Introduction

Rene Millman delves into the world of network management software and discovers that you can teach an old dog new tricks

With thousands of desktops and hundreds of servers to look after, systems administrators need tools to look after all of them. Nowadays it is not enough that PCs have all the relevant software on them to allow employees to do their jobs. There is also the question of making sure that those computers are up-to-date with the latest security patches, so that they don't become an entry point into the infrastructure from hackers or use up valuable bandwidth sending out spam from a compromised computer.

But in such a vast and complex environment how on earth do you keep on top of it all? The answer is network management software. These tools are the software equivalent of the Swiss army knife. They help you keep on top of everything from security patches to licensing and asset management. They'll tell you if that extra copy of Office you're paying for is actually being used. They can help you manage the health and security of the network, making sure that bandwidth was used properly and rogue devices were barred from the network.

They're the ultimate network reference tool, essential for keeping tabs on the network infrastructure and what's going on in it. But what exactly makes good network management software? We took a look at six of the more popular products to find out...

There are several different aspects to consider when looking at network management software. While asset management can tell you what is infrastructure holds, good products should be able to trawl up information right down to the speed of the processor and the amount of memory as well as any applications running on a single desktop PC. We also scored any products that flagged up rogue applications that were installed on endpoints that were outside of our test policy.

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Some products provide remote control facilities for helpdesk staff, so we evaluated this aspect too. Agents installed on desktops should not take up too many resources and also should not allow the computer to become compromised. We scored products on how well the agents performed both by how many functions they undertook and how fast they completed those functions.

Lastly, we looked at the reporting functions of all the products. The products that did best presented usable information that could easily form part of a CIO's digital dashboard giving them as complete a view of the network and the devices connected to it as possible.

Testing

To test the tools, we set up a test bed of a typical heterogeneous environment comprising Windows Servers (we chose Windows Server 2003 as the main server OS for the purposes of this test), Linux Servers (Red Hat Enterprise Server 4) and some Windows (SP1 and SP2) and Macintosh desktops (running the latest version of OS X). We also had some laptops and even a PDA for good measure. The network was run over a managed switch and connected to that was a Netgear wireless access point to which the laptop was connected.

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