Network Management Software Smackdown

It’s time for the smackdown! We’ve stacked-up six different network management suites against each other, and let them fight it out for the championship. Which one can take-down the competition and win the title of best all-around NMS? Read on to find out…nmswinner2013-2

The Challenge

First some ground rules for the competition.  We’ve assumed administrators will monitor a small-to-medium sized business.  We also assume that you’ll have multiple administrators, and that remote access is a requirement.  Other desirables include features like detailed reporting, notification, and flexible alerting options.

The Contestants

Solarwinds Network Performance Manager 11 (Download Here)

solarwinds-logoSolarwinds is a heavyweight in the network-monitoring world, and for good reason. For years, Solarwinds NPM has provided all-round monitoring capability. With the release of  NPM 11, Solarwinds has dropped the “Orion” product branding (it’s now officially ‘Solarwinds Network Performance Manager’ or ‘NPM’) in addition to stepping up the scalability of their game. NPM 11 has several new features and many improvements.

NPM 11 can handle basic SNMP monitoring and alerting just like always. New features include VMware & Hyper-V monitoring; and ConnectNow, an automated network mapping tool.  ConnectNow appears to be based on the old LanSurveyor tool, but now nicely integrates into NPM.  Improved historical trend reporting is also a welcome change. And, a redesigned UI rounds out the list of improvements.

On the other hand, NPM doesn’t include application monitoring. And, the Solarwinds pricing structure is based on network “elements” being monitored – like interfaces, CPUs, etc. Depending on the size of your network and monitoring requirements, this can add up quickly.

Solarwinds NPM Screenshots:

OpenNMS 1.10

opennms_logoOpenNMS is open-source network management software. It’s truly an awesome, incredibly flexible package – and did we mention it’s free? It can handle virtually any network management task: device management, application performance monitoring, inventory, trouble alerting – it does it all.  Support is available online from the OpenNMS user community, or for a fee from the OpenNMS group – the commercial arm of OpenNMS.

New features in 1.10.9 include:

  • IPv6 support throughout
  • Web page and web application monitoring from recorded user scripts, via Selenium integration
  • New default syslog receiver rules for a handful of commonly encountered applications
  • XML performance data collection protocols

OpenNMS can do just about anything – but it does take some effort to tame the beast.  Configuration can be complex, and the learning curve can be steep. So, administrator training is highly recommended, and purchasing support through the OpenNMS group isn’t a bad idea either.

OpenNMS Screenshots:

Ipswitch Whatsup Gold Premium 16

WhatsUpGoldAnother fierce competitor is Whatsup Gold. Whatsup Gold is a full-featured network management suite. It can monitor devices using SNMP – but adds the ability to monitor application availability using synthetic transactions.

Whatsup Gold also features WMI support for Windows monitoring, and agentless SSH monitoring for Linux/Unix systems – making it ideal for monitoring everything on your network.

A wide range of plugins are available for Whatsup Gold, adding support for everything from VMware and VOIP management to configuration and Flow reporting.

New features in version 16 include:

  • Wireless infrastructure management for Cisco and Aruba networks
  • Layer 2 discovery, network mapping and asset tracking tools
  • New scaling tools for large networks
  • Updated SQL query and WMI formatted monitors
  • Expanded Windows services, Active Directory, Exchange support, Powershell/.NET support

We found that Whatsup Gold worked great, though it has some UI oddities that marred its otherwise great performance.

WhatsupGold Screenshots:

Dartware Intermapper 5.6

intermapperIntermapper is a great tool. It’s based around the idea that a network map is the most important thing to a network administrator.  Intermapper uses a series of maps to display the status of your network. Like other products, it also does SNMP polling, as well as application monitoring using customized “probes.”

A major strength is the way the map includes not just devices, but active status of connections between devices.  Traffic volume between devices is represented with a crawling-ant display, and trouble is easily identified by colored indicators. And, it also supports notifications and logging like other products.

New functionality in version 5.6 includes:

  • Web server identification: InterMapper can now identify HTTP servers during auto-discovery, and automatically creates probe groups to monitor them
  • ARP discovery: InterMapper now uses the ARP table to find additional devices during auto-discovery, broadening its view of the network
  • Multiple UI enhancements
  • Mobile device-optimized reports
  • Additional tools to manage how data is exported to the database
  • New fields in labels, notifiers and status windows

We found that reporting is Intermapper’s main weakness (although this is somewhat improved in v. 5.6). While it can provide quality real-time reports, it doesn’t automatically store information for all devices on the network. Administrators must manually configure strip-charts to collect data.

Intermapper 5.6 Screenshots:

ManageEngine OpManager Essential 10.1

opmanager_logoOpManager is another full-featured monitoring system. It can monitor your network using SNMP, and the other usual methods. And, it too can use synthetic transactions to monitor key applications like web and database servers.

Not only is OpManager a solid monitoring system, but it also excels at reporting. It can do it all – whether you need real-time data, historical trends, network health, or SLA reports to name a few.

New features in v. 10.1 include:

  • 3D Datacenter Builder: this helps to virtually create an exact replica of racks and datacenters. You can be embed these datacenter design into NOC screens and monitor them 24×7
  • Redesigned UI: New API-driven UI, keyboard shortcuts galore and faster page-load performance
  • Expanded PDU monitoring support: monitor parameters such as PDU Phases, PDU Power/Phase Load, PDU Voltage, PDU Bank Load etc…
  • Integrated application monitoring plugin options

Alerting options are somewhat limited compared to competitors, and the UI design feels dysfunctional at times. But other than those minor complaints, this is a great product.

Opmanager Screenshots:

Apparent Networks Pathview Cloud

apparent_networks_logoThe oddball in this competition is Pathview Cloud. It enters the contest with a disadvantage, since it is not a traditional network management product. It is an end-to-end performance monitoring tool, and it doesn’t do things like SNMP monitoring, or synthetic application testing.  But, it’s a unique and effective service so we felt it was worthy of inclusion.

Pathview Cloud does a great job of monitoring network paths, whether the path is the route to a server on another subnet, or a WAN-connected office in another city. And, it’s the best product in this test for WAN troubleshooting through service-provider clouds. It can identify problems in a path, down to the hop and probable cause of the issue. It can even detect cabling problems.

Unfortunately though, Pathview Cloud falters when stacked up against more traditional tools.  It lost points for those crucial features that it just doesn’t have: device variable monitoring, and SNMP reporting & logging, to name a few. We believe that those features are just too critical to ignore, so the end result is that Pathview gets squashed by the heavyweights.

It’s still a great product – but we’d recommend it as a supplemental tool, rather than a replacement for your traditional network management software.

Apparent Screenshots:


How we Pick a Winner…

In this year’s ’2013 edition’ of our Smackdown there’s a number of new considerations that have gone into picking a winner:

UI is a big deal. UI design and ‘understandability’ is becoming a bigger deal as the number of devices and elements being monitored is growing so quickly now.  The old-school UIs of some of these products are generally not scaling well to meet this demand and are starting to look like a ‘dog’s breakfast’ when you’re trying to get a decent, birdseye view of what’s going on across the network.  Quite frankly, some of these products aren’t keeping up, and they’re showing their age.  They could take a lesson from the Web-UIs that SaaS apps have been rolling out for a while now when it comes to reporting and dashboard design.

The playing field is evening out.  The top three leaders in this space, Solarwinds, WhatsUpGold, and ManageEngine are matching each other feature-for-feature in most areas.  All have realized that they need to effectively monitor wireless and virtual infrastructure and do a better job of automatically mapping complex, distributed networks without requiring as much manual mapping on the part of admins trying to implement the solutions.

Scalability is king.  In larger environments with more complex routing and topologies, you need to choose your steps very carefully when it comes to investing in a management platform.  If you box yourself in too tightly with a poor-scalability solution, you’re going to have to end up deploying multiple standalone instances of the core monitoring applications (in the best case scenario) or (in the worst case scenario) be left without support for upcoming or changing requirements and complexity forcing you into a rip-and-replace situation.   Neither scenario is good, you’re best off considering scalability and upgrade support now rather than later.

Cost factors for small environments.  These products and their associated add-ons are getting pricey, fast.  If you’re a small office or non-profit, and have technical chops for self-deploying open-source products (and waiting for community-added features and support) then give OpenNMS a test run.  If you’re in a larger environment, integration with other products, patching, compliance reporting and ongoing upgrade paths and support will lead you to a product from one of the top three vendors here like ManageEngine, WhatsUpGold, or Solarwinds.

And the Winner Is…

nmswinner2013-award-2Once again the winner of this year’s Smackdown is Solarwinds’ Network Performance Monitor. (Trial Download Here)

Here’s what made Solarwinds NPM standout this in this round:

UI: Solarwinds NPM’s UI is thoughtfully designed, but most importantly it handles large amounts of at-a-glance alerting and health data extremely well, particularly in large, globally dispersed networks. It should be noted that ManageEngine Opmanager has improved greatly in this regard, but it still looks like multiple products squished into one over time vs. a completely integrated design (adding some Google maps here and there isn’t really ‘modernizing’ the UI per se).

Polling Engine:  NPM 11′s single-instance polling engine supports 12,000 monitored elements before requiring the purchase of additional polling engines.  What’sUpGold has caught up somewhat this year in terms of not requiring a completely new server to be deployed each time you need additional polling capabilities, (they’ve recently fixed this with the launch of their Scalability Pollers) but they recommend adding a new poller every 3000 devices, far below the built-in capability of NPM 10.

Mutlicast & Network Route Monitoring Support: Troubleshooting multicast related performance issues is a real bugger, mostly a manual process requiring knowledge of CLI and advanced scripting. NPM automatically monitors your multicast network and alerts you when performance issues come up. For route monitoring support, NPM now includes support for major routing protocols (RIP, OSPF, BGP) and lets you view routing tables, changes in default routes, BGP transitions and flapping routes.  If your network is large and growing, these are going to be essential long-term.

Additional Notes:  Solarwinds also has a leg up when it comes to monitoring connected wireless devices vs. just access points, a free integration pack for Microsoft’s System Center Operations Manager (SCOM), access control for NPM via Active Directory to speed up permissions set up,  and support VSAN monitoring.  One thing NPM still lacks is basic application monitoring in the core product.  They’re clearly pushing you toward their application monitoring add-on, but so are the other vendors now as well given that most have also recently launched standalone or snap-in app monitoring products (for an additional fee of course).  Network discovery and automatic mapping via NPM’s ConnectNow tech is also impressive.

Wrap-Up Thoughts…

It’s hard to go wrong with most network management products that are currently on the market, and especially those in this comparison test.  Each of the products we reviewed is a little different. The challenge is to find the one that works best for your needs.

To help you out, we’ve compiled the comparison guide at the end of this article.  Use this guide to help identify which software has the features you need. Then, try out the free demo versions of the software to see which NMS will work best for you.

Open NMS 1.10.1

Solarwinds NPM 11

WhatsUp Gold Premium 16

Dartware Intermapper 5.6

ManageEngine OpManager Essential 10.1

Apparent Networks Pathview Cloud

Our ReviewHereHereHereHereHereHere
Multi-User Support
Network Discovery
MappingYes – Automated device and connection mapsYes – Automated device and connection mapsManual included.Automated connection maps available with WhatsConnected Add-onAutomated device and connection mappingYes-Automated device and connection mappingNo
NotificationsEmail, SMS, Run scripts, TwitterEmail, Pages, Text-to-Speech, SNMP traps, SMS, External application launching, Scripts, Syslog messages Email, SMS, Run scriptsEmail, SMS, visual alertEmail, SMS, Run scriptsEmail
Alerting OptionsSupport for polling dependencies, warning/critical thresholds, downtime schedulerSupports correlated events,sustained condition thresholds,combinations of device statesSupport for polling dependencies, warning/critical thresholds, downtime schedulerSupport for polling dependencies, warning/critical thresholds, sustained errors before alerting, alerting delaysSupport for polling dependencies, downtime scheduler, alert escalationsBased on customizable service-quality definitions
Monitoring AbilitiesSNMP, WMI, ICMP, Application Polling (e.g. HTTP /SQL), Agentless SSHSNMP, ICMP, WMI pollingSNMP, WMI, ICMP, Application Polling (e.g. HTTP /SQL), Agentless SSHSNMP, ICMP, WMI Application Polling (e.g. HTTP, SSH)SNMP, ICMP, Application Polling (e.g. HTTP), Agentless SSHActive path based, hop by hop performance monitoring
ReportingBuilt-in and customizable reportingBuilt-in and customizable reportingBuilt-in and customizable reportingBuilt-in and customizable reportingBuilt-in performance reporting
IPv6 Support
SNMP Logging
Route Monitoring
User-Customizable Reporting Scenarios
ProductOpenNMSSolarwinds NPMWhatsUp Gold PremiumDartware IntermapperManageEngine OpManagerApparent Networks Pathview Cloud
Wireless PollingUnknownYes-Monitor APs & Individual DevicesYesNoPartial - Access Point OnlyNo
iPhone/Smartphone Access
User-Customizable UI/Dashboards
Hardware Health Monitoring
Virtual Device SupportSome Community Plugins AvailableYes – With extra cost componentsWhatsVirtual plugin adds native support for VMWare & Hyper-VLimited reporting based on any SNMP variableNative support for VMWare & Hyper-V
Available Add-on ModulesSome Community-Developed Plugins AvailableNetFlowIP SLA Monitoring, IP Address Management, Configuration Management, Application PerformanceFlow Monitors, VOIP Monitor, WhatsVirtual Configuration ManagerRemote Access, Intermapper FlowsBandwidth Monitoring (Flow), VOIP Monitoring, Configuration Management, Application ManagementYes- Application Monitoring (AppView) and FlowView
Live Demo EnvironmentYesYesYesYes
Full Trial DownloadYesYesYesYesYesYes
PricingN/A, Open Source (Support is Fee-Based)Starts at $2475 USD for 100 elements (e.g. interfaces)Starting at $2695 USD for 100 devicesStarting at $2075 USD for 100 devicesStarts at $3495 USD for 100 devices (perpetual license)$500 USD/year per Microappliance monitors 55 paths
Smackdown Winner