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Gigabit Analyzers

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To test the devices, we blasted them with traffic from Spirent Communications' SmartBits network performance-analysis system, and introduced network anomalies with a Shunra Virtual Enterprise appliance. We looked at the devices' decodes and expert alarms, and compared their management capabilities, including how they handle multiple users and centralize capture files. Finally, we considered prices. All the products were up to the task, and a network engineer would do well with any of them. The analyzers from Finisar and Fluke, which were identical except for their labels and shades of blue used for the cases, edged out the devices from WildPackets and Acterna for first place.

For the most part, the products were similar in performance and capabilities, but there were some subtle differences. Finisar's THGs and Surveyor Software and their identical twin system, the Fluke Networks OptiView Protocol Expert ProPlus, Protocol Expert VoIP Option and Link Analyzer HD, provide the best packages of performance, management decodes and price. Network General's Sniffer Distributed s6040 is a solid performer in all categories, but is much more expensive than the others. Acterna's DA-3400 has the best VoIP (voice over IP) capabilities--a key reason to buy a network analyzer--but lost points for management because it can't accommodate multiple users and it didn't come equipped to store files on the probe or stream captures to a hard disk. WildPackets' Omni3 has the best management capabilities, but we don't like its user interface and found a problem with the utilization graphs' accuracy.

All these products will help a good network engineer diagnose problems and network anomalies quickly; however, none replace the knowledge of a good network engineer. There are many problems an analyzer won't find automatically. Even the so-called expert alarms can be misleading. For example, no standard exists for how many broadcasts per second or what level of utilization should be cause for concern. Those thresholds usually are set incorrectly by the vendors and require some knowledge to interpret. These devices provide the important data and let the thresholds be tuned, but it takes a good engineer to provide a sane interpretation.

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