Your job as a system or network administrator is to make sure your network is available and secure—always. Monitoring your network equipment 24/7 helps you spot problems and take steps to fix them. Without the right tools, spotting problems is hard. And you might not spot them until it’s too late.
Network monitoring solutions give you the visibility you need. By getting constant updates on the status of your important technology, you can stay ahead of network problems and avoid downtime.
More and more IT professionals are turning to free tools to help them monitor their networks. Free network monitoring software can be a lifesaver when budgets are tight, or you’ve recently experienced an outage and need to implement a tool now (when there’s no time to go through the procurement process).
But are all network monitoring freeware options the same?
To find a free tool that fits your organization’s needs both now and in the future, it’s helpful to understand the freeware's advantages and disadvantages.
Types of Free Network Monitoring Software
There are three main types of freeware network monitoring tools on the market:
- Commercial tools that are always free
- Open source tools that are always free
- Tools that are free to get started, with options to upgrade for additional cost and value
Let’s walk through the advantages and disadvantages of each freeware type below.
Related Content: Ultimate Buyer's Guide: Network Monitoring Software in 2017
1. Commercial Tools: Always Free
These products are built to serve the IT needs of businesses and are 100% free. Sometimes they will show advertisements within the interface. You will generally get basic features such as automatic network discovery, monitoring, and alerting.
Advantages: If you can find a freeware solution that does exactly what you need it to, you’ll enjoy the features you need at an unbeatable price. You can’t ask for a better ROI!
Disadvantages: The downside of using an always-free tool is that it may be missing key features that you need. And with always-free tools, what you get is what you get. There’s no upgrading or adding on extra features—so you should make sure you’re happy with the product as-is before you roll it out. Another risk is that the product will not give you the same stability or reliability as a paid commercial tool. For that reason, upper management may not be comfortable with IT using these tools to manage the network. Lastly, these always-free tools typically do not offer support.
Example: Spiceworks is an example of an always-free tool. With a web-based interface, alerting on down devices, and a customizable map topology, Spiceworks includes the basic features network professionals want. Although Spiceworks don’t offer support, their online user community is thriving and can be a resource when you have questions about the product. One thing to note is that they do depend on ads for their revenue, so you’ll have to be okay with seeing them in the interface.
2. Open Source Tools: Always Free
If you have a lot of special needs and requirements, you might want to consider an open source freeware monitoring solution.
Advantages: The biggest benefit of open source software is the flexibility it gives you. If you’re a developer or programmer and know how to code, you can customize the software to do exactly what you need it to.
Disadvantages: Open source tools can take a fair amount of development time and expense to get them where you want them. With the skills and setup required, what starts out as a “free” solution may in the end not actually be free because of all the time and effort required. They rarely offer support resources either, so you’ll be on your own if anything goes wrong.
Example: Nagios is one of the favorites in the open source community for network monitoring. They offer plenty of flexibility to work well with other products. If you have a strong development skillset and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, this tool can be an asset to you. Along with their always-free open source version, Nagios also offers paid versions with increased functionality.
3. Commercial Tools: Free to Get Started
Lots of tools offer free, limited software version with the option to add more monitoring, support, or additional features for a cost.
Advantages: Getting started with freeware allows you to make sure the tool meets your IT requirements. Any network monitoring software that offers both free and paid versions usually has a strong resume and reputation in the market. Even if your boss says there isn’t any budget to invest in a paid tool, once he or she sees the value the tool is providing, making the case for upgrading if you need to later will be easier.
Disadvantages: Products with a free-to-get-started model usually only allow you to monitor a certain number of devices or sensors. For that reason, they’re best if you’re only monitoring small IT environments or a limited set of equipment. The level of technical support they offer varies too. While it’s unrealistic to expect the same level of support from a tool that you’re not paying for, it’s important to know from the get-go what kinds of resources you will have access to.
Example: Intermapper offers fully-functional free network monitoring software for up to 10 devices. You can monitor anything with an IP address, create visual maps of your IT infrastructure that show you a live snapshot of network health, and set up alerts to notify you when problems arise. The free version doesn’t come with support, but you do get access to an online Knowledge Base and user forums.
Related Content: How Does Intermapper Compare to Other Free Software?
Which free tool is right for my organization?
While free tools come with some caveats, they also offer major benefits. When you’re trying to choose a free tool, consider these questions:
Does this product have positive customer reviews?
Make sure you can find honest reviews from actual users who confirm the product’s quality and reliability.
What kind of support resources do they offer?
If you’re just going to struggle to get up and running with a product, a free tool can be more harm than good. If software support isn’t included, are there public forums or self-help articles you can access? And can you upgrade to receive support or the latest version updates, feature enhancements, or patches if needed?
Is this a fully-functional free product?
Some free tools are skinnied down versions of the original that don’t really include all the features you need. If possible, look for a fully-functional freeware solution.
Can this product complement a tool I already have?
Maybe you already have a comprehensive monitoring product you really like, but it’s missing something. Using free products alongside your paid tools can expand your abilities without increasing your investment. For instance, Intermapper provides a unique visual network representation that a lot of monitoring tools don’t provide. Intermapper can use web services or APIs to hook into a tool like Nagios to further enhance the monitoring experience.
Freeware has its advantages and disadvantages. In the end, it’s all about finding a product that meets your IT requirements. Whichever free product you choose, make sure it’s helping you monitor the network better and increase uptime. For network professionals, that’s always the goal.