You don't expect specialist network monitoring tools to be simple, but even experienced engineers have difficulty getting to grips with some products. Fortunately that's a charge which can't be levelled at PRTG Network Monitor from German developer Paessler, which we found simple to deploy and remarkably easy to use for a tool of this kind.
One of the big draws with PRTG is that it lets you get started quickly and without having to buy any special hardware. We downloaded the 30-day trial version and installed the core server software in just a few minutes using Windows Server 2008 R2 as our host test bed.
However, a physical server isn't a prerequisite, and the software is just as happy running in a virtual machine. On a small network you can get away with a PC running Windows XP or later as everything that's required, including an integrated database and web server, is built in and ready to go.
PRTG Network Monitor concentrates primarily on the monitoring of system availability, bandwidth and network loads. To this end, a local network probe is configured on the server which does most of the work, discovering and monitoring devices using a variety of industry-standard network protocols, from simple ICMP pings to more complex SNMP and WMI calls.
This one probe will be all that's needed on a lot of networks, but additional 'remote' probes can be added if required, capable of sending SSL-encrypted data back over the internet where VPN tunnels aren't available.
On larger networks you can even configure a failover cluster of PRTG servers with support for a single failover node included in all licences, extendable to five on large deployments.
Remote probes were equally easy to configure and, although it required a bit more work, clustering was also straightforward. We were impressed with the way the probes and other PRTG components were configured as background Windows processes, consuming very little in the way of processor or memory resources.
Management can be done on the server, but most customers will opt for remote management and the choice here is a custom Windows console or a web-based interface. In fact there are two web interfaces: a basic HTML console (chiefly for use on mobile devices) and, our favourite, an Ajax implementation with an intuitive GUI featuring lots of nice graphical options. An iPhone app is also available.
Having connected to the PRTG server our next task was to set it to work finding what we had installed on our network. Again, that proved remarkably easy: hit the auto-discovery button, create a new group to hold and organise the data, then leave the PRTG probe to get on with it.
OK, we did have to tell it what subnet to examine, and tweak the settings to enable the probe to log on and examine Windows and Linux hosts. It wasn't particularly quick, either, taking a good 15 minutes even on our relatively small LAN.
It was, however, very thorough, delivering a comprehensive list of network devices and attached systems, most ready-configured with sensors, to enable us to immediately start monitoring.