Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Designer Software at Thrift Store Prices

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Movie stars pay a bundle for clothing that fits just right, revealing or concealing the desired areas as they parade down the red carpet on Oscar night. In a similar fashion, companies lay out billions for management software to reveal what is happening inside their networks, while concealing most of the most of the messages so they don’t drown in overload.

But, just as smart shoppers have found ways to look great without spending thousands on an Yves St. Laurent evening dress, so can IT managers extract the information they need without blowing the budget.

“In most cases commercial management software has not really given us what we are looking for,” says Bill Miller, Senior Network Engineer for Sappi Fine Paper North America, who works out of the company’s datacenter in South Portland, Maine. “In the huge package you can find one little nugget you want, but it’s not worth buying it just to get that one piece.”

Instead, Miller is one of the growing set of people saving money by adopting open source and low-cost applications and management tools.

MRTG for Nothing, Qchecks for Free

Open source software is not just for those whose budgets are in dire straits. It also helps firms looking for a level of control and customization they simply can’t achieve with off-the-shelf software.

“Most freeware is built to address a single issue so I can get exactly what I need,” says Miller.

While Linux is the most famous example of freeware, it is far from the only one. Today, you can download everything from browser skins to enterprise databases. Here is a sample of what is out there:

Desktop Support

  • TCPNetView — Windows 95/98/NT utility that determines IP and MAC addresses on a LAN.
  • Virtual Network Computing (VNC) – Remote desktop display system that runs on over thirty different operating system versions. Developed at Cambridge University’s AT&T Laboratories. Although AT&T stopped funding the lab last year, the software is still available at
  • Qcheck – Free utility from NetIQ Corporation (San Jose, CA) that runs tests between to network points and reports on items such as throughput, response time and number of hops along the route.
  • MySQL – This relational database from MySQL AB (Uppsala, Sweden) comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions that run on Linux, Windows, several varieties of Unix and other operating systems. Available in both free and licensed editions.
  • Ingres, Postgres — The University of California at Berkeley’s Computer Science department has created several relational database management systems which were later commercialized by companies such as Computer Associates, Inc. (Islandia, NY), UBM (Armonk, NY) and PeopleSoft, Inc. (Pleasanton, CA). Go to to access the source code for each of these, as well as others still under development by the university.
  • Berkeley DB — This embedded database runs on Windows, Unix, Linux and Apple’s OSX. Individuals or organizations creating open source applications have free use of the code, while entities wanting to develop proprietary applications with the database must pay a licensing fee. Download from SleepyCat Software, Inc.’s (Lincoln, MA) site at

  • Network Management Tools

    A trip to websites such as the San Diego Supercomputing Center’s Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis ( or the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network ( turns up thousands of tools and modules to add to your management resources. A few of the more popular items include:

  • Multi Router Traffic Grapher (MRTG) — Open source tool available in Win32, Linux and Unix versions. Graphs network traffic at five minute intervals. Download from the developer, Tobias Oetiker, at
  • Nagios – A tool for Linux and Unix devices that monitors network services such as SMTP, Post Office Protocol 3, HTTP, Network News Transport Protocol and ping, on a network. (
  • RRDtool (Round Robin Database tool) — Another product from Oetiker, RRDTool is a database backend that is faster and more scalable than MRTG and eliminates the five minute graphing limitation. In addition to the database itself, the website ( also has links to over thirty front ends written by others.
  • Sysmon – Network monitoring tool that supports SMTP, IMAP, HTTP, TCP, UDP, NNTP, and PING tests. (

  • Freedom has its Limits

    Given the vast range of free tools available, what does Miller use to manage his own 3,000 node WAN connecting the dozens of installations in North America, Europe and Africa?
    Of the tools listed above, he uses Qcheck for bandwidth reports and the MRTG graphing tool. In addition, he has:

  • SNMP Traffic Grapher (STG). An add on tool for MRTG, STG is a Windows 2000 program written by Russian programmer Leonid Mikhailov that performs real time monitoring of SNMP devices. (
  • Getif — A Windows-based MIB (Management Information Base) browser for collecting and displaying SNMP information. (
  • ntop — a network traffic probe that comes in Linux, Unix and Win32 versions.
  • While Miller likes to use free tools where possible, he does recognize that the freeware has its limits. Qcheck, for example, has no where near the level of functionality of NetIQ’s full products. The other big elements missing from most free software are support and documentation.

    “If you are not an experienced hacker [someone who can write source code, not someone who breaks into Internet sites] with the ability to make an open source tool work in your own situation, you are bucking up a hard wall,” he explains. “It takes someone who has been in the business for a long time and who knows the tools to make these work.”

    Then, even for experienced programmers, he says it is often better to pay for a commercial product that brings together several open source tools into a common, easier-to-use interface. He cautions against buying one of the traditional management packages and comes out in favor of an inexpensive management package that nicely ties together all the various open source elements he utilizes.

    “With these commercial products you get the benefit of a lower cost since a lot of the software is already developed,” Miller says. “But you also get the ease of use and support when you need it.”

    Sappi Paper uses WebNM from Somix Technologies, Inc. (Sanford, Maine). This suite contains a mix of open source tools such as MRTG, along with numerous proprietary enhancements. The whole package includes network monitoring, inventorying, asset management, remote administration, trouble ticketing, web cams, syslog management, service-level reporting and other modules. Since it is based on open source elements, there are no additional per seat or per device charges as there are with many network management packages.

    So, whether you just want to fill in a few holes in your management toolkit, or need a whole new management set up, open source may be a way to expose exactly what you need at a price you can afford.

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