Got a small network, home network, medium-size network -- even an enterprise network -- and want to get the most out of it? Then I've got good news for you: 10 free pieces of software that can make your network easier to use, troubleshoot and maintain. These freebies will help everyone from networking pros to networking newbies and everyone in between.
There's plenty here for you -- great free tools for keeping your network secure; creating a quick, navigable network map; scanning networks and putting together a list of all connected devices; checking to see if your servers are up and running; even designing networks and more.
Note that I'm leaving out extremely popular and well-known free downloads, such as the Ethereal network protocol analyser or WireShark and am concentrating instead on lesser-known downloads.
And as a bonus, I'm including a review of an extra, for-pay, try-before-you-buy download that can help your network as well.
If you're looking for a simple, free, all-in-one network management tool for a small peer-to-peer network, this is the one to get. It handles all the basic network chores, including adding new devices to the network, fixing broken network connections, setting up wireless encryption and protection, sharing printers and folders, reporting on the state of the security of each PC, and much more. Wizards guide you through all these tasks and others. If you've got network experience, the wizards may or may not be useful, but those with moderate or less network experience will certainly find them helpful. But even if you're a network pro, there's a lot in this simple program you'll find worthwhile.
For example, the network map, pictured nearby, displays every device connected to your network, shows whether it's online or offline, and displays details about each, including the computer name, IP address, MAC address, operating system being used, shared folders, and system information such as its processor and RAM. It also lets you change the machine name, and it displays alerts about each device, such as if it isn't protected properly. Overall, it's far superior to Windows Vista's Network Map.
The software's Status Centre is also useful. It displays overall information about your network, such as whether there are any problems with overall security or with an individual PC. It also lets you troubleshoot connections, shows whether there are any intruders on the network, and displays information about wireless protection.
Parents will appreciate some of Network Magic's features. For example, the software can monitor the use of any individual PC on the network for the websites it visits, the times the computer is online and which programs are being used, and then mail a daily report about it to an email address. So it's ideal for parents who want to keep track of their kids' computer use. There's much more as well, including a bandwidth tester to show you your current Internet broadband speed.
Note that there are both paid and free versions of the software. The free version includes most basic features, such as repairing broken connections, issuing security alerts, monitoring network activity and the Network Map. The paid version, which costs from $24 to $40 (depending on how many PCs are on your network), delivers daily reports of Internet activity, supports remote access to your network's files and includes other advanced features.
When you install this program, you may need to tell your firewall to let this application access your network and the Internet.Spiceworks IT Desktop
This freebie can help small or one-person shops with small and medium-size networks, although the complexity of its interface and some anomalies don't make it particularly useful for home networks. It's an all-in-one network inventory and management tool with a surprising number of features for a free piece of software.
The program will inventory your network and provide information about each device on it. It goes further than Network Magic and provides a significant amount of detail about each PC and device, including free and used disk space, antivirus software being used, problems on the device (such as server connection errors), and other information, as you can see in the nearby figure.
It will even provide an inventory of the software installed on each PC, in quite a bit of detail, finding not just popular applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader, but lesser-known ones such as the FileZilla FTP client. I discovered, however, that it had a more difficult time than Network Magic finding all of my network devices; you may need to fine-tune permissions and log-ins to get it to work properly.
Note that when you install this program, you may need to tell your firewall to let this application access your network and the Internet.
The program includes a variety of other tools, such as easy access to ping and traceroute functions. And it attempts to be a help desk application as well. You can create help tickets with it, assign the ticket to others or yourself, and include due dates, priorities and so on. It's certainly no replacement for a full-blown help-desk application, but for a small office with a small IT staff, you can't argue with free.
Because the program doesn't always easily find all devices attached to the network, and it has some anomalies (some antivirus software may flag one of this software's components as a virus, for example), this isn't a perfect application. But it's free and simple to set up -- and for that reason alone, it's worth the download.
There are also for-pay versions of this software available. NetLimiter Lite costs $8.95 to $16.95, depending on the number of licenses; and NetLimiter Pro costs $14.95 to $29.95, depending on the number of licenses.
What's the biggest problem on many small networks? Bandwidth hogs -- applications that suck up all or most of the available Internet and network bandwidth. Typically, it's tough or impossible to track down which applications or PCs are using all that bandwidth and harder still to do anything about it.
That's where NetLimiter comes in. It monitors bandwidth use so that you can identify the hogs. The free version of the software, though, won't let you actually set bandwidth limits. For that, you'll need to buy one of the paid versions. The paid versions let you set bandwidth limits, including total amount of data downloaded or uploaded, on a per-application or per-connection basis. You can fine-tune it quite a bit, for example, by setting different limits for uploading and downloading.
There's a lot more to this application as well, including a firewall, bandwidth monitor and other functions. This isn't the easiest program to use -- at first, it seems as if there's no way to limit the bandwidth for any application. To do it, you need to click the Grants tab at the bottom of the screen and then, for the application you want to limit, click the Grant column, enter a value for the bandwidth limit, and click the check box.
There are three different versions of this program, starting with the free version, which only monitors network use and won't let you limit bandwidth use. The Lite version will let you set limits but won't do much more, and the Pro version adds a slew of features, including a firewall, scheduler and more.Network Notepad
Designing a network, or keeping a clear record of one you already have, can be an exceedingly frustrating task. Most drawing programs don't have adequate tools for creating network diagrams. And as for pencil and paper, the less said about them, the better.
If you're looking for a tool to help you design your network or keep visual track of one you already have, you'll want to get Network Notepad. With it, you can design your network and draw schematics that are more than flat documents -- they're live and include links so that you could, for example, Telnet into any device on your network just by clicking on a button on the diagram.
It comes with a palette of icons for routers, servers, printers, boxes, hubs, modems and other network devices. To design your network, choose graphics from the palette and drag them onto your diagram, and connect the devices using a set of drawing tools. You then define the properties of each device such as giving them names and IP addresses. You can also import a host file, and Network Notepad will automatically populate the devices with the right IP addresses.
You can also program five buttons to launch programs when a device is clicked upon that will then act on the device. So you could click on a device to ping it, for example. Your diagram becomes a live, interactive drawing.
This little free utility is a great way to get a quick list of all the devices connected to your network, listed by IP address, along with information about each. It does a lightning-fast scan of all IP addresses in a range that you specify, then specifies whether a device is present at each address. For each device, it lists the status, the machine name, NetBIOS information, ping information and MAC address.
The program will do more than just scan your network. It also gives you a set of tools that lets you shut down PCs remotely, use the "Wake on LAN" feature for any PC whose network card supports that capability, and connect to remote PCs via RAdmin, if it's installed. You can also apply some operations, such as shutting down remote PCs, to a group of computers, not just individual ones.
Here's the Swiss Army Knife of network utilities, and you won't have to pay a penny for it. This freebie puts a whole suite of tools at your fingertips, including ones for conducting ports scans, DNS lookups and pings, and scanning for network shares, checking on routing tables and more.
The security modules are especially useful for quick-and-dirty network scans. There's a network port scanner that can scan all computers on your network and report on their open ports, and a share scanner that reports on all the shared drives on your network.
The information modules are also useful. With them, you can examine your routing table and add and delete entries in it. You can also find out what IP addresses are available to be assigned on your network. Other modules do advanced DNS lookups, let you view all the network adapters connected to computers on the network and add and remove their IP addresses, and more.
Want to know if your servers are up and running? Then get this utility that will monitor whether your servers are alive and, if they're not, take a variety of actions that you can choose. At a specified interval, it will check your servers to see if they're still running. You can also check the servers manually at any time.
You can also tell the program to take a variety of actions when it identifies a problem server, including sending an e-mail, rebooting the machine, starting a service, playing a sound or running a command. It can also play a sound or run a command when the server is running.
Be aware that it can be a bit confusing setting up the program to monitor a server. If you're going to monitor a server via TCP/IP, when you add a new server to monitor, make sure to click the Options tab and type in the TCP port you want to monitor. If you don't, you'll get an error message.NetBrute Scanner
A network is only as secure as its weakest link, and in many cases that's shared folders or mistakenly open ports. Trying to find all the shared folders and open ports on a network -- even a small one -- can be a difficult, time-consuming task.
This free suite of three simple security tools will put your network through a basic security check, looking for shared resources and open ports. As a bonus, you can also use it to test the security of any webservers on your network.
You can check for shared folders and resources, as well as open ports, on any individual PC on the network by using its network name or IP address. You can also scan an entire range of IP addresses, although I found that feature to be somewhat flaky; it didn't find all the PCs on my network. However, scanning individual PCs worked fine.
The program lists all shared resources and, better yet, lets you connect to those resources and browse them from the program as well. The program also scans the PCs on the network for open TCP ports, so you'll be able to find out what webservers, FTP servers, Telnet resources and the like are installed. More important, it will show you where your port vulnerabilities are.
The final utility in the suite checks the webservers on your network and sees whether it can break into them using a "dictionary attack" by trying combinations of usernames and passwords to gain access to the webmaster's account.
There are a variety of technical limitations to this program; before using it, it's a good idea to check out its details. Still, it's free, it's simple, and it's fast, and because of that, more than worth a try.
There are plenty of ways to protect your home wireless network against intruders. One is to block anyone from connecting to your network except those who have network cards with specific MAC addresses. It's easy enough to set your router to block out intruders. But how do you know if it really works?
By checking it yourself. One of the best ways to do it is to spoof a MAC address, by giving one of your existing network cards a new address. You can do it with this software that lets you change your MAC address with a few simple clicks. Run the program, highlight the network card that you want to give a spoofed MAC address, click Random MAC Address, and then click the Change Now! button. That's all it takes. To restore to your original MAC address, highlight it and click Original MAC.
This program has other uses as well. It's a great way to show all the details about your network cards, including the manufacturer name; MAC address; and IP, Gateway and DNS information associated with each of your network cards. It includes other useful utilities, such as releasing and renewing an IP address for a card, which can help fix broken network connections.
Here's an even better way to find out whether your network has any intruders on it: Run this program. Before you run it, put together a list of every PC and device on your network. Once you have that in hand, run RogueScanner. It lists every device on your network, including routers, printers, PCs and others. For each device, it lists the IP and MAC addresses. In addition, it peers deeper and tries to find other information, such as whether the device is a workstation, printer, server, router or PC, as well as the manufacturer and model number.
Compare what the program finds with the list of devices that you know are safe and secure. If you find a device on the network that's not on the list you drew up, you've got an intruder.NetPeek
This one isn't free -- it's shareware, so it's free to try but costs $40 (£20) if you decide to keep it. It scans your network, identifies every device on it -- including computers, servers, printers and more -- and gives vital information about each. For every device, it tries to identify the IP address, the DNS name, the Ethernet address, the server software, the manufacturer of its network card, the user who's currently logged on, ping response and more, such as open ports. For each device, it also includes useful weblinks, such as a link to the network card manufacturer to get patches and firmware updates.
It's a pretty bare-bones program, and its best features aren't easy to access. For example, it's tough to know, at first, how you can scan a network range. To do it, you need to choose Scan Range from the File menu and fill in the form. Make sure you click "Log results to file" to create a log file so you always can refer back to the results. You can also use the program's Cache Manager tool to see information about all the devices on your network.
Be aware that this program takes its time going about its work, so if you have a lot of devices to scan, be prepared to wait. You'll be able to use NetPeek for free for 30 days or 500 scans, whichever comes first. After that, you'll have to pony up for the registration fee.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com, and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works.