Product Review: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor

by [Published on 12 Dec. 2012 / Last Updated on 12 Dec. 2012]

In this article the author review SolarWinds Network Performance monitor.

Product: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor

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Introduction

SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is an application that is designed to detect and report network performance and availability in real time, while also providing diagnostic and resolution capabilities for network problems. Although there is no shortage of network monitoring products on the market, many of the vendors who offer such products seem to have gotten in the habit of trying to justify a steep price tag by making their product needlessly complicated. That being the case, I was curious to see whether SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor was something that an administrator with an average networking skill set could actually use right out of the box, or if it was another enterprise networking product with a high price tag and a steep learning curve.

Installation and Deployment

For the purpose of this review, I downloaded the free trial version of SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor version10.4.0. The download consisted of a 484 MB ZIP file, which I copied to a virtual server that was running Windows Server 2008 R2.

When I extracted the contents of the ZIP file, I was pleased to discover that it not only contained the software that I was evaluating, but also a copy of the Administrator’s Guide. Whenever I do a product review I always try to deploy and evaluate the software without referring to the documentation. That way I can get a sense of how intuitive the software may or may not be. However, there is nothing more frustrating than discovering that you need the documentation, but don’t have it. That being the case, I was very happy to see that SolarWinds took the time to include the documentation in the ZIP file.

Like other SolarWinds products that I have reviewed, the installation process was very simple. There was an initial process that decompressed the Network Performance Monitor software and the required version of the .NET Framework. This process took 26 minutes to complete on my lab server. After a reboot Setup appeared to extract some additional installation files and then led me into a very simple installation wizard. All together, the deployment process probably took just under an hour to complete.

The Test Drive

Once I had finished installing SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, I opened the Discovery Center, which is what SolarWinds calls the Web based management console. I have to admit that I always cringe when someone asks me to review any kind of network monitoring product because these types of products tend to be difficult to configure, and they almost always have a steep learning curve and too many features to talk about. In this case however, I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw when I logged into the Discovery Center.

When you log into the Discovery Center for the first time, the very first thing that you see is the Network Discovery section. This section includes options to discover your network or to add a single node, as shown in Figure A. I love it that SolarWinds didn’t make me go hunting for these options or leave me wondering where to begin, like so many competing products do.


Figure A: Solarwinds Network Performance Monitor displays network discovery options front and center.

I started out by clicking the Discover My Network button so that I could see what resources would be detected. This caused the interface to open the Network Sonar Wizard.

Before I talk about the wizard, I need to explain that I have reviewed and / or worked with a number of competing products over the years. Nearly all of these products contain a network discovery function, but you never really know what you are going to get. Some products are only able to discover network resources that are running an agent. Other products perform discoveries by looking at the Active Directory database or by performing port scans. Still other products are based on SNMP. Needless to say, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I clicked the Discover My Network button.

When the screen refreshed, the first thing that I saw was a prompt for SNMP credentials. At first I wondered how beneficial the product would really be since I only have one SNMP enabled device on my network. However, a closer look at the screen revealed that the Network Sonar Wizard looks at a lot of different things, not just SNMP. As you can see in Figure B, you are able to perform discoveries for SNMP, VMware, Windows, and IP address ranges. Needless to say, I was very happy that the discovery process was not agent based and that SolarWinds provided so many different discovery options.

At first I was put off by the fact that the wizard contains a tab for VMware servers, but does not offer a similar option for Hyper-V. However, the wizard is actually able to identify Hyper-V servers without needing a dedicated interface.


Figure B: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is able to discover many different types of resources.

As I worked through the wizard, I was happy to discover that the wizard can be provisioned with multiple resources of each type. For example, I have multiple Windows networks and multiple IP address ranges in my lab. I had no trouble configuring the product with credentials for multiple Windows environments and with multiple IP address ranges.

For the sake of trying out the software, I entered some Windows credentials and an IP address range that was suitable for my own network. When the detection process completed, the software identified several different categories of resources that it had detected, which you can see in Figure C.


Figure C: The Network Sonar Wizard detected several categories of devices.

When the detection completed, the Network Sonar Results Wizard helped me to import the devices. The wizard looked at things like network interfaces, storage devices, and even NPM status.

Once the software had imported all of the resources that had been discovered, I decided to spend some time working with the various reporting features. As I did, I found that the software offers some very nice reporting capabilities. For example, the Top 10 report shown in Figure D lists the ten nodes with the highest response time, the ten interfaces that produce the most traffic, and things like that.


Figure D: SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor includes some very nice reports.

The console provides a wealth of information about the way that the network is performing at any given moment. However, one of the nicest surprises was the Virtualization tab, which is shown in Figure E. As you can see in the figure, the console provides real time information about your virtualization hosts and the resources that they are using. What’s really cool is that Hyper-V and VMware hosts are displayed side by side on a single pane of glass. Of course you always have the option of viewing a single hypervisor.


Figure E:
The console also provides virtual machine management capabilities.

One of my favorite things about this product was something that I discovered completely by accident. About a month ago, I reviewed another SolarWinds product called SolarWinds IP Address Management. When I had finished the review, I forgot to uninstall the software. By pure coincidence, I ended up installing SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor onto the same virtual machine that I had used for the previous review. As it turns out, the two products are designed to work together and to be accessible through a common administrative console. The IP Addresses tab, shown in Figure D, actually belongs to the SolarWinds IP Address Manager.

Pricing

Pricing for SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor starts at $2475 (US Dollars) for up to 100 elements. SolarWinds offers sliding scale pricing based on the number of licenses purchased. You can access pricing information here.

The Verdict

When I write product reviews for this Web site, it has become customary for me to rate the products on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5.0 being the highest possible rating. After careful consideration, I decided to give SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor a score of 4.8, which is a WindowsNetworking.com Gold Award. In a world that is saturated with overly complex network management products it was really nice to find a product that made lite work of the network endpoint detection process and that actually worked the way that it was supposed to. It was also refreshing to find a network monitor that was so intuitive that I was able to set it up and use it without having to break out the documentation. The fact that the software could also be used as a virtualization manager was the icing on the cake.

WindowsNetworking.com Rating 4.8/5

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