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Rollout: Fluke Networks LinkRunner Pro

The Upshot

Fluke positions the LinkRunner Pro Network Multimeter as a multifunction troubleshooter. It can check Gigabit Ethernet links, resolve 802.1X security conflicts and provide comprehensive link-status reports. It also performs PoE verification to the IEEE 802.3af standard and identifies the nearest switch with Cisco, Extreme and Link Layer Discovery Protocols.
Agilent, Test-Um and other vendors in this arena offer much more expensive products or provide significantly fewer features. The LinkRunner's price, capabilities, compact size and durable construction make it ideal for front-line technicians who need to address trouble tickets quickly. A technician can negotiate a link with the network up to 1,000 MBps and ping up to 10 key devices or URLs.
The LinkRunner Pro provides the most important connectivity tests in an affordable and durable form factor. It offers essential connectivity statistics without complex or expensive software on a separate notebook computer. While it doesn't decode packets, it replaces an entire bag of tools.

Fluke Networks's LinkRunner Pro Network

Fluke Networks's LinkRunner Pro Network proves the adage "good things come in small packages." Smaller than your average wallet, this durable, feature-packed tool is ideal for a fleet of network techs punching trouble tickets. Its sub-$1,000 price is small, too. We've not seen or tested a similarly priced tool that offers this level of connectivity reports up to gigabit speeds.

The new LinkRunner should prove a handy starter tool for technicians looking to diagnose simple connectivity issues or gnarlier problems on the physical level, including mislabeled cables, bad patch cables and noncompliance with link-layer protocols, such as Cisco Discovery Protocol (CDP). At this price, companies will be able to give one to each of their technicians.

Within a minute of connecting the LinkRunner Pro into your network, you'll have key information about Layer 1 through Layer 3. Besides MAC and IP addresses of your device, the router, DHCP and DNS, you'll have an idea of link utilization, link mode (speed/duplex), PoE (Power over Ethernet) voltage and information on obvious problems, such as incorrect wire map or duplicate IP addresses.

However, the user interface will take some getting used to for techs who have worked mostly with single dial devices. This 3x6 device with multiple screens is bound to surprise a few new users.

Pocket Rocket

We tried the LinkRunner on several networks. In a small office environment that uses DHCP, it took us less than 20 seconds to connect and check the physical link; identify the router, DHCP and DNS servers; and determine that 802.1X was not in use. On a larger network using fixed IP addresses, we had to configure the IP address of the Fluke device manually. That took a minute or two, but it wasn't difficult. In this case, once the LinkRunner could operate at the IP level, it still couldn't give the router or server addresses because ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) had been disabled as a security measure. In a similar case, at a site with someone knowledgeable of that particular network, the tool can still be configured easily to ping these key devices to ensure that they can be reached.

On a larger network comprised solely of Cisco routers and switches, the LinkRunner really shone. In less than 20 seconds, we knew we had connected with a DHCP assigned address at 1 Gbps, full-duplex. We also had the router address, and the DHCP and DNS servers' addresses. In a few more seconds, we found the switch we were connected to could see that CDP was in use. The device then reported the port and slot into which we were connected. In this instance, we created some IP addresses and device names in the LinkRunner Connect software running on a notebook computer. This software is included with the LinkRunner for use on a laptop and makes it easier to enter ping targets in a handy table. The names and addresses were downloaded to the device, and we had the primary devices we wanted to ping listed. All we had to do was highlight the target device and hit the enter key. The software does not perform any diagnostics.

We didn't get a chance to test another interesting feature. On networks using 802.1X authentication, the correct user information--usually user name and password--can be downloaded from the notebook to see if the authentication process is working. If this is as simple as downloading ping targets, it should be no problem.

We also didn't get a chance to test the digital toning feature, which requires the IntelliTone digital probe, a seperate product that costs around $100. Digital toning uses a pattern that doesn't cause interference that analog tone generators cause. This capability helps technicians locate clearer digital signals for easier cable location.

Intelligent Design

There are competitive products from Agilent and Test-um and companies that relabel the Test-um devices. Agilent's FameScope, which costs around $6,000, is designed for more complex tasks, including detailed cable testing and server testing. It would be overkill for basic connectivity testing. The Test-um Validator-NT is the closest match to the LinkRunner. Priced around $1,000, it provides some of the same tests and reports, and it has a ping capability similar to the LinkRunner Pro. However, unlike the LinkRunner Pro, you can't create the IP targets and upload them to the devices. The Validator also lacks 802.1X capability, digital toning and multiple report upload capabilities.

The LinkRunner is a good fit for highly mobile technicians who need quick answers about network connections. Companies can save the more expensive tools for problems related to application performance. This is a compact, rugged tool that shows a lot of intelligence in its design. And you can carry it in your jacket pocket if you don't have a toolbox. That's what I did.

Phil Hippensteel is an assistant professor of information systems at Penn State University and an industry consultant.