SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 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 SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0's "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 SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 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 SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 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 we 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, SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 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, SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 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, SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0's 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, SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 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; our only gripe is that although you can email a report as a PNG or a GIF, we'd like to see PDF as an option.

We like SolarWinds ipMonitor 9.0 because it does what it says on the tin, the GUI is very attractive and usable, and it has clearly been designed in consultation with system and network managers. 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 we had a "red" status on our test lab's firewall because its HTTPS certificate was self-certified; since we were happy for this to be the case, it was a ten-second job to remove the monitor on that aspect of the system.

NEXT PAGE: any gripes?