For system admins, one of the most important tasks is keeping an eye on the network. When things go bad in your world, a rogue ne’er-do-well could be the cause. Whether that malicious entity is a hacker, a compromised system, or a bad piece of hardware, it’s essential to sniff out the issue.

To that end, you need the right tools. One of the first tools you might turn to is an IP traffic monitoring tool. The good news is that there are tons of these tools ready to serve you. The bad news… some of them are a bit complex. That’s why I thought I’d find the easiest IP traffic monitoring tools and list five of them for your network monitoring pleasure.

Note: This article is also available as an image gallery and a video hosted by TechRepublic columnist Tom Merritt.

1: Microsoft Network Monitor

Microsoft Network Monitor (Figure A) may be a bit out of date, but it works like a champ. With MSNM you can easily capture and analyze network traffic packets for more than 300 open and proprietary protocols; run simultaneous capture sessions; run in Wireless Monitoring Mode, promiscuous mode, or sniffing mode; and much more. Within the Capture tab, you can filter your captures, change adapter options, and even alter the global options.

Figure A

Figure A

This tool gives you quick network monitoring in just a couple of clicks. You won’t find too many bells and whistles getting the way as you sniff out issues. The application is free and will work on Windows XP/Vista/7/8/2003/2008.

2: Umit

Umit (Figure B) is another Linux front end for the ever-popular nmap scanning tool. It does an excellent job of making the powerful nmap tool accessible to just about any user. But don’t let the simple interface fool you. Umit offers all the power and flexibility of the nmap scanner.

Figure B

Figure B

Figure B

Umit might seem a bit familiar, because it resembles the more popular nmap front end, Zenmap. The main difference between the two is that Umit places all the necessary tools in an easily accessible toolbar—whereas Zenmap places the same tools in menus. Umit is free, but unlike the cross-platform Zenmap, it’s available only for Linux.

3: Advanced IP Scanner

Advanced IP Scanner (Figure C) is one of the few tools in this category that can run as a portable edition. That’s a boon for most network admins, as you don’t always want to take the time to install the necessary tool to find a problem. Advanced IP Scanner gives you access to shared folders and HTTP/FTP servers, scans all network devices, provides remote control of computers (via RDP), and can even remotely switch computers off.

Figure C

Figure C

Figure C

Best of all, you only need to open the app and click the Start button and your scan is off and running. Advanced IP Scanner will run on Windows 7 and 8 and is free to use.

4: Capsa Free

Capsa Free (Figure D) is made by Colasoft and does a great job of analyzing traffic and IP packets as well as troubleshooting network issues. Unlike other options, Capsa Free does require you get a license to activate the software. (It’s free, but you do have to hand over an email address to receive the license key.)

Figure D

Figure D

Figure D

The free version of this tool does suffer from a number of limitations not found in either Capsa Professional or Capsa Enterprise. For a comparison matrix of the three versions, check here. Capsa includes a much busier user interface, but that highlights some of the outstanding features (especially the real-time graphing tools). I highly recommend giving the free version a try and then, if it fits your needs, purchasing either the Professional or Enterprise edition to gain even more power.

5: The Dude

The Dude (Figure E), by MikroTik, is an interesting take on network monitoring. It monitors your network and alerts you if there’s a problem. It will also do a quick scan of your network and map out discovered devices.

Figure E

Figure E

Figure E

One handy feature is the ability to manually add devices and even set up various types of monitors for each device. This means you can set up specific monitors to keep a granular watch on every machine attached to your network. The Dude is free and for Windows only.

Other choices?

Many network monitoring tools are available to serve your needs. If you’re looking for something easy to use (yet powerful enough to actually be productive), one of these will certainly fit the bill.

Do you have a favorite tool that’s not on this list? Share your recommendations with fellow TechRepublic members.

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Five super-easy IP traffic monitoring tools