WhatsUp is a relatively inexpensive Windows-based system monitoring tool suited mainly for small to medium organisations.

It comes in two flavours –"Professional" and "Professional Premium Edition" – the difference being that the Premium Edition does everything its sibling does plus specific monitoring of SQL Server and Exchange installations and some extra support for WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation – Microsoft’s management API).

Installing the product is easy even though it ships with a fully-blown installation of the MSDE database engine (basically a slightly crippled version of SQL Server). You just run the installer, answer the few questions it asks, and leave it to chug away.

It can take a few minutes to install, which gives you time to (a) be irritated by the lack of an apostrophe in the product’s name; and (b) involuntarily cry "Whazzzuuuuup" and establish a desire for a beer.

In order to monitor systems, you need to tell it what to monitor and how. You can do this in a number of ways, from a simple subnet scan (you give it an address range and it goes to find machines in that range) to an "intelligent" SNMP scan which interrogates an SNMP-enabled device such as a router and figures out from its content where to go and look for other devices.

You can, of course, also nominate individual devices if you know their addresses. The devices WhatsUp knows about are collected into a couple of default groups ("All devices" and "All routers") but you can define your own groups and drop things in them yourself.

Different devices have different characteristics, of course, and so for each thing on the network you can tell WhatsUp to monitor different stuff. So you’d maybe enable ping, HTTP and HTTPS for your web server, and ping, SMTP and POP3 for your email server.

As well as monitoring service availability, you can of course also tell it to interrogate the devices for CPU utilisation, network interface usage, disk availability and the like. Rather cleverly, you can also define your own parameters to monitor; just tell it the device and give it the right authentication details to allow it to connect, and it’ll figure out the list of stuff that’s available for monitoring and let you pick the one(s) you want.

The GUI is the usual two-pane setup, with a list of devices on the left and the detail pane on the right. The latter has three views, which you switch between by clicking little tabs: the Device View is a list of devices monitored; the Map View shows you icons for your various devices and lets you draw a pretty picture of how they all interlink; and the Report View is where you can look at the detail of what your world is doing.

There are shedloads of standard reports, including the obvious stuff like "top ten" lists and single-page summary information for specific devices.

As we’ve mentioned, if you buy the Premium Edition you get a few extra gizmos whose main purpose is specific monitoring of SQL Server and Exchange hosts; it also extends the WMI capability, though even without this we seemed to be able to access WMI-related parameters when creating custom scans.

In addition to probing devices proactively (it polls each entity at whatever interval you specify), WhatsUp can also listen passively for stuff like SNMP traps, Syslog reports and Windows Event Log entries.

As well as monitoring visually, you can also do the usual alert triggering when certain conditions are met or thresholds exceeded, with a range of possible actions from playing a sound or popping up a window through to sending SNMP traps (eg to another management system) or sending emails.

Finally, there are some trivial but useful extras such as shortcuts that let you right-click a device and ping it, trace the route to it, point a web browser at it, and so on, and also an SNMP tree-walker that lets you crawl arbitrarily around a device’s SNMP management information tree.

We really like WhatsUp, not because it’s simple and relatively cheap, but because it's rather usable. It can take a while to get it up and running, but that’s mainly because many network devices come with SNMP either disabled (for security reasons) or not even installed by default (eg with our Windows XP machine we had to add the SNMP and WMI services via the control panel before WhatsUp could see it).

Once you’ve gone through the exercise of making your devices accessible, though, you’re sorted.

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that WhatsUp has a handy little “credentials” repository, so if you use the same credentials for a number of devices, you can define them centrally instead of having to re-type every time you add a device.

Any drawbacks with WhatsUp? Well, no, not really, just a couple of slight niggles. First, if you define a set of credentials for use by the auto-discovery function, it didn’t seem to remember them for the individual devices, so one had to go to the device settings screen and re-select them.

Second, when we first tried to do an auto-discovery, it took ages and then seemed to hang forever; when we tried again, though, everything worked just fine. Finally, GUI takes a little bit of getting used to – the navigation isn’t as intuitive as many we’ve come across – but once we’d played with it for a while, we soon got the hang of it.

OUR VERDICT

Even with a modest number of devices on your network, it’s well worth considering spending your money on WhatsUp. Quick to get started, it's very customisable, and does much of what the full-blown monitoring applications do but at a fraction of the cost.