Must-have network administration tools

Struggling to keep on top of your network? We classify five classes of resources that should help you get back in control.

Having the proper equipment is key to successful networking projects. This is especially true for consultants who work in highly competitive environments where efficiency can translate to lower costs and, in turn, win business. Consultants have a competitive advantage when they use network administration tools that automate tasks or gather and process information. For most network administration activities, resellers can find a number of tools to use that range from free widgets that run on laptops or PDAs to multi-million-dollar apps requiring the support of several servers.

It would be impossible to evaluate this seemingly endless and constantly updated list of tools and features. Furthermore, requirements vary greatly. While some network administrators may need tools that are free, portable and can be set up quickly at multiple client sites, other network admins may need a tool that's permanently installed to perform a complex task and may take weeks to configure. It all depends on the customer. So, to provide a little value to everyone, we'll focus on a few categories of must-have network administration tools, where almost every administrator could benefit from having one or two of each.

Discovery and documentation tools

These tools are particularly useful for consultants who support a lot of customers and don't have time to get acquainted with any single network. Discovery and network documentation tools automatically discover devices on the network, along with details on their configuration and status. Once they capture this information, many network documentation tools or combinations of tools are capable of generating network documentation which you can include in your deliverables.

As every consultant knows, the network is rarely configured as the customer described it presale, and customer-supplied documentation is almost always out of date. The faster you find out how it's actually configured, the more likely you are to complete your project on time and renegotiate the milestones, if necessary.

Unfortunately, these tools use SNMP- and ICMP-based protocols, which have been so abused by hackers that security teams may have implemented mechanisms to disable them. You may have to persuade them to get permission to use these tools.

Troubleshooting tools

Your requirements for network administration tools for troubleshooting should be based on the OSI model's layers. For instance, there are layer 1 tools that test jacks and cables to make sure they're terminated properly and are meeting the electrical and optical specs for your cabling type. There are also tools like time domain reflectometers that can "see" how far down a cable the problem is, if a bend radius is too tight or if something has crimped a cable. There are also lots of spiffy new tools for problem determination in the radio frequency space for wireless local area networks (WLANs).

There are numerous tools for troubleshooting connectivity at the network layer. Most are more sophisticated than PING and Traceroute. At the higher layers, there's a wealth of protocol analyzers available.

Scripting tools
Scripting tools are meta-tools that enable you to create your own tools. They let you script, or write a macro, which is a list of commands that allow you to automate repetitive tasks. This activity is essentially application development or programming, but code isn't compiled. Rather, it's interpreted. Perl is probably the most common scripting language for network admins.

Your script could do simple tasks, like telnet in to all routers and switches, and compare the configuration to make sure no one has modified them. Your macro could also be something quite complex, like automating changes in a network migration. Scripting tools can save you and your customer valuable time by completing menial tasks that would otherwise take hours.

Performance measurement tools

This recently developed category of network administration tools is mostly used to ensure that service-level agreements (SLAs) are being met. A tool that lets you independently verify that your work is meeting objectives for delay, packet drop, application response time, etc., can be a life-saver. Relying on a misconfigured customer tool or, worse, imposing on customers to repeatedly come in and test their applications while you tweak the network is not conducive to long-term customer satisfaction.

Reference material

Reference material for network administration tools shouldn't be overlooked. This can include everything from CDs of vendor documentation to IP subnet calculators. Depending on the customer's Internet connection to look up a product is unreliable and can make you look unprofessional. Even depending on your own wireless connection is risky, as it may not work from a closet or raised-floor area in a customer's building.

This can be avoided by keeping reference material with you, whether it be a laminated cheat sheet for cable pin-outs in your wallet, or a copy of all the RFCs and IEEE 802 standards in your laptop.

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