The pt360 Tool Suite is a network toolkit that covers both of the main aspects of network management: continuous monitoring of systems and ad-hoc tasks that you undertake when the ongoing monitoring data tells you something of interest.

It’s a Windows application, and after the installer has run it connects to PacketTrap’s website (you need to register your email address with them) and obtains a licence code. It then fires up into a window whose main bulk is a “dashboard” area and which has a toolbar full of icons along the top.

The Dashboard brings no surprises – it’s a window (which, if you wish, can be split into tabbed pages) that you can fill with “gadgets” that give a graphical representation of the key parts of your network. The collection of gadgets is sensible: from basic parameters such as the availability (basically the pingability) of the things on the network up to more in-depth, SNMP-acquired information such as CPU and disk usage. Each of the items is sensibly configurable, so (for instance) you can set the acceptable ping response time lower for your LAN-based servers than for those in your remote datacentre. There’s also a clock gadget and a “Web viewer” one that you can use to load a web page based on a schedule. Setting up gadgets is simple: pick the one you want, click the big blue “Click to configure” link, and follow the resulting wizard. Oh, and as well as specifying items by address, subnet, name, etc. you can also throw them together into custom groups and refer to these groups when you come to use the various tools.

In order to interact with more than a ping or a port scan, you’ll generally need to provide a collection of credentials (notably SNMP community strings and Windows login information for WMI interrogations) so that pt360 can authenticate to the devices it’s monitoring and dig about for the information it needs. You do this in a central administration section, which is much more sensible than having to enter the same old stuff a number of times in different windows.

The other side of the system comprises the various ad-hoc tools that a network manager tends to use to investigate issues that are raised by the monitoring components. The usual ping and traceroute functions, plus Graphical Ping (a plot over time of ping response times), DNS Audit (find all the hosts in a domain or NetBIOS workgroup), Port Scan (dig into the popular application IP ports on a set of machines and see what’s open), MAC Scan (find the MAC address and look up the manufacturer of a host or hosts), and SNMP Scan (probe a device or devices using a chosen set of SNMP credentials). Then there’s Cisco Config (which lets you download and upload settings files from Cisco devices), TFTP and Syslog servers (handy things to have, these – whenever I need one I find I don’t have one to hand), Traffic Jam (generated a user-defined level of network traffic and throws it at the chosen device), a Whois client, a Wake-on-LAN client (for prodding remote WoL-capable devices to life) and a WMI interrogator for digging into the depths of Windows machines’ settings and performance information.

Toolkits like this often have pretty crummy user interfaces, having been built by techies for techies. This can most certainly not be said of pt360, whose GUI is extremely well thought-out. We’ve already mentioned that the Dashboard is very simple to configure, and the same can be said about the various ad-hoc tools. When you run a tool, it appears in its own tabbed page, which is particularly useful for things like the graphical ping which collect information over time. The individual settings for each function are displayed as a clickable link beside the name of the item, and so if you want to modify them it takes just a single click. And there’s a Favorites (sic) menu, that works rather like its namesake in a web browser, giving quick access to the stuff you use most often. Oh, and it remembers the names, addresses and subnets you’ve used and presents them in a little pull-down for quick access as an alternative to having to type them in by hand when you select a different tool.

Finally, the on-line help is very good; there’s some stuff that bounces you to PacketTrap’s website (eg. instructions on how to make a Windows system answer SNMP requests), but most of the stuff you’ll need is in the local Windows help module, and is well–written and sensibly hyperlinked.

It’s important to note at this point that there are two versions of pt360: the free one and the commercial one. If you don’t want to pay for it, you won’t get the DNS audit, port scan, traffic jam, Syslog server or WMI scan, or most of the Cisco stuff. This last omission doesn’t really bother me – it’s an advanced tool and it makes sense to charge for it – and I guess the WMI stuff is sufficiently powerful and complex that charging is justifiable. I do think, though, that the Syslog server ought to be a standard part of the free product; after all, there are other free Syslog servers out there, so it’s not as if anyone’s going to stump up the readies for pt360 just to get the Syslog feature.

There’s a lot to like about PacketTrap, and really not very much wrong with it. One niggle is that in an availability list, items are listed by IP even when you’ve entered them by name; another is that it gets a bit tedious, when you close a tab with an ad-hoc tool in it, to be asked for the umpteenth time: “Are you sure you want to close …” On the whole, though, it’s a nice collection of stuff, and with the exception of the silly choice over the Syslog server, the split between features in the free and commercial flavours is sensible.

OUR VERDICT

PacketTrap has an obvious competitor in Spiceworks, but the pt360 has a lot going for it - a nicer GUI for one. It hasn't got the range of features that Spiceworks has - although this isn’t an issue if you don’t want the extra stuff like software monitoring.