Apr 25, 2020 The traffic analyzer can track end-to-end transfer performance across an entire network, or just monitor each link. Other functions monitor interfaces, including incoming traffic arriving at web servers from outside the network. The software is particularly interested in traffic throughput and a display of traffic per protocol.
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Way back in 2015, we reviewed the must-have top free networking tools. And honestly, those reviews have stood the test of time. But now that time has passed, the landscape has changed, and we think it’s worthwhile to review those old choices and possibly add a few new ones.
Laying the Foundation
To build a network, you start with an architecture, draw the design, and analyze and choose the hardware that meets your requirements. Because many organizations need their network to be up and functioning to generate revenue, having the right set of tools to monitor and manage the one you so lovingly created is critical.
But how do you find the best network monitoring tools when there are hundreds of commercial products, freeware tools, and open-source software to choose from? While the debate about free versus commercial goes on, there are tried and tested, free network monitoring tools that many network admins swear by. Below, we will share some of our favorites with you.
Open-source choices are good and can even match commercial tools, but you should know that using open-source monitoring requires a high level of involvement with the tool, which may not perfectly suit your needs. As the saying goes, “Open-source is only free if your time is worthless.”
Open-source monitoring solutions often require a significant investment in time and resources. Missing features may have to be built with the help of community support or an in-house IT team. The second consideration is security, which may become an issue, depending on the tool you select and your enterprise’s security guidelines. Additionally, immediate custom fixes may not be available unless you spend time developing and maintaining them yourself.
When we need a network monitoring tool that is easy to install, and supports monitoring and reporting out of the box, we like SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (NPM). NPM acts as a single pane of glass to provide complete and comprehensive network monitoring capabilities that complement some of the essential free tools you may already use.
Because enterprise networks are becoming bigger and more complex, it’s important to put network monitoring and managing solutions in place early in the implementation phase.
What’s on the list?
If you do decide to go the free/open-source route, you should check out the following. It’s our list of the best free network monitoring tools available today.
Nagios® is the great-grand-daddy of monitoring tools, with only ping being more ubiquitous in some circles.
Nagios is popular due to its active development community and external plug-in support. You can create and use external plugins in the form of executable files or Perl® and shell scripts to monitor and collect metrics from every hardware and software used in a network. There are plugins that provide an easier and better GUI, address many limitations in the Core®, and support features, such as auto discovery, extended graphing, notification escalation, and more.
Cacti® is another of the monitoring warhorses that has endured as a go-to for network monitoring needs. It allows you to collect data from almost any network element, including routing and switching systems as well as firewalls, and put that data into robust graphs. If you have a device, it’s possible that Cacti’s active community of developers has created a monitoring template for it.
Cacti supports SNMP polling, which itself covers a wide range of network devices. You can also extend Cacti’s capabilities to use scripts, queries, or commands for data collection, and save it as a template to use for polling other devices for similar datasets. Cacti leverages the power of RRDTool, an open-source data logging and graphing system for creating graphs from the stored datasets. RRDTool’s data consolidation lets you store collected data forever and is limited only by the size of your storage. Cacti also allows you to add multiple users and give them access with or without edit permissions, which is perfect for service providers and enterprises with a large NOC team.
Admittedly complex to set up, Zabbix® comes with a simple and clean GUI that makes it easy to manage, once you get the hang of it. Zabbix supports agentless monitoring using technologies such as SNMP, ICMP, Telnet, SSH, etc., and agent-based monitoring for all Linux® distros, Windows® OS, and Solaris®. It supports a number of databases, including MySQL®, PostgreSQL™, SQLite, Oracle®, and IBM® DB2®. Zabbix’s VMware® monitoring capabilities allow you to customize using any scripting or programming language, which is widely regarded as its best feature.
Zabbix is probably the most widely used open-source network monitoring tool after Nagios.
ntop, which is now ntopng (ng for next generation), is a traffic probe that uses libpcap (for packet capture) to report on network traffic. You can install ntopng on a server with multiple interfaces and use port mirroring or a network tap to feed ntopng with the data packets from the network for analysis. ntopng can analyze traffic even at 10G speeds; report on IP addresses, volume, and bytes for each transaction; sort traffic based on IP, port, and protocol; generate reports for usage; view top talkers; and report on AS information. This level of traffic analysis helps you make informed decisions about capacity planning and QoS design and helps you find bandwidth-hogging users and applications in the network. ntopng has a commercial version called ntopng pro that comes with some additional features, but the open-source version is good enough to quickly gain insight into traffic behavior. ntop can also integrate with external monitoring applications such as Nagios for alerting and provide data for monitoring.
ntopng has some limitations, but the level of network traffic visibility it provides makes it well worth the effort.
Built on top of MySQL and PostgreSQL, Icinga is Nagios backwards-compatible, meaning if you have an investment in Nagios scripts, you can port them over with relative ease.
Icinga was created in 2009 by the same group of devs that made Nagios, so they knew their stuff. Since then, the developers have made great strides in terms of expanding both functionality and usability since then. As the Nagios pedigree might imply, its primary focus is monitoring infrastructure and services.
Spiceworks offers many free IT management tools, including inventory management, help desk workflow, and even cloud monitoring, in addition to the network monitoring solution I’m focusing on here. Built on agentless techniques like WMI (for Windows machines) and SNMP (for network and *nix systems), this free tool can provide insights into many network performance issues. You can also set up customizable notifications and restart services from within the app.
Note that Spiceworks is free because most of its revenue comes from the sale of ad displays in its network. It’s a small price to pay for a free solution, but it’s something to think about before you install.
Observium follows the “freemium” model that is now espoused by most of the open-source community—a core set of features for free, with additional options if you pay for them. While the “Community” (i.e., free) version supports an unlimited number of devices, Observium is still careful to say that it’s meant for home lab use. This is bolstered by the fact that the free version cannot scale past a single server. Run this on your corporate network at your own risk!
The free version also enjoys a 6-month patch and update cycle. If you want fixes any faster than twice a year, you’ll have to pay for them. One of the most painful features held back from the free version is the lack of alerting capabilities. Those caveats aside, you get a full auto-discovery of your devices and metrics (using SNMP and standard protocols, as usual).
Related Top Tools for Network Monitoring
There are a few tools that aren’t monitoring solutions per-se but are so incredibly useful to the monitoring professional that we didn’t feel right leaving them out.
Wireshark® is an open-source packet analyzer that uses libpcap (*nix) or winpcap (Windows) to capture packets and display them on its graphical front-end, while also providing good filtering, grouping, and analysis capabilities. It lets users capture traffic at wire speed or read from packet dumps and analyze details at microscopic levels. Wireshark supports almost every protocol, and has functionalities that filter based on packet type, source, destination, etc. It can analyze VoIP calls, plot IO graphs for all traffic from an interface, decrypt many protocols, export the output, and lots more.
Wireshark provides unlimited opportunities to study packets, which makes it a solid go-to for network, system, and security admins.
Nmap uses a discovery feature to find hosts in the network that can be used to create a network map. Network admins value it for its ability to gather information from the host about the Operating System, services, or ports that are running or are open, MAC address info, reverse DNS name, and more.
Scalability is the other big reason why network admins love Nmap. It can scan a single host or an entire network with “hundreds of thousands” of machines.
When you need to quickly map the hosts in your network, Nmap is your tool.
Free Network Monitoring Tools
Most of the tools we’ve focused on in this post have been of the “freemium” variety—a limited set of features (or support) for free, with additional features, support, or offerings available for a cost.
But there is a whole other class of tools which are just free-free. They do a particular task very well, and there is no cost (with the exception of the odd pop-up ad during installation). We wanted to take a moment to dig into a few of the tools that are in “network_utilities” directories on our systems and frequently use.
Also, we want to be clear that the list below isn’t meant to be (or even appear) exhaustive. There are many, MANY useful free network monitoring tools out there, and which ones an IT pro uses is often up to personal preference or the specifics of their work environment. We’re listing out the ones we’ve found in our travels and use often.
Ping is great. Traceroute is better. But both fall short in modern networks (and especially with internet-based targets because the internet is intrinsically multi-path). A packet has multiple ways to get to a target at any moment. You don’t need to know how a SINGLE packet got to the destination; you need to know how ALL the packets are moving through the network across time. Traceroute NG does that and avoids the single biggest roadblock to ping and traceroute accuracy—ICMP suppression—at the same time.
If you are doing simple monitoring, the first question you’re going to want to know is, “is it up?” Following closely on the heels of that is, “how much bandwidth is it using?” Yes, it’s a simplistic question and an answer that may not really point to a problem (because let’s be honest, a circuit that’s 98% utilized most of the time is called “correctly provisioned” in our book), but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to know. This tool gets that information quickly, simply, and displays the results clearly.
Response Time Viewer for Wireshark
We mentioned Wireshark over in the non-monitoring monitoring tools section because of its flexibility, utility, and ubiquity. But the “-ity” that was left out was “simplicity.” That sucker can be HARD to learn to use, especially for new network engineers fresh on the job. This utility will take Wireshark data and parse it out to show some important statistics simply and clearly. Specifically, it collects, compares, and displays the time for a three-way-handshake versus the time-to-first-byte between two systems. Effectively, it shows you whether a perceived slowdown is due to the network (three-way handshake) or application response (time to first byte). This can be an effective way to narrow down your troubleshooting work and focus on solving the right problem faster.
IP SLA Monitor
IP SLA is one of the most often-overlooked techniques in a monitoring specialist’s arsenal. Relegated to being “that protocol for VoIP,” the reality is that IP SLA operations can tell you much more than jitter, packet loss, and MOS. You can test a remote DHCP server to see if it has addresses to hand out, check the response of DNS from anywhere within your company, verify that essential services like FTP and HTTP are running, and more.
So, this free tool is something of a secret weapon for engineers who need to get miraculous tasks done on the cheap.
What have we learned?
Here in 2020, monitoring professionals have almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to free and open-source solutions to help us do our jobs. While none of these free tools are exactly push-button simple to install, maintain, or use, if your budget for tools is close to non-existing and you have the time to invest, they may fit the bill. Otherwise, we’d recommend using a tool like SolarWinds NPM, which is easy to install and supports motioning and reporting right out of the box.
We’ve all been there—end users are complaining about slow internet, but you thought you had plenty of bandwidth. Over the years, I’ve come to realize you probably do, in most cases. In fact, throwing additional bandwidth at the issue is often an expensive Band-Aid. What you need is to get to the root of performance problems.
If you want to see what’s using your bandwidth, or simply check the bandwidth of your server, you can benefit from implementing a bandwidth monitoring tool. There are several options on the market, varying from the rudimentary to the more analytical. Some are free, and some come with a price tag. What matters is finding the right fit for your business. My overall favorite? SolarWinds® Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack.
This comprehensive package allows users to monitor bandwidth as well as identify, diagnose, and resolve network performance issues with ease via its highly intuitive dashboard. The best part? You can try them both by downloading a 30-day, fully functional free trial.
What Is Network Bandwidth Monitoring?
Why Is Network Bandwidth Monitoring Important?
Finding the Right Bandwidth Monitoring Tool
What Is Network Bandwidth Monitoring?
To understand network bandwidth monitoring, it’s important to take a few steps back and paint the full picture of bandwidth usage in general. Bandwidth refers to a network’s capacity to transfer data between devices or the internet within a given span of time. Higher bandwidth allows data to be transferred at a faster rate and for more devices to connect at once.
I like to refer to networks as highways and bandwidth as the lanes. The more lanes you have on a highway, the more easily traffic can move. The same thing is true of a network. If too many users are watching videos or downloading files—any type of high-data activity—your network speed will lag. This is why you may often notice a slower connection in public places full of users, with their laptops open and tablets in hand, all trying to use the internet at once.
Bandwidth capacity is typically determined by the connection type. Digital subscriber line (DSL) internet relies on telephone lines and has limited capabilities. Cable internet is faster, but fiber-optic speeds trump them all. The exact amount and type of bandwidth your company needs depend on the size of the business, but it’s safe to assume any operation brimming with laptops, phones, tablets, and other devices should be equipped with substantial bandwidth capacity if they want to provide a fast and efficient experience for all end users.
Why Is Network Bandwidth Monitoring Important?
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Typically, it takes a network interruption to alert IT technicians to a problem. At that point, they are forced to be reactive rather than proactive. But if you always have your finger on the pulse of the network, you have a distinct advantage—you can spot and address issues more quickly because you know where to look.
This is where network bandwidth monitoring comes into play. With the right network bandwidth monitoring tool, you can:
- Identify bandwidth needs. While servers can be reconfigured if needed, it’s best to calculate your company’s bandwidth requirements at the start to avoid major overhauls down the line. This means determining the bandwidth needs of your enterprise’s local area network (LAN) or wide area network (WAN). A network usage monitor will allow you to monitor WAN bandwidth and LAN bandwidth, glean a comprehensive understanding of the bandwidth capacity your network requires, and better evaluate when it may be time to upgrade your bandwidth—for example, if your company converts to laptops from PCs or adds a new division of employees. When you’re monitoring network performance on an ongoing basis, you’re better prepared to spot trends indicating a need for greater bandwidth far in advance. Put simply, planning for an upgrade should never take place as the result of a crisis.
- Boost network performance. The solutions to bandwidth complaints are often obvious, once you know where to look. Bandwidth analyzers provide a complete picture of your bandwidth and network health, empowering you to identify the applications using the most bandwidth and how they’re being used, spot bottlenecks at a glance, analyze and monitor traffic patterns, track response time, availability, and uptime of routers, switches, and other SNMP-enabled devices, and drill down into all of these details as needed. This allows you to be proactive about spotting emerging problems and quickly get to the root of a performance issue before end users complain and productivity comes to a grinding halt.
- Save your budget. While it’s sometimes necessary to add bandwidth, it can be an expensive undertaking. Before you put extra spend behind your bandwidth, I always recommend leveraging a bandwidth monitoring tool to gather and communicate both granular and big-picture network usage information. Monitoring allows you to head off issues and troubleshoot slowdowns without the added investment in more bandwidth.
- Enhance security. Hackers are abounding, ready to jump on an opportunity to inject malware into your company’s system and prey on highly sensitive data and information. Monitoring bandwidth usage will enable you to readily identify suspicious activity and hosts by providing a detailed snapshot of potentially malicious traffic flows. Armed with this level of insight, you can stop hackers in their tracks and protect your company from a data breach.
Finding the Right Bandwidth Monitoring Tool
A wide variety of network traffic monitoring tools and bandwidth monitors are on the market. Some are more robust and comprehensive in their service offerings, while others are lean. Some involve a fair amount of spend, and others are free or open-source. Finding the right fit for your business boils down to the level of monitoring you hope to achieve and what your company’s budget (or lack thereof) will allow. Here are my picks for the top 9 tools to monitor bandwidth and network usage:
1. Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack
I’m a big fan of this bandwidth monitoring software bundle from SolarWinds because of its ability to detect, diagnose, and resolve network performance issues before end users can begin finger-pointing.
Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack (BAP) combines the power of SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor and NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (which I’ll dive into later), equipping you with the resources needed to monitor bandwidth use by application, protocol, and IP address group. Leverage the platform to view both IPv4 and IPv6 flow records and monitor Cisco NetFlow, Juniper J-Flow, sFlow, Huawei NetStream, and IPFIX flow data, allowing you to easily identify the applications and protocols consuming the most bandwidth.
More than a net meter bandwidth monitor, the toolset is equipped to not only display traffic patterns but also correlate them into a visual, usable format via a web-based interface featuring bold charts and graphs. The interactive and highly intuitive dashboard boasts a drag-and-drop feature, so you can easily connect the dots between varying performance metrics spanning months, days, or even minutes. Drilling down in this way is essential for any team looking to quickly identify service provider issues and applications hogging the bandwidth.
From a security standpoint, BAP will automatically alert you when application traffic suddenly increases, decreases, or disappears completely. High traffic spikes indicate cyberattackers at work, so having access to this type of instant update can help you act fast and stop hackers before they unleash too much damage. Unexpected decreases in traffic, as well as a complete lack of traffic, are evidence of a larger performance problem.
2. NetFlow Traffic Analyzer
NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (NTA) is another solid offering from the team at SolarWinds. This comprehensive platform is slightly less robust than Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack (of which it’s an integral component) but no less sophisticated.
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With NTA, you get all of the bandwidth monitoring, network analysis, and intelligent alerts in Bandwidth Analyzer Pack, minus the in-depth wireless and multi-vendor network monitoring and network performance baselines.
In other words, if you’re looking for an in-depth, single-vendor network architecture bandwidth analyzer, SolarWinds NetFlow Traffic Analyzer is for you. The platform features the visual correlation I love, complete with the drag-and-drop network performance analysis dashboard so you can drill into any network element and analyze traffic patterns over months, days, or minutes. With NetFlow Traffic Analyzer, you can quickly identify bandwidth use by application, protocol, and IP address group to identify where bandwidth is being zapped. This level of analysis, paired with customizable network traffic reports displaying historical data and identifying peak bandwidth usage, empower you to adjust policies for better bandwidth management and avoid spending extra on additional bandwidth.
Beyond these features, if your business regularly uses cloud-based applications, like VoIP or e-commerce systems, the software can also be leveraged to verify prioritized traffic moves smoothly through the network. This is an essential part of CBQoS policy optimization.
3. PRTG Network Monitor
PRTG Network Monitor from Paessler is a comprehensive yet strikingly simple tool for monitoring your entire IT infrastructure. This internet usage monitoring software allows you to measure all the traffic in your network by monitoring the data directly on your routers. PRTG Network Monitor also helps you determine how much bandwidth your devices and applications are using and monitor heavy overloads, so you can quickly and accurately pinpoint bottlenecks. Depending on your network and hardware, you can use different protocols, like SNMP, flow, or packet sniffing, to leverage the tool and determine who or what is using your bandwidth. Once you’ve identified the root of the problem, you can act swiftly, putting new bandwidth usage management policies in place without having to put additional spend behind greater bandwidth.
This all-in-one solution goes beyond bandwidth analysis and monitors SQL, Exchange, and server software as well as all your cloud and virtualization applications, making it an elaborately in-depth service offering. You can even use the tool as a network speed monitor.
The Windows-based PRTG tool comes in two editions: a free version for monitoring up to 100 sensors and a commercial edition for those who need to monitor a greater number of sensors. But depending on the volume of sensors you need to monitor, the software can quickly become a drain on your budget.
4. NetFlow Analyzer
ManageEngine NetFlow Analyzer touts itself as a complete traffic analytics tool, and for good reason. The platform leverages flow technologies, including NetFlow, sFLow, IPFIX, NetStream, J-Flow, and Appflow, to provide real-time visibility into network bandwidth performance. Once you have access to analytics, you can classify applications hogging your network bandwidth and even reconfigure your policies via application-level QoS shaping, helping you regain control over those bandwidth-hungry applications.
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With real-time insights and detailed analytics letting you drill down and discover traffic patterns and device performance as well as historical bandwidth reports, you’ll have the information you need for more informed capacity planning. You’ll know when it’s time to grow your bandwidth, and when it’s best to implement a new policy or shut down a specific device.
The security features of this bandwidth monitoring tool are also worth noting. NetFlow Analyzer’s Continuous Stream Mining Engine helps you detect external and internal threats, track network anomalies, and identify zero-day intrusions, so you can jump into action when needed.
5. FREE Real-Time Bandwidth Monitor
While many of the more robust products come with a price tag, there are some great free options for IT technicians looking to capture the basics. SolarWinds Real-Time Bandwidth Monitor is one of those tools. This free bandwidth usage meter allows you to check server bandwidth usage in real-time and monitor multiple interfaces simultaneously.
All bandwidth usage data is displayed visually via graphs to help you perform more critical analysis. You can even leverage the platform to create custom bandwidth thresholds, so you’ll receive an alert as soon as usage is out of bounds.
This tool is free and straightforward to use. Simply enter the IP address of the network device and associated SNMP credentials, then select the interfaces you want to monitor, and a graph will populate with bandwidth usage in real-time—no complicated install processes to worry about here.
However, the tool won’t tell you which application is eating up your bandwidth or exactly how it’s doing so. But if simple bandwidth polling is what you’re after, then you can’t go wrong with Real-Time Bandwidth Monitor.
6. FREE Network Analyzer & Bandwidth Monitoring Bundle
Another high-quality, no-cost bandwidth monitoring option is SolarWinds Network Analyzer & Bandwidth Monitoring Bundle. This free tool combines two popular free network monitoring tools offered by SolarWinds: Real-Time NetFlow Analyzer and Real-Time Bandwidth Monitor (which I already reviewed above).
Leveraging both tools makes it easy to quickly identify the types of network traffic by flow data capture—including NetFlow, J-FLow, and sFlow data—and provides multi-interface monitoring for bandwidth usage in real-time. It offers a bit more detail than some of the other free options out there by allowing you to see traffic by conversation, app, domain, and endpoint.
Equipped with this level of information, you’ll be better prepared to quickly diagnose network problems and avoid bottlenecks. The Network Analyzer & Bandwidth Monitoring Bundle can also record up to 60 minutes of data, a great feature for those looking to review some data trends.
I’m a big fan of this option, especially for those looking to dip their toes into network monitoring. Once you’re comfortable leveraging the data in this free tool, SolarWinds makes it easy to take it to the next level and glean more in-depth traffic analysis and performance statistics by upgrading to Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack.
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Formerly called ntop, ntopng (“ng” is for “next generation”) is a simple, to-the-point traffic probe that uses libpcap, a tool for packet capture, to report on network traffic and usage. The platform allows users to sort network traffic according to a wide range of criteria, including IP address, port, L7 protocol, autonomous systems, and more. Ntopng displays network traffic and active hosts in real time, so you can stay up to date while producing historical reports to review data and better identify trends. Although this reporting capability isn’t as robust as some of the other products I’ve discussed, it does a fair job and can track data such as application protocols and throughput.
ntopng has a commercial version called ntopng pro with some additional bells and whistles, but the open-source version is good enough to quickly gain insight into traffic behavior. It can also integrate with external monitoring applications such as Nagios for alerting and provide data for monitoring.
Cacti is mainly an open-source, front-end graphing tool for system data, but it can also handle data collection. The software leverages RRDTool, a data logging and graphing system, so you can collect data from almost any infrastructure element, including load balancers and servers, routers and switching systems, firewalls, and so on, and display it in different graphical formats.
Cacti also supports SNMP polling, which itself covers a wide range of network devices. This feature allows you to monitor bandwidth usage by graphing it on an interface. The simple yet powerful line graphs Cacti produces can show spikes and dips in traffic, but they don’t offer the thorough performance analysis of the graphs and charts featured in many of the paid options listed here. This is a smart, free option for those who want a high-level view of their bandwidth. It can be installed on either Unix or Windows OS.
BandwidthD is a free, starkly simple tool for bandwidth monitoring. While the program hasn’t been updated since 2013, it still maintains a steady stream of network and traffic data by tracking usage of TCP/IP network subnets and building HTML files, complete with graphs to display utilization. When launching the platform, you may find it a little finicky—you’ll need a relatively sound knowledge base for setting up manual configurations. But it’s effective if all you’re looking for is a no-cost, straightforward solution.
BandwidthD runs on most platforms, including Windows. Just remember it requires winpcap or libpcap for Linux and Unix users.
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Regardless of size or budget, all companies should implement bandwidth monitoring. Monitoring your bandwidth will help you boost network performance and identify bandwidth needs, potentially save your business money, and add an extra layer of security to your everyday activities. With the right tool, you will be empowered to quickly identify performance issues and even stop them in their tracks, before they bring end-user productivity to a standstill.
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While there are a number of good bandwidth monitoring tools on the market, my favorite is by far SolarWinds Network Bandwidth Analyzer Pack. This robust offering makes it easy to drill down into the data and analyze your applications and bandwidth traffic via a clear, intuitive web-based dashboard. It’s well worth the investment and could save your company from having to invest in additional bandwidth. If you’re still unsure, I recommend downloading a free trial or starting with one of the free tools like Network Analyzer & Bandwidth Monitoring Bundle.
Ultimate Guide to Network Monitoring – If you’re looking for comprehensive information on how to monitor and take care of your network, I’ve put together a beginner’s guide followed by more expert-level instructions covering everything you need to know.