The Ultimate Free Network Toolkit

Need to boost network performance, manage servers remotely, protect your network from hackers and more? Don't spend a bundle on expensive technicians or software -- instead, turn to these free

March 13, 2006

5 Min Read
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Your network has slowed to a crawl, which has become more than a nuisance -- it means that you are losing business. Sure, you could pay for a consultant, technician or product, but why bother with an expensive, for-pay solution, when the answer may be as simple as downloading and using free and Open Source software?

Keep in mind that there are some downsides to free and Open Source solutions. Interfaces aren't always polished, and it may take you a bit of time to learn how to use the programs. And as for getting support from the won't get any, and so you'll be on your own. And some people worry that open source network protection programs, like Snort, don't always have up-to-date signatures.

Still, there's no need to pay through the nose when a free solution is within easy reach. To help you, we've put together the "Cleaning Dozen," a collection of twelve of the best pieces of free and Open Source software to help you get more out of your network before spending the money on consultants or new or additional technology.

Performance Tools

1. Paessler AG IP Check Server Monitor This monitors network resources for downtime, helping network administrators quickly see any points of failure. With it, you can create your own sensor types using scripting and programming languages. The software can monitor devices and servers located in the Internet, in Intranets and in VPN networks. It will also search for servers/devices in the network and automatically creates sensors for the most common protocols.2. Paessler AG PRTG Traffic Grapher This clever piece of software monitors bandwidth and network usage to help optimize the network's efficiency. It monitors and categorizes data traffic within a network to provide accurate results about network traffic and usage trends, and displays the results in customizable graphs and tables.

3. Ethereal Network Analyzer This free network protocol analyzer for Unix and Windows lets you examine data from a live network or from a capture file on disk. You can interactively browse the captured data, and view summary and detail information for each packet. The application includes a rich display filter language and the ability to view the reconstructed stream of a TCP session.

4. Servers Alive Though technically a shareware applications, you can try it for free for an indefinite period of time. This end-to-end network monitor program checks any Winsock service, pings hosts, checks if an NT service/process is running, checks the available disk space on a server, retrieves URLs, checks database engines and offers additional minor features that can help identify and fix network bottlenecks.

5. Big Brother This application lets you use any Web browser from any location to check network performance in near real time. It's invaluable when you need to check on your network remotely.

Security and Wireless

6. Network Stumbler Wireless Packet Sniffer Although this one was designed for individual users, it's of great use for network administrators as well. It lets you see all the available Wi-Fi access points and networks that are in range of a Wi-Fi-enabled computer. It's a great tool to help you track down rogue access points. There are two versions. Network Stumbler is for desktop and laptop machines, and Mini Stumbler is the equivalent for the Wi-Fi enabled personal digital assistant.7. Kismet This Wi-Fi network sniffer and network dissector is great for administrators who need to catalog their wireless hardware, or track down rogue access points. It is capable of sniffing using most wireless cards, and performs automatic network IP block detection via UDP, ARP, and DHCP packets. It also creates Cisco equipment lists via Cisco Discovery Protocol, does weak cryptographic packet logging, and performs Ethereal compatible packet dump files. The application also can plot detected networks and estimated network ranges on downloaded maps or user-supplied image files.

8. Snort Snort has long been a favorite of network administrators worried about security. It can conduct real-time traffic analysis and packet logging on IP networks. Snort can also perform protocol analysis, and content searching/matching and can be used to detect a variety of attacks and probes, such as buffer overflows, stealth port scans, CGI attacks, SMB probes, and operating system fingerprinting attempts. Snort uses a flexible rule based language to describe traffic that it should collect or pass, and a modular detection engine.

9. Sam Spade This Windows query tool provides a consistent GUI and implementation for many handy network query tasks. The company says the application was designed with tracking down spammers in mind, but can also be useful for many other network exploration, administration, and security tasks. It includes tools such as ping, nslookup, whois, dig, traceroute, finger, raw HTTP web browser, DNS zone transfer, SMTP relay check and Web site search.


Remember that spyware could be slowing your network down as well. So Ed Keiper, manager of network services for the networking services and outsourcing firm Lantium, Inc., Audubon, Pa., recommends the following three spyware elimination programs, all available for free download. Note that they're all designed to be put on individual PCs, and offer single-computer, rather than network-level protection. Still, they're free, they work, and are worth putting on all the PCs on your network.10. Microsoft Windows Defender Although it's still in beta, it performs solidly. You may want to use this only on one or two test PCs, until its final release.

11. Lavasoft Ad-Aware Personal One of the first free anti-spyware tools, Ad-Aware does an excellent job of detecting and killing spyware. It doesn't, however, include a live protection feature.

12. Spybot Search & Destroy Some people prefer this to Ad-Aware. It offers live protection, something that Ad-Aware is lacking.

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