Since an image is worth a thousand words, images are often one of the best ways to document complex systems. This is particularly true of networks that are best described using network maps. However, creating network maps using traditional drawing tools can be a tedious process. Even when using advanced tools such as Microsoft Office Visio or dedicated network drawing tools like LanFlow, it is still a lot of work. The maps that you create are also static and must be redone each time the network changes. This is why network mapping tools were created and today, we’re going to have a look at a few of the best ones.
We’ll start off by discussing the concept of network mapping in general, what it is and why it is so useful. As you’ll see, it’s not only a great way to document networks, it is also an excellent troubleshooting tool. We’ll then briefly describe network mapping tools in deeper details before we get to the core of the matter: reviewing some of the best network mapping tools.
About Network Mapping
Everyone has his own reason for needing network maps of any kind. There are, however, some that are more common than others. The most important and most common reason is rooted in the fact that any system is just as good as its documentation. And when said system is a computer network, a network map is most likely one of the best possible types of documentation as they often include a ton of relevant information. They will typically tell you what each piece of equipment is, how everything is interconnected, and they will also often include extra details such as IP addresses or other configuration parameters or even the whole devices’ configurations.
A network map diagram is also an invaluable troubleshooting tool. If—or more likely, when—something goes wrong on the network, you’ll be glad you have one. For instance, let’s pretend there’s a report of poor performance between a specific workstation and a server. A network map would quickly allow one to figure out what devices are located on the path, providing an excellent starting point for troubleshooting.
Some will argue that network maps are not needed. After all, nothing beats that live, real-time mental image an administrator has of his network. But while this might hold some truth, it’s also a risky prospect. As time goes by, we can forget the smaller details. There’s a Chinese proverb that says that “the palest ink is better than the best memory.” Although you may still have a pretty good mental picture of how that five-year-old network works, you may not remember all the minute details. And to make matters worse, other administrators may have performed some changes that you are not aware of.
Documentation is really the very best way to keep track of everything and, when it comes to networks, a network map is certainly the best type of documentation you can have. But networks, like most other things in life, do evolve and additions and changes are regularly—if not constantly—done. Devices are added, circuits are upgraded, configurations are modified. All of these changes need to be documented. Like the network it depicts, the network map must be a constant work in progress and great care must be taken to keep it up to date. Nothing can be more frustrating than trying to debug network issues with outdated network maps.
Introducing Network Mapping Tools
Network mapping tools typically do much more than just help you draw network maps. Some can use SNMP and/or other protocols such as the Cisco Discovery Protocol (CDP) to poll your devices and discover their interconnections. They will use that information to automatically build a graphical representation of your network, a network topology map.
While these tools can save you a tremendous amount of time, they tend to be far from perfect and the maps they create will often need some degree of manual editing. For example, perhaps you want to overlay your network map on a floor plan of the office. For that purpose, many of the topology mapping tools include some editing facilities. Others will let you export the generated diagrams and edit them using a more conventional drawing tool of your choice.
The more advanced network mapping tools can be so advanced that they end up resembling management systems more than documentation systems. You can, for instance, use them to monitor devices status and performance. In some cases, they can even allow you to manage devices right from within the mapping tool.
The Best Network Mapping Tools
We’ve done our best to include a good variety of tools on our list. We have dedicated mapping tools but also network monitoring platforms with a network mapping feature. As you read about all the products we’re reviewing, you’ll see that the line between network monitoring and network mapping tools is not always very clear anyways.
SolarWinds has acquired a solid reputation in the field of network administration tools. In the past 20 years, the company has made quite a few excellent network administration tools. The company is also famous for its free tools. They are smaller tools which typically address one specific need of network administrators. Examples of these free tools include the Advanced Subnet Calculator or the Kiwi Syslog Server.
The SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (NTM) is an evolution of LanSurveyor, a well-known mapping tool that was acquired by SolarWinds a little while ago. This tool can automatically discover your LAN, your WAN or both and generate comprehensive, easy-to-view, and easy-to-comprehend network topology diagrams. These diagrams typically integrate Layer 2 and Layer 3 information. The NTM uses an innovative concept called topology databases. The network scanning process does populate these databases which are, in turn, used to create the topology diagrams. This is great as it does allow many different maps to be built from a single scan of the network, thereby saving time and resources.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper
- Official download link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-topology-mapper/registration
Another great feature of the SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper is that it can automatically keep diagrams up to date. It regularly re-scans the network looking for changes in topology and for new devices, adding the new information to existing diagrams. The product can also help with network security. It can, for instance, detect rogue devices that have been connected to the network.
Even better, this tool can assist with PCI/DSS and other regulatory compliance requirements. And it can be used as a networking equipment inventory management system. And if you want to share the tool’s topology diagrams with the rest of the world, you’ll be able to export them in Microsoft Visio format, a standard in business diagrams.
Our next entry is another excellent product from SolarWinds called the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, or NPM. It is a very complete network monitoring solution with integrated network mapping features. It features a user-friendly graphical user interface that administrators can use to monitor devices and to configure the tool.
Adding a new device to the Network Performance Monitor is as simple as specifying its IP address or hostname and SNMP connection parameters. The system then queries the device and lists all the available metrics. All you have to do is pick those you want to monitor. And talking about adding devices, this tool’s scalability is another one of its best features. It will suit the smallest of networks and scale up to large networks with thousands of devices spread over multiple sites.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor
- Official download link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-performance-monitor/registration
The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor’s network mapping feature is called NetPath. It maps your network and then provides you with information on its performance, the traffic levels, and device configurations along an entire network path. The tool can display performance metrics with hop-by-hop data between your data center and remote offices. The tool also features a number of network visualization graphs and charts. Insights from the product’s network mapping features can easily be viewed alongside other performance tools to provide troubleshooting assistance of your entire network.
The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor’s alerting system is another place where the product shines. It is highly customizable when needed but it can also be used out-of-the-box with minimal configurations. The alerting engine is smart enough not to send notifications for “unimportant” events in the middle of the night or to send hundreds of notifications for as many unresponsive servers when the main issue is a down router or network switch.
Prices for the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor start at just under $3 000 and goes up according to the number of devices to monitor and the selected optional components. The pricing structure is quite complex and you should contact the SolarWinds sales team for a detailed quote. If you prefer to try the product before purchasing it, a free 30-day trial version is available for download from the SolarWinds website.
Intermapper from Help Systems is another excellent tool which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. This tool, like most good ones, will auto-discover all of your physical and virtual equipment and place it on a detailed map depicting all their interconnections. All you have left to do is simply edit the maps to better illustrate your real-life network. You can, for example, change the layout, customize the icons or change the background images.
But Intermapper is not just a topology mapping tool, it is also a rather good monitoring solution. And while it might not rival with some of the better, dedicated network monitoring tools, it has some unique features. For instance, it’s got live colour-coding and animation which highlights the status of your devices. For example, the colour of device icons will go from green (all good) to yellow (warning) to orange (alert) to red (down). Likewise, animated traffic indicators will alert you of any segment where traffic exceeds a predefined threshold. This s really a clever combination of a network map ad a monitoring tool.
Intermapper is available in a free version which is limited to 10 devices. For larger installations, you can choose between annual subscriptions or permanent licenses. Prices do vary according to the number of discovered, mapped, and monitored devices and a free 30-day trial is available.
Like the previous entry, NetProbe offers quite a bit more than just plain network mapping. In fact, its publisher calls it “a real-time device monitoring tool” and this is really what it is. This tool will monitor any network-attached device in real-time. It has a rich graphical user interface which is available as a stand-alone application or via a web interface.
Since it’s included in this list, you won’t be surprised that NetProbe’s graphical layout includes much more than just the devices. Alarms and trackers are also integrated. And all drawing elements have been kept as simple as possible making for a simple, quick, and neat representation of the monitored environments. The automatic detection of devices is another excellent feature of this tool. And although it will scan your network to detect devices and add them to its maps, this is not all it will do. It will also automatically add alarms and performance graphs that are pertinent to each device.
NetProbe is available in four license tiers which range from the free Standard license which only allows for eight devices to the Enterprise license which is good for up to 400 devices.
5. Network Notepad
We hesitated before including the Network Notepad on this list. After all, it is, in essence, more of a drawing tool than a mapping tool. However, several useful add-ons are available that will give the product features that are somewhat like other tools in this list. First things first, as a drawing tool, this one has all the features you would normally expect from a drawing tool such as multi-page diagrams, custom shapes, grouping and locking—allowing you to combine existing shapes to create new ones, auto-alignment, and of course, templates.
But as we said, and this is why it ended up on this select list, Network Notepad gets the bulk of its power when you start using its add-ons. One of the most interesting ones is undoubtedly the CDP Neighbor Tool, a sort of auto-discovery utility. This add-on uses the Cisco Discovery Protocol—hence its name—to automatically identify and document devices interconnections. All you need to do is right-click any device in your diagram, select “Discover Neighbors“, and the add-on will use the SNMP protocol to fetch connections data from the device’s CDP table. It will get a list of all devices connected to the selected one and their interconnection interfaces. Subsequently, clicking the “Paste” button will add any missing connected objects to your diagram.
The Network Notepad is available in a feature-limited freeware version or in a full-featured Professional version which you can purchase for only 18 British Pounds once the 30-day trial period expires. At that price, it is a pretty good deal, considering its features.
6. PRTG Network Monitor
The PRTG Network Monitor from Paessler AG is a full-featured network monitoring system with some excellent mapping capabilities, somewhat like the SolarWinds NPM reviewed above. One of the product’s best qualities is its speed and ease of installation. Paessler claims that the PRTG Network Monitor can be set up in a couple of minutes and although our experience shows that it can take a bit more than that, it is still amazingly easy and fast, thanks in part to its auto-discovery feature that will scan your network, find devices, and automatically add them. The tool uses a combination of Ping, SNMP, WMI, NetFlow, jFlow, sFlow, but can also communicate via DICOM or the RESTful API.
When it comes to network mapping, the PRTG Network Monitor allows you to create maps that display your devices and their connections, as well as live status information for your network. This lets you detect problems at a glance and provides for efficient troubleshooting using maps as a primary source of information. Network maps can be customized using HTML, and they can also be shared with anyone you want, even external resources. The main drawback of this functionality is that although the maps are extremely useful, they must be created manually using the drag-and-drop map editor which can be time-consuming. On the other hand, this approach makes for highly customized maps.
One of the strengths of the PRTG Network Monitor is its sensor-based architecture. You can think of sensors as add-ons to the product except that they are already included and don’t need to be purchased separately. There are add-ons for virtually anything. For example, there are HTTP, SMTP/POP3 (e-mail) application sensors. There are also hardware-specific sensors for switches, routers, and servers. In all, there are over 200 different predefined sensors that retrieve statistics such as response time, processor, memory, database information, temperature or system status from the monitored devices.
The PRTG Network Monitor offers a selection of user interfaces. The primary one is an Ajax-based web interface which allows it to be administered from any device with an Ajax-compatible browser, although the server only runs on Windows. There’s also a Windows enterprise console as well as mobile apps for Android and iOS. One nice feature of the mobile apps is that they can use push notification of any alerts triggered from PRTG. Standard SMS or email notifications are also available.
The PRTG Network Monitor is offered in two versions. There’s a free version which is full-featured but will limit your monitoring ability to 100 sensors. Note that each monitored parameter counts as one sensor and, for example, monitor 24 interfaces on a network switch will use up 24 sensors. If you need more than 100 sensors, you must purchase a license. Their prices start at $1 600 for 500 sensors. You can also get a free, sensor-unlimited and full-featured 30-day trial version.
7. Spiceworks Network Mapper
Spiceworks was originally started back in 2006 in Austin, Texas to build IT management software. It has evolved into a vibrant online community allowing users to collaborate with one another and also participate in a marketplace to purchase IT services and products. The Spiceworks community is estimated to be used by more than six million IT professionals and three thousand technology vendors.
As a software developer and publisher, Spiceworks offers three main products. First, there’s a help desk management platform aptly called Spiceworks Help Desk. There’s also an IT asset inventory management tool called Spiceworks Inventory. And finally, there’s a network monitoring platform called Spiceworks Network Monitor. While these tools are not open-source, they are available for free to anyone.
Of course, Spiceworks also proposes a network mapping tool that goes by the name of Spiceworks Network Mapper. This is a manual network mapping tool which lets you view an interactive diagram of your network. It visually displays how your devices interconnect, work together and relate to each other. The tool lets you modify maps by adding, editing, moving and resizing devices and customize them to the exact way you want to show how your network is structured. You can also use filters and views to display a subset of only the most important or relevant data. Device interconnections are depicted as lines on the maps whose width indicates how much
One of the main drawbacks of the tool is that it is manual. This means that you not only have to create each map, you also have to keep them up to date. You’ll need to redo your network maps every time your network changes. On the other hand, the Spiceworks Network Mapper is available for free. That makes it an ideal choice for an organization that would rather invest time in creating and maintaining maps than investing money on a fully automated tool. This could be the case, for instance, with smaller businesses that have less complex networks.