White Paper: How do I choose a network testing tool?

Network testing tools have become more complicated, reflecting the increasingly complex networks that they are used to support

Network testing tools have become more complicated, reflecting the increasingly complex networks that they are used to support

Considerations when choosing a network testing tool

There are several network testing tools on the market today. These tools can range from free applications downloaded from the web to high-end hardware/software packages offered by network analysis companies. As with any purchase, you get what you pay for. Determine your needs first before starting the evaluation process. The following discussion is aimed at corporations with medium to large internal network administrative staff and corporations that provide networking services to other companies for profit.

Consider the skill set

What is the skill set of the typical network engineer who will perform the network testing? In evaluating available network testing tools, equally match the tool's capabilities and level of operator assistance with the user. Based on what you find in your evaluation, it may be possible to use less experienced network engineers to perform the network testing service if the network testing tool offers enough assistance. Consider the tool's ease of use, set-up, configuration, execution, and network testing capabilities. Result reporting should be routine, not rigorous.

Familiar GUI

Look for a network testing tool that offers a windows-type environment rather than command line or hot key entry. A windowing environment reduces the user's initial learning cycle and provides a quicker recall when there are long periods of time between uses. Visuals are easier to learn and remember than key sequences. Further, you should consider a network testing tool that operates in the Microsoft Windows environment. As Windows is the most popular desktop operating system, it can be found on the majority of personal computers. Therefore, network managers using Windows compatible network diagnostic hardware have a distinct advantage when exporting data for report generation simply because there is the greater likelihood that a Windows computer will be available to download software and manipulate results.


Whether setting up to run the network testing or making choices regarding what information to show on a report, wizards can speed the process, reduce errors, and offer a level of comfort to the user. The more the application can assist the user in discovery or helping guide decisions, the better for you, the user, and the end customer.

Network testing templates

Having a standard set of network testing templates that can be deployed provides for quick set-up, and less errors. The network testing templates should consist of all the elements that would have been choices during normal set-up and configuration (scheduling, filtering, and so forth.). The network testing template should also offer the ability to be modified by the user on the customer site and saved as the same or as a new template. Network testing templates offer extra value when used on repeat calls to the same customer.

Network testing reports

The end product of a network testing service - the customer report - has everything to do with the value the customer places on the network testing service performed. The customer wants to see the return on his/her purchase as soon as possible and wants to be able to understand what he/she has just paid for.

A network testing tool should be able to quickly translate a large network testing database into meaningful graphs, charts, and tables while on the customer site. Running a network test, taking it back to the office, and returning several days later with a report is not desired by most customers. Additional speed is gained if the reporting application is a part of or runs within the network testing application.

The reporting application should be flexible enough for the user to customise how the report will be presented. Customers often have their own ideas of what may be causing network trouble and want to see whether their theories are true. A flexible reporting tool will allow the user to highlight the customer's specific area of interest by eliminating irrelevant data or adjusting the amount of detail shown.

Network testing reports need to present results pleasing to the technical as well as the non-technical reader. Reports need to be easy to understand and organised logically. The more results can be translated into visuals that illustrate an idea, the better. A well-presented report doesn't mean it lacks material. A poorly presented report just isn't read.

Network testing turnaround

A strong relationship exists between the network testing tool's ease of use and the amount of time the user will spend from network testing set-up to report generation. Having discussed the basics regarding ease of use, consider the following points in your network testing tool evaluation.

Custom scheduling

Scheduling is the ability to set when data will be collected, and when it won't. Avoid network testing tools that offer a basic "on/off switch" in lieu of a schedule agent. This wastes time and computing resources before, during, and after the network testing. Custom scheduling allows the user to freely define multiple timetables for data collection based on information the customer has provided when network troubles seem to be occurring. The user can sample multicast traffic once per second, average once per hour over long periods of time, or anywhere in between. Time of day and day of week settings should also be available.

Network testing management

The initial network testing is performed to provide an actual measurement and recording of a network's state of operation at a moment in time. Future network tests will be run and compared to the first to discover change. A network testing tool's attention to how network testing files are managed shows its sensitivity to the user. Choosing a network testing file management system that is easy to use and makes the best use of available resources is desired. Consider finding these characteristics:

Windows 95 Explorer-type interface, offering file management using folders and hierarchical displays

Windows 95 file naming character length, for quick and easy file identification

Built-in compression utilities that require less hard drive space

Support for storing network testing files on network drives, centralised servers, and ZIP-type drives

Support for preparing and sending network testing files as a single file through electronic mail systems.

Simultaneous network testing and analysis

Many network testing tools don't offer this capability, but if you can find it, it's worth the investment. Having the ability to analyse the traffic while capturing the network testing leads to better network testing and more precise reporting - which adds value to your service and what you deliver to your customer. Packages that do offer simultaneous network testing and diagnostics may also allow you to adjust the network testing parameters (filtering and so on) on the fly. You'll be isolating and capturing only the data in the network testing that you want to see and could quite possibly reduce the amount of time required to complete the on-site service.


If the statistic you need is not in a tool you purchase, you have just wasted your money. Network testing tools should have a wide breath of statistics that cover both station-level conversations and segment-level analysis. The broader the range of statistics, the higher the value of the tool. You should look for these characteristics:

Station level statistics - Conversation-level station statistics can give you a quick view of the power users on a network. By focusing on the top n conversations, you can look at who the top talkers or the top listeners are on a network and determine the type of traffic they are generating. If additional information on a single station is needed, users should also be able to get a detailed statistics report of all conversations for a single station. This becomes especially important if a single user is stressing the network and you want to determine what type of traffic he/she is sending or receiving.

Segment level statistics - Segment level statistics can give you a broad perspective on what is happening on a particular segment. By focusing on statistics such as frame rate, collisions, utilisation, and many others, you can look at what your traffic load consists of. By being able to compare and contrast different statistics, users can determine network capacity or troubleshoot a problem that may be affecting network performance. The key here is having a broad set of statistics to choose from.

Filtering - Integrated filtering narrows the focus of the sampled data you're collecting (e.g. particular protocols or addresses) before the data is captured. Therefore, what is wanted, is collected when it is needed. This is especially important when collecting network tests that extend over long periods of time.

Intelligent monitoring and event logging - A good network testing tool with analysis capability should intelligently monitor the network utilising pre-defined or user-definable thresholds and sample rates, logging in plain language significant events that direct the user to the cause of current problems and indicate where future problems may arise. The logging system should automatically log critical events, such as duplicate IP addresses, while allowing other events, such as utilisation percentage, to be logged when they exceed user-defined thresholds. The event log should also be able to track events at layers selected by the user.

Protocol discovery and distribution - Understanding the protocols that run on a network are critical to understanding how the network is operating. Protocol discovery starts at a high level and allows the user to easily drill down through the protocols on the network to see utilisation by protocol, giving meaningful insight into the network's actual behavior and allowing for a more specific and controlled network testing.

Multi-segment network testing and analysis. With the growing size of many corporate networks, it's becoming necessary to test multiple segments and compare the results from one segment with the results from another segment. Therefore, a network testing tool offering multi-segment network testing and analysis has moved from desirable to necessary.


Keeping a network at maximum availability is the continual pursuit of network professionals, whether responsibilities lie within the corporate network walls or outside as a customer service contract. Network testing is a key element in planning and maintaining networks as they grow. The success to which these networks stay alive and healthy will depend on the success of making network testing a mandatory part of a network operations routine. The success of those who provide the network testing service will depend on the quality of the tools they use.

Compiled by Paul Phillips, ( Wandel & Goltermann

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