ipMonitor is described by its vendors, perfectly accurately, as an "entry-level IP monitoring tool".

Installation is a simple wizard, and on our 64-bit AMD server took only a couple of minutes. Once you're up and running you simply point a browser at the appropriate port (as chosen during the setup process) and then run through the "Getting Started" wizard.

We decided to go with the automatic device discovery process. As well as the usual IP address range search, you can also tell it to search a DNS zone (i.e. to interrogate a DNS and try to contact all hosts mentioned therein) or the Windows Network Neighborhood. Oh, you can also give it a static "hosts" file if you prefer. Once you've chosen how to search, you can provide the various sets of credentials (Windows logins and SNMP community strings) that the system will need in order to interrogate the systems it comes across. A little niggle at this point: to enter credentials you must either be connected by HTTPS or have the browser running on the ipMonitor server, since it won't let you enter credentials over a non-secure link. While I can understand the desire to be seen to be secure, it's a little over the top to forbid connections from machines in the same LAN subnet.

Once you've provided all the necessary credentials, the system uses them to trot off and scan each machine it finds, to see what services are running on each and what system parameters are available for monitoring. Although the GUI is entirely browser-based, it makes excellent use of dynamic HTML to make it feel very much like a desktop application, with spinning progress icons and such like. Okay, this isn't rocket science these days, but at least it shows SolarWinds give a monkey's about the user.

In our test, ipMonitor made a good fist of finding things out about servers. For instance, it decided that our "bit of everything" server had FTP, HTTP, IMAP, POP, SMTP and SNMP services running, and that it had a single CPU, a lump of memory and a single drive (volume E: because of some wackiness with the on-board SATA RAID driver). For each service it finds, it defines a "monitor"; once the discovery has finished you can select which monitors you actually want and disable the ones you don't, and then everything will be dropped into the "All Managed Devices" list.

From this point on everything is dead simple and very intuitive. You have the usual two-pane display, with a hierarchical list of things down the left and a detail pane on the right. The latter can be viewed as a simple list, though a nicer view is the "dashboard" which gives a much more graphical (and thus intuitive) picture of what's what.

Continuing the dashboard theme, the front screen where you'll usually begin is a collection of user-definable widgets that you can add, remove and juggle about as you see fit. This approach is very popular these days, and quite rightly so because it lets you customise your monitoring software to fit you, not to fit some arbitrary design-time opinion of a developer.

As you'd expect, ipMonitor can report on the state of your world both in real time (via automated alerts) and on demand (via an extensive list of reports). The alerting system can be configured to send different types of alert to different individuals (and to take account of individuals' working hours - a nice touch). The reports engine is highly customisable and produces attractive, informative results; my only gripe is that although you can email a report as a PNG or a GIF, I'd like to see PDF as an option.

I like ipMonitor because it does what it says on the tin, the GUI is very attractive and usable, and they've clearly designed it by talking to system and network managers (sounds dumb, I know, but how many packages have GUIs that suck through lack of real-world consultation?). Clicking on something takes you to where you instinctively think it should take you, and it's very simple to change your mind about settings. An example of the latter is that I had a "red" status on my test lab's firewall because its HTTPS certificate was self-certified; since I was happy for this to be the case, it was a ten-second job to remove the monitor on that aspect of the system.

Any gripes? Just the one, and it's more an oddity than a gripe. One of my servers has a 58.5GB C: drive with 30.6GB free. Yet one of the default monitors decided that actually it's a 30GB drive with 694MB free. This is kind of odd because the two other monitors that spotted that drive both got the numbers right - and of course it's not a big deal because I could delete the offending monitor and use one of the other two.

Actually, I've got a second gripe. I just looked up the pricing and at the time of writing (26 October 08) there's a special offer on that allows US customers to buy ipMonitor for $897 rather than the usual $1,495. However, the non-US price is €1,135 or 895 quid - which at the current exchange rate equates to US$1,441. Come on, SolarWinds - let's have a bit of equality, shall we?

ipMonitor is, then, an excellent example of a system and network monitoring application. They've thought about the GUI, and they've thought about the auto-discovery mechanism (auto-discovery is a concept for which we've all seen some dreadful implementations over the years). The price is sensible though the question remains whether it'd persuade a SpiceWorks user to actually open his or her wallet and spend real money.

OUR VERDICT

Of the paid-for SMB system monitoring packages on the market right now, ipMonitor's got to be at the top of the heap.