When you need to test the performance of a network, you need to use the right tools. In fact, this is true of most activities. If like me, you’ve ever tried to drive a nail with a screwdriver, you’ll certainly agree with that.
So today, we’re going to have a look at performance and load testing tools. More specifically, we’ll review some of the very best network performance and load testing tools. And since the concept of performance and load testing is somewhat vague, you’ll soon find out that the tools are varied.
We’ll start off today by discussing performance and load testing. After all, it can only help better understand what’s coming afterward. We will first explain what performance is and what factors are affecting it. We’ll also do our best to explain what load testing is in the context of performance testing. And we’ll finally get to the interesting part, a review of some of the best tools that can be used for performance and load testing.
Performance and Load Testing Explained
Let’s start with a disclaimer. In the context of this post which is about network administration, we’ll be referring to performance and load testing of networks and although some of the tools reviewed below can run other types of performance tests, they will not be our primary focus.
More than anything, network performance is a matter of user perception and, as such, it can’t easily be tested. However, perceived network performance is directly affected by several factors that can be tested. The first two are bandwidth and throughput. The first refers to the carrying capacity of a network. As an analogy, think of it as the number of lanes on a highway. Throughput, on the other hand, refers to the actual usage of the available bandwidth. To keep our previous analogy, a four-lane highway could have a “bandwidth” of 4 000 vehicles per hour but its current “throughput” could be only 400 vehicles per hour or 10% of its capacity.
Latency, delay, and jitter are other factors affecting the perceived performance of networks. Latency refers to the time data takes to travel from source to destination. It is mainly a function of the signal’s travel time and processing time at any nodes it traverses. It is a physical limitation that cannot be reduced. Delay, on the other hand, can sometimes be improved. It has to do with the time it takes for networking equipment to process, queue, and forward data. Faster, more powerful equipment will generally add less delay to the transmission. As for jitter, it refers to the variation in packet delay at the receiving end of the conversation. Real-time or near-real-time traffic is particularly affected by it as it can cause data packets to arrive out of sequence. In the case of voice over IP, for example, this could result in unintelligible speech.
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OK, now that we have performance nailed down, how about load testing. Wen talking about load testing, what we typically have in mind is generating actual network traffic in order to be able to measure how the load impacts performance. Keeping our highway analogy, we all know how highway speeds are inversely proportional to the amount of traffic. This is why rush hour traffic is a common cause of traffic jams. Well, the same goes for network traffic and performance is generally inversely proportional to the amount of traffic. This is why load-testing is interesting.
No matter what, the best way to perform performance and load testing on networks is to simulate actual user traffic and measure the time it takes to complete a given set of tests. This will give you the best approximation of actual user perception.
The Best Performance And Load Testing Tools
We’ve scoured the market for some of the best performance and load testing tools. Here’s the result of our efforts. We’ve tried to include various types of tools for several reasons. First and foremost, we wanted to give you an idea of the variety of tools that are available. And since everyone’s needs are different, reviewing multiple types of tools increases the odds that one of them will be a match for your needs.
SolarWinds is kind of a famous name in the field of network administration. The company is known for making some of the best network administration tools on the market. Its flagship product, the Network Performance Monitor is generally recognized as one of the best network bandwidth monitoring tools available. And to make things even better, SolarWinds is also the company behind several free tools, each addressing a specific need of network administrators such as the famous SolarWinds TFTP Server or the Advanced Subnet Calculator.
The WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator, which is part of the SolarWinds Network Engineer’s Toolset, has the sole purpose of generating network traffic. The idea is that administrators would use this tool in combination with performance testing tools, thereby testing performance under high traffic situations, something that not many tools do by themselves.
The tool will let you easily set the IP address and hostname you want to send the traffic load to. It will also let you specify parameters such as port number, packet size, and percentage of available bandwidth to use. It can even let you modify the Differentiated Services Code Point (DSCP) and Explicit Congest Notification (ECN) settings. This flexibility lets the tool mimic virtually any type of traffic.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset
- Official download link: https://www.solarwinds.com/engineers-toolset/registration
This tool’s primary use is for tasks such as testing traffic prioritization and load balancing. You can also use it to make sure that your network is correctly set up and that huge amounts of unimportant traffic—as generated by this tool—won’t have adverse effects on critical traffic. The level of fine-tuning the tool allows will let you simulate almost any type of situation.
As we indicated before, the SolarWinds WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator is part of the Engineer’s Toolset, a bundle of over 60 different tools. The toolset includes a mix of the most important free tools from SolarWinds combined with many exclusive tools that you won’t find elsewhere. And most of the included tools are integrated into a common dashboard from where they can be easily accessed.
What Else Is There In The SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset?
The SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset includes several dedicated troubleshooting tools. Tools like Ping Sweep, DNS Analyzer and TraceRoute can be used to perform network diagnostics and help resolve complex network issues quickly. For the security-oriented administrators, some of the toolset’s tools can be used to simulate attacks and help identify vulnerabilities.
The toolset also features some excellent monitoring and alerting capabilities. Some of its tools will monitor your devices and raise alerts for availability or health issues. And finally, you can use some of the included tools for configuration management and log consolidation.
Here’s a list of some of the other tools you’ll find in the SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset:
- Port Scanner
- Switch Port Mapper
- SNMP sweep
- IP Network Browser
- MAC Address Discovery
- Ping Sweep
- Response Time Monitor
- CPU Monitor
- Memory Monitor
- Interface Monitor
- Router Password Decryption
- SNMP Brute Force Attack
- SNMP Dictionary Attack
- Config Compare, Downloader, Uploader, and Editor
- SNMP trap editor and SNMP trap receiver
- Subnet Calculator
- DHCP Scope Monitor
- DNS Structure Analyzer
- DNS Audit
- IP Address Management
With so many tools included in the SolarWinds Engineer’s Toolset, you should definitely give it a try and see for yourself what it can do for you. This product, including the WAN Killer Network Traffic Generator, sells for $1 495 per desktop installation. You’ll need one license for each user of the tool. But considering all the included tools, this is a very reasonable price. If you want to give the toolset a test-run, a 14-day trial version is available.
2. LAN Speed Test
LAN Speed Test from TotuSoft is a simple but powerful tool for measuring the performance of file transfers, hard drives, USB Drives, and also network speeds. All you need to do is pick a destination on the server where you want to test the WAN connection. The tool will then build a file in memory and transfer it both ways while measuring the time it takes. It then does all the calculations for you and gives you an evaluation of the transfer’s performance.
You can also choose a computer running the LAN Speed Test Server instead of a shared folder as a destination. This effectively takes the disk access component out of the equation, giving you a true measure of the network’s performance. The tool is initially set up in its Lite, feature-limited version. To access the advanced features of the standard version, you must purchase a license which is available for only ten dollars, with quantity discounts available. The tool is portable and will run on any Windows version since Windows 2000.
3. LAN Bench
Despite the fact that its developer’s website is no longer up, LAN Bench from Zack Saw is still available for download from several software download websites and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. It is a free and portable TCP network benchmarking utility. The tool is based on Winsock 2.2, a rather old framework but one with minimal CPU usage which is a good thing. You can be reasonably sure that poor CPU performance won’t come and pollute your network performance test results. All the tool does is test the network performance between two computers but what it does, it does well.
You’ll need to run LAN Bench on two computers, at either end of the network segment you want to test. One instance runs as the server and the other one is the client. The server-side requires no configuration. All you need to do is click the Listen button. The tool’s testing configuration is all done on the client-side, before starting the test. You will need to specify the server’s IP address and you can adjust several testing parameters such as the total duration of the test, the packet size used for testing, as well as the connection and transfer mode.
4. NetIO-GUI (NetIO’s Big Brother)
NetIO-GUI is actually a free front end for the multi-platform command line utility NetIO. Together, they form a very potent performance testing tool. It can be used to measures ICMP response times as well as network transfer speeds for different packet sizes and protocols. All the results are stored in an SQLite database and can easily be compared. This Windows tool is available either as an installable software or as a portable tool.
In order to run tests, you need two instances of the tool, one at either end. One side will run in client mode while the other will run in server mode. Using it is rather simple, once you have it running at both ends, you click the start button on the server (typically running at the far end) and, on the client, you simply enter the server’s IP address and pick the protocol (TCP or UDP) that you want to use to run the test. You start the test and let NetIO test the connectivity using various packet sizes before it returns the test results.
Initially created as an internal tool by Nuts About Nets, NetStress is now offered to the public. It is yet another free and simple network benchmarking tool and as you’d figure from its name, it is all about load testing. Like most other similar products, you’ll have to run the tool on two computers at either end of the network that you need to test. It is somewhat easier to use than other tools because it can automatically find the receiver IP address.
Running a test with NetStress is very simple, although some might not find it self-explanatory. What you need to do is click on the 0.0.0.0 next to Remote Received IP. You then select the IP address that is listed in the window and click OK. Doing that will enable the Start button. Once enabled, you simply click it and the tool starts testing and measuring the TCP and UDP throughput. An interesting option found in this tool the ability to modify the MTU size used for testing. Despite some quirks such as the inability to resize its full-screen window, NetStress is a pretty good tool.
Aida32 is officially a discontinued product that has been replaced by Aida64 but this older version still very popular and easy to find. Aida is a hardware information and benchmarking tool that can perform many different tests. The reason this specific—and older—version has made it on our list is because it includes an excellent Network Benchmark tool which is no longer available in Aida64. Make sure you get the right version. Using the plugin is easy and it can be started from the tool’s Plugin Menu
Aida32 tool is not very different in its operation from most others on this list and you’ll need to run it at both ends of the path you want to test. On one of the computers, you need to select Master from the drop-down list that you’ll find at the bottom of the tool’s window. You then go to the Bandwidth tab and click the Start button. On the other computer, you select Slave instead of Master and enter the IP address of the master. Just like you did on the master, you go to the Bandwidth tab and click Start. Once the test completes, the Save button can be used to conveniently save the bandwidth chart in bitmap format.
7. PerformanceTest From PassMark
PassMark’s PerformanceTest is a complete PC performance benchmarking software. It made it on our list because it features a very interesting advanced network testing tool that one can use to run network performance tests. The tool can run tests on both IPv4 and IPv6 networks and it will let users set the data block size used for testing. It will also allow you to enable UDP bandwidth throttling if you so desire. The network module is well-hidden within the PerformanceTest application. You can access it by clicking Advanced and then Network from the tool’s menu bar.
This is a limited tool where the results are shown in the status area and display the amount of data sent to the server, the CPU load, and the average, minimum, and maximum transfer speeds. While this is not much, it should be enough to determine the consistency of the network’s performance. PerformanceTest is a paid shareware but can be used for free without any limitations for up to 30 days.
We weren’t sure if Wireshark should be included on this list. After all, this is not really a load testing tool and it’s not even a true performance testing tool. It is, however, one of the best all-around network troubleshooting tools and it can be used in conjunction with other tools on this list to see the exact impact of various network loading situations on network traffic.
Previously known as Ethereal, Wireshark has been around for 20 years. It is one of the most popular network sniffing tools. The tool has an interesting history. Before Wireshark, the market had essentially one GUI-based packet sniffer which was aptly called Sniffer. It was an excellent product that suffered from one major drawback, its price. Back in the late 90’s the product was about $1500 which was more than many could afford. This prompted the development of Ethereal as a free and open-source packet sniffer by a UMKC graduate named Gerald Combs who is still the primary maintainer of Wireshark twenty years later.
Today, Wireshark has become the reference in packet sniffers. It is the de-facto standard and most other tools try to imitate it. This tool mainly does two things. First and foremost, it captures all traffic it sees on its interface. But it doesn’t stop there. The product’s real strength is in its powerful analysis capabilities which are actually so good that it’s not uncommon for users who use other tools for packet capture to run the analysis of the captured data using Wireshark. That’s how good it is. This is such a common way of using the product that, upon startup, you’re prompted to either open an existing capture file—potentially created with another tool—or start capturing traffic. Another strength of the tool is the filters it incorporates which let you zero in on exactly the data you’re interested in.
While Wireshark has a steep learning curve, it is well-worth learning at it will prove time and again to be an invaluable tool for many network troubleshooting tasks. It is definitely something that should be part of every network administrator’s toolset. And given its price—it’s free—there is no reason why not to use it.