need to install Microsoft SQL Server 2012, 2014, or 2016.
Hardware-wise, the server that you’ll use to run the application on requires at least a four-core processor with a 2.5 GHz clock speed. If you’re using the unlimited node version, that speed needs to be at least 3 GHz. As for the server that hosts the database, it should also be equipped with a four-core processor but needs a speed of at least 3 GHz even for the smallest number of nodes.
The required memory for both the application server and the database server varies according to the number of monitored nodes. The 100-element and 250-element versions require 6 to 8 GB for the application server and 8 GB for the database server. The 500-element version requires 8 to 10 GB for the application server and 10 GB for the database server. The 2000-element version requires 10 to 16 GB for the application server and 10 to 64 GB for the database server. And finally, the unlimited-element version requires 18 to 32 GB for the application server and 34 to 128 GB for the database server.
No matter what license level you’re using or the number of monitored elements, the servers need two 15K hard drives with at least 146 GB of capacity and the server’s network interfaces need to be at least 1 Gb.
There are some very nice advanced features in the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor which you wouldn’t normally expect from this category of network monitoring software. They include the possibility of setting customized alert conditions from combined network data sources, so you aren’t just recording the statuses of individual devices. The NetPath feature is another nice addition that extends the troubleshooting capabilities of the Network Performance Monitor out into bandwidth analyzer territory. Also, its ability to monitor virtual environments, wireless networks, and internet routes adds to the tool’s LAN monitoring functions to create a truly integrated monitoring platform that can work very well for hybrid and complex networks.
Acquiring the product is easy, thanks to a no-nonsense pricing structure. The only difficulty here is figuring out how many elements you need. However, with the availability of an element-unlimited 30-day trial version, you could set it up and see how many elements the tool actually uses before placing your order. There’s a menu item in the dashboard that gives you the total element count.
The Network Performance Monitor really is a true top-of-the-line network monitoring platform. Of course, all of those great features come at a price and this cannot be called a cheap tool. However, given the functionality you get, we’re confident that you’ll get your money’s worth. And if you’re not too sure if the product is a good fit for your needs, why don’t you take advantage of the available free 30-day trial. You can take the tool for a thorough test run and see for yourself.