Network discovery tools and software are indispensable enablers in today’s highly connected world. System administrators use them because they always need to have a clear insight into “the big picture” of their network domains. Meanwhile, security teams need to make sure there are no rogue devices or malicious codes running behind their firewalls. And finally, the technology department, as a whole, needs to report to bosses who require updates on the current status of their digital investments.
This means all stakeholders need to have a detailed, bird’s-eye view of all the software, services, and devices that are within their networks’ boundaries.
The best way to do this is to have a software solution that reports on the information, and performance, of all such digital assets. This information is consolidated into a dashboard that is:
- Easy to comprehend – shows details about the assets
- Updated in real-time – detects connections and disconnection of devices as soon as they occur
- Report issues – send out alerts in case of errors, malicious activities or occurrence of erratic performance of software and hardware assets
This is the purpose of network discovery tools and software solutions.
Here is a list of the best network discovery tools and software:
- SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (FREE TRIAL) – an advanced network discovery tool that gives detailed reports and performance insights of devices and software on a network.
- Paessler PRTG Network Monitor (FREE TRIAL) – a network discovery tool that keeps track of devices, software solutions, service/application performance, and presents it all in a highly customizable map.
- InterMapper – a network monitoring tool that offers quick, detailed information on a wide array of devices, across a wide selection of platforms.
- VNT Software – an all-rounded network discovery tool for businesses that rely on cloud architecture, or have a cloud presence, and are looking for a one-stop solution to monitor it all.
- Nmap – a powerful network audit and discovery tool that is free, light, fast, powerful, and works on almost any platform available.
- Rumble Network Discovery – a network discovery tool that can cover networks without the need for special privileges no matter how complex the architecture may be, including hybrid ones.
- ManageEngine OpManager – a network management software solution that has all the tools a business would need to oversee its connected devices as well as the network itself.
What is network discovery?
If your business has a network with a large number of devices connected to it – be they local, remote, or in the cloud – it can prove to be a daunting task to keep track of which ones are online and which ones aren’t.
Also, even if you were to have all the devices online, it would still be difficult to identify which was which: is that a printer or a laptop? Is that the manager’s computer or is it a server?
What you do need is a complete picture of your entire network. But, apart from simply showing the IP addresses of the devices – as would be the case when using CLI commands like “PING” or “TRACERT” –you would need to know more, detailed information like:
- Local, cloud, or virtual devices – where is the device located? Is it a virtual server or one that is located in the cloud? Perhaps, it’s your local mail server.
- Device type – what is that hardware on your network? Is it a laptop, switch, server, firewall, or printer?
- Applications and services – what software is running on your network? What applications, services, and operating systems are running on the hardware?
- Connectivity status – can devices on one subnet communicate with those on another one? The logical and physical connections between network assets need to be gauged and monitored.
With the help of network discovery tools, network administrators can have all this information, plus much more, at their fingertips and consolidated into detailed, informative, and aesthetically pleasing reports – which are usually in highly interactive graphic formats.
In fact, some of these tools come as part of network management solutions with even more features that allow the administrators to further interact with their devices.
Why do you need network discovery tools?
The reasons for running network discovery tools and software on your network are if you need the answers to questions like:
- Is that device allowed to be on the network or is it a rogue device? – monitor devices that are connected to your network to see if they are there legitimately or otherwise.
- Is the network configured right? – a connectivity map shows you details of connections and data flow; you can easily spot configuration errors.
- Can devices access the Wi-Fi? – if devices in one subnet go offline, it could be that the Wi-Fi isn’t working as it is supposed to; you can check the tools’ maps to confirm.
- If you were asked for an inventory of all devices, how would you do it? – audit reports and inventory controls require up-to-date information; network discovery tools and software offer reports that are updated in real-time and can be produced at the click of a button.
- How long does it take to discover the whole network? – a network discovery tool takes minutes to display all the devices on a network; a complete site map can be delivered immediately afterward in hard copies if needed.
How do network discovery tools work?
Network discovery tools sniff out the devices around them using IP scans, ping sweeps, and polling devices with SNMP monitoring – to name a few ways.
Of course, any administrator could manually run these commands to test individual devices. But, in larger networks, it would take ages to find out all the information that is required about every single device. These tools do it quicker and convert the information to be presented in a comprehensible format.
So, network discovery tools automate the sending out of each discovery command and protocol packet – sometimes using threads for better performance. The packets go out and poll all connected devices and scan their ports. The replies are stored for further analysis or plotted on maps for interactive graphic presentation.
Warning: Always make sure you have the proper credentials, clearances, and permissions before deploying and running network discovery tools and software. Network and port scans could trigger intrusion alerts which, if unauthorized, could get you reprimanded or even fired.
The Best Network Discovery Tools and Software
Ok; now that we have cleared that up, it’s time to have a look at the seven best network discovery tools and software:
SolarWinds has long been a prominent player in the network monitoring and management field. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that they also have one of the best network discovery tools and software solutions on the market today.
Its Network Performance Monitor is a standalone multi-functional network discovery tool. Easy to install, it starts scanning the network as soon as the installation is complete. Apart from live devices, the tool also polls for inactive or poorly-performing ones; this helps create a complete picture of the network.
Looking at some more features, we have:
- An autodiscovery feature uses SNMP protocol to detect and map servers, virtual machines, switches, routers, and any other connected devices on a network.
- It works both on local networks as well as remote ones, including in the cloud, which is shown on detailed maps that show the polled devices grouped and color-coded by location. Cloud network mapping with NetPath allows for in-depth analysis and management of paths.
- Details collected include device names, IP addresses, locations, and the operating systems or services that are running on them.
- The collected data is displayed on interactive maps which can give detailed information and be filtered and drilled-down into for even more feedback about the devices.
- SolarWinds’ Network Performance Monitor also monitors the performance of the devices that it discovers; once the metrics have been set for each device type, it can be gauged to see if it is performing as expected.
- The gauged network performance analysis can, in turn, be used to improve any issues; this guarantees improved up times and business service delivery by meeting Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
- This network discovery tool can be configured to send out alerts via text or emails at specific times and to concerned stakeholders; the alert messages can even be escalated in case they are not acknowledged by a certain amount of time.
One great feature that needs to be mentioned here is that Network Performance Monitor also monitors Wi-Fi coverage and alerts admins in case there are any weak spots with low signal or even dead zones with zero connectivity.
Overall, this is a robust, intelligent network discovery tool that delivers. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor can be downloaded for a free 30-day trial.
Paessler PRTG Network Monitor – PRTG for short – is one of the more-popular network discovery and management tools available. It is an agentless tool which means PRTG has a light digital footprint, packets with small payloads, and lightning-fast performance speeds. What’s more, the full application suite also has so many features that an administrator wouldn’t require any other network management tool.
So, let’s look at some of the important PRTG features that are worth mentioning:
- It discovers connected devices by pinging ranges of IP addresses; the data is then consolidated – in real-time – into interactive maps that are customizable and shareable.
- The maps help provide a better understanding of the network’s setup, the devices on it, statuses, traffic types, etc. using over 300 objects.
- Further information is extracted by assessing the device types using SNMP, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), and other protocols.
- Apart from physical and virtual assets, PRTG can also monitor datasets in SQL databases, bandwidth consumption, as well as application performances.
- The monitoring runs non-stop which means every new device is discovered as soon as it joins the network.
- Alerts can be configured for unusual events and unachieved, or surpassed, metrics that are sent to mobile devices – including Android, iOS, and Windows phones, via SMS or email.
- The only drawback we see with PRTG – and to be fair, it is a minor one – is that this network discovery tool requires a Windows system. Of course, it can still monitor Linux/Unix and macOS devices.
This is a tool that would be ideal for bigger enterprises that can afford to pay for the license – or smaller ones that finds a cost-benefit analysis that justifies the investment.
It is free for up to 100 sensors and a full 30-day trial version is available to test it in its entirety.
InterMapper is a network discovery, mapping, and monitoring software that comes from HelpSystems. It uses PING, SNMP, and HTTP protocols to plot the devices under its domain.
Some features of InterMapper worth mentioning include:
- This tool is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms but monitors almost every other operating system and IP-enabled device that can connect to a network.
- InterMapper monitors devices like servers, endpoints, wireless devices, and even ATMs – from a variety of manufacturers like Dell, Cisco, and Apple.
- Apart from the “normal” hierarchical mapping, the tool presents the collected data in real-time, and in a unique way. It uses background maps that can be integrated with Google Earth to show precise locations of the devices.
- Graphs on the dashboard display the data captured to show devices’ performance in a more comprehensible format; this data can serve as input for other analytics applications that InterMapper integrates with.
- Alerts can be configured for emails, texts, and console sounds whenever devices are removed from a network as well as when they are found to have performance issues.
- This tool can be used to monitor bandwidth use as well as the performance of Wi-Fi devices themselves.
A great feature that stands out with InterMapper is its ability to monitor the performance of the hardware components of devices. This means administrators can have information on fan speeds and CPU temperatures displayed on their screens, for example.
We are a bit surprised that the world doesn’t know much more about this gem of a network discovery tool from VNT Software. VNT, their product, is the ideal network discovery tool for businesses with a pure or hybrid cloud networking infrastructure at the core of its operations. You can think on the scale of an AWS or Azure architecture.
Looking at the more impressive features of VNT, we have:
- VNT is a platform-independent, cloud technology which makes it ideal for any network – local, WAN, cloud, hybrid, it doesn’t matter. If a device can get connected, it will be discovered as long as it uses SNMP.
- It is an agentless solution that works around the clock, in real-time, providing the best insights into the devices on a network. It does so without the need for special credentials or permissions – taking the burden off of administrators.
- The polled data pulls information on cloud infrastructures – and details on the applications running on them. It also shows any dependencies the servers may have, which come together to give a clear picture of the whole domain.
- The tool, requiring no agents, has a quick installation and deployment time – it takes 45 minutes on even larger, complex environments, to install. It starts mapping the network immediately; this makes it a resource-saving application with a light digital footprint.
- VNT polls cloud, non-cloud devices, and even virtual machines that are created by virtualization solutions like VMWare’s vSphere and Microsoft’s Hyper-V.
- This network discovery tool integrates with a large array of devices from numerous leading technology companies including Oracle, Microsoft, HP, IBM, Cisco, Huawei, and many more.
- VNT can be used to monitor hardware performance that allows administrators to identify, and alleviate issues related to, servers that are underperforming and draining resources.
- It tracks server certificates, and reports any that may have expired, to make sure any secure websites depending on them aren’t compromised or flagged.
- All the polled data is displayed on highly interactive maps that allow drilling down into individual devices for even more detailed information about the packets that are flowing between servers.
- VNT also offers additional services like web traffic reporting, maintenance management, cloud automation, cost tracking, and data migration.
All in all, VNT is a tool that covers all aspects of network discovery, monitoring, and reporting of digital assets. It integrates well with numerous other enterprise solutions for even more capabilities.
Nmap, short for “network mapper” is a free, open-source network discovery and security testing tool. Although it was primarily created for the purpose of security audits, this is also the tool of choice for administrators that need to critically monitor and manage their networks and the devices they connect.
A look at some of its features shows how helpful Nmap can actually be:
- The free tool is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux (all distributions) FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD Sun Solaris, Amiga, HP-UX – pretty much any operating system.
- Once its commands start running, Nmap gathers information about: the devices that are on the network, the services running on them including their names and software versions, their operating systems, ports that are available on them, as well as any packet filters or firewalls they may be using.
- This tool isn’t deterred by devices that have disabled their PING or port identification – by blocking packages themselves or via firewalls, for example.
- Nmap can also be used for network inventory, managing service upgrade schedules, and monitoring host or service uptime.
- With it being an open-source tool, anyone can download the source code and modify it to create or enhance its features.
- If there are any cons with this otherwise powerful network discovery tool, it is the fact that it is primarily a CLI application. Now, although there is a GUI version of Nmap, users will still need to know the commands’ syntaxes – and there are a lot of them – well before they can get things done.
Of course, although experienced techies will find it empowering to type the commands in, it could pose a daunting task for other first-time users. Luckily, there is a large online support community and social media interaction channels to help with troubleshooting and problem resolution.
A unique feature with Nmap is that it can perform SYN scanning – stealth port scanning – without triggering alerts from firewalls. It also uses camouflaged packets to see if ports can be tricked into allowing them to pass as would be the case in an attack.
Nmap – both GUI and CLI versions – can be downloaded for FREE here.
With Rumble, we have a cloud-based network discovery tool that requires no extra privileges, or special access permissions, to navigate a network as it goes about identifying connected devices and domains. In fact, it uses agents and doesn’t even require a dedicated server.
Looking at more features of this nifty tool, we have:
- A Rumble agent can be installed on machines running Windows, Linux or MacOS; it can even be run from a Raspberry PI.
- It does not require access to traffic captures, net flows, span ports, or network taps. This means it can detect devices even when they are not active on the network and even when they are on a remote network, WAN, VPN, or a cloud network.
- In fact, Rumble can also discover devices that have been interfaced or bridged wrong – as would be the case if a NIC-interfaced device was subnetted into a Wi-Fi network.
- The tool can identify and map all devices on a network even if they have security features put in place (PING has been disabled, for example) and that would deter many other network discovery tools.
- A Rumble discovery scan gives accurate information including name, description, and even the devices’ vendors by extracting data from systems and services like NetBIOS, SMB, DNS, MDNS, TLS services.
- The results from scans can be exported to reports in JSON Lines or Documents, Nmap XML, and CSV file formats which, in turn, can be used for further analysis using other asset inventory systems.
A great thing about Rumble is that it knows no limits – it can cross network boundaries easily to create an inventory of assets that are beyond gateways, switches, and firewalls.
For best performance, it is advisable to install the Rumble agent on a wired asset – as opposed to one using a Wi-Fi connection – to discover devices on an internal network and a reliable cloud service provider with a reliable wireless network connection for assets on external networks.
Create a free account and use it to discover up to 256 assets and retain data for 90 days.
As the name suggests, ManageEngine OpManager is a software solution for monitoring and managing a network. It is a collection of applications that would feel at home on the larger, complex, or hybrid networks that are usually found in larger enterprises. The network discovery tool is part of the software, but with all the other applications thrown in, it becomes a powerful network administration tool.
Looking at some outstanding features from ManageEngine OpManager, we have:
- It works on both Windows and Linux machines and can be used to discover devices, services, and servers either within an IP range, on a subnet, or on the entire network – LAN, WAN, or in the cloud.
- Apart from devices’ names, their types, their operating systems, and the services running on them even more information can be gathered about hardware and virtual assets. This includes insights into performance metrics like CPU usage, memory consumption, thread counts, hard disk utilization as well as details on PostgreSQL databases.
- ManageEngine OpManager starts registering the devices as soon as it is installed and from then on keeps constantly monitoring for changes using ICMP, SNMP (V1, V2, and V3), WMI, and Telnet protocols.
- The discovered devices – or any that have gone offline – are updated, in real-time, on maps for a better understanding of the current device population. These maps are highly customizable allowing the administrator to create an exact representation of their connected devices.
- Meanwhile, the devices can be grouped into business areas, local positions, or even placed on international maps for better understanding; the hardware and software can also be grouped by type and vendor.
- A highly customizable dashboard allows administrators to have a clear image of their networks while also staying on top of things on-the-go – because it can be accessed via Android and iOS apps.
This network discovery tool would be a great choice for medium-to-large businesses that need to keep track of a wide variety of digital assets on their networks, in the cloud, and even end-point devices like printers.
ManageEngine OpManager has a free trial as well as a free version for monitoring three devices.
Choosing the best network discovery tools and software
Features to look for when you need to choose the best network discovery tools and software include:
- Uncomplicated – your admins should be able to install your network discovery tool with ease, configure it correctly, and use it without too much trouble.
- Speed – quick to deploy and fast discovery of old assets and instant discovery of new assets as soon as they join a network.
- A light payload – preferably none – that doesn’t eat up bandwidth or reduce the performance of devices it polls.
- Unbounded – ability to cross network boundaries and discover devices on remote, WAN, and cloud networks.
- High clearance – it shouldn’t raise flags or cause alerts as the packets travel through the network and also has minimal false alerts.
- Informative results – comprehensive data extraction about devices as well as the ability to store all the data and present it in a comprehensible way; using interactive maps with drill-down information capabilities, for example.
Finally, your network discovery tools and software should be able to work on your own platform and poll all the device types and operating systems that exist on your network.
Let us know if there are any network discovery tools and software you think should also be mentioned. Leave us a comment below.