Navigating the network test and measurement jungle

03 February 2021

David Griffiths, independent consultant 

David Griffiths, independent consultant 

In this complex world, information generates more revenue and profit than any other market sector. The current global pandemic is affecting the Internet more than ever before. The rise of online video conferencing and collaborative applications drives user expectation to match. Adding to this mix is the challenge faced by network administrators, often working from home, doing all they can to provide the highest service quality to staff and customers alike.

Fortunately, a wide range of appliances and software applications is available to help identify issues across the Internet right down to the end user who may also be working from home. The challenge is, what is the most effective, reliable, and best value for money tool for troubleshooting and analysis? Multiple factors should be considered; this article will hopefully provide a guide through the T&M (Test and Measurement) jungle. We have focused our attention primarily on hardware-based appliances even though there are many software applications; however, performance depends on the device used (a laptop for example).

Is the troubleshooting appliance easy to install and use? Do you really need multicoloured, dynamic charts? Easy to see graphs and user-friendly navigation helps to speed up fault detection faster than fancy graphics. If the vendor produces a range of troubleshooting devices, did they consider how important it is to offer the same user interface across their product range?

Does the vendor offer portable, quick to install and affordable products? Networks can be massive and not necessarily centralized, so powerful, and lightweight tools are a must. At the other end of the scale, can rack mounted analyzers handle existing and increasing number of users, protocols, and data in large installations?

Data security is extremely important when it comes to small, portable analysis tools. The ideal solution is mains-powered, contains no hard drive and when disconnected, discards all network data. Tools with this functionality are mandatory in many governments and across a wide spectrum of market sectors.

With so many key workers unable to return to their normal workplace, network administrators can become bogged down with emails and phone calls from users who may not be able to express what online problems they are experiencing. This challenge can be overcome. The installation of an appliance in the network centre and a small, portable analyzer from the same vendor can enable a home or in-house administrator to quickly identify end-user issues and, in many cases, fix problems without the need to travel. These small devices can be pre-configured and mailed to key workers along with simple installation instructions, so administrators can minimize user frustration while maintaining and improving network flow.

Wireshark, the world’s most widely used protocol analyser is perhaps the most popular, free network application. However, when there are many packets and numerous protocols being captured, identifying a transient phenomenon can be challenging. One troubleshooting tool vendor, has developed a ‘quick-shot’ extension to their Network Analyzer. Called ‘Webshark’ it enables an administrator to take a snapshot of a Wireshark capture and view the results within its own browser window; no need to launch a separate Wireshark session.

When there are many users and fast connections, finding infrequent problems can be a major and time-consuming task. A troubleshooting tool which can display real-time traffic and additionally store historical data is a real benefit to problem solving, especially when dealing with protocols such as SIP and RTSP. Some vendors provide limited storage for this requirement; only one or two can offer an almost unlimited storage capacity, perfect when there may be as many as 256 million connections.

Lastly, there’s nothing like having a context-sensitive user manual at your fingertips when you need help. An ideal solution is to include a button on each page to instantly view all there is to know on a specific protocol or network layer. A complete version of this useful user manual is also available on some vendor sites as a Wiki.