As networks have become more critical to business operations, there has been a proliferation of network protocol analysers for troubleshooting tasks. Although Network Associates (NAI), formerly Network General, once ruled this market with its Sniffer line and Novell trotted along behind, there are now hundreds of players to choose from. Some newcomers offer promising innovations but lack the solid corporate backing that's so important when buying products for an enterprise network.
Thus Internet Advisor, backed by the solid engineering and resources of corporate monolith Hewlett-Packard, is a bit of a puzzle, showing some extremely clever hardware and software design along with other truly strange characteristics. It feels like a throwback to the days where engineers were let loose to design a whiz-bang box with little user input; some of its qualities are absolutely brilliant, while others made me wonder if anyone ever tried to use it first.
Internet Advisor offers some more advanced capabilities than NAI's Sniffer - at least when it comes to network analysis. But it doesn't offer the optional Layer 4 and later modules, including database decodes, that the Sniffer provides.
Internet Advisor's key strength is its extreme modularity and expandability. Although I worked primarily with the Ethernet interface, the Internet Advisor I used also came with a Fast Ethernet interface that could be used as an endpoint or put between a hub and a node. What's more, by snapping additional modules onto it, the Internet Advisor can support token ring, FDDI, ATM, T1, V.35, and the more obscure ATM High-Speed Serial Interface.
To make it even easier, Internet Advisor's unique hardware design allows for these various modules to be easily attached and changed as needed - unlike Dolch-based Sniffers, which you must open up to add additional interfaces.
Almost every packet analyser on the market can capture and filter packets, decode common protocols, and show network utilisation. The Internet Advisor does all of these well, and then some.
A step further
The Expert Analyzer view takes it a step further by offering a running graph showing network usage, errors, protocol distribution, and active clients. This high-level view is great for getting a snapshot of what's going on in general, so anomalous events (such as stray protocols) grab your attention.
Another handy view is the Commentator, an outline-style hierarchical view. Starting at the top level, I drilled down among protocols, looking at statistics, or among events, such as a router discovery. Similar to the Expert Analyzer view, the Commentator highlights errors, making it easy to track down unusual ones - which is a key reason why protocol analyzers are used.
Unfortunately, the hardware is a little clunky and not much smaller than the Dolch-based Sniffers that work so well but are so cumbersome to carry around. The screen, a diminutive 10.5in LCD, can be hard to read - especially for protocol decodes. When I tried to compensate by maximising the decode window, blam! - all the captured packets disappeared. Because this software is a first release, I'm hopeful that these glitches will be fixed.
In addition, the user interface is downright confusing to use. Although captures are started and stopped with a familiar stoplight button, the stoplight works in the reverse of what I expected. When it's green, the unit is not capturing. Clicking on the button starts the capture and turns the stoplight red.
Aside from these rough edges, I'd recommend the Internet Advisor to shops troubleshooting a wide variety of networks and need one easy-to-adapt tool. For Ethernet networks, there are better solutions - including the venerable Sniffer.
The Bottom Line
A solid protocol analyser with modules available for a variety of network types, Internet Advisor lacks an elegant software and hardware design.
Pros: Advanced analysis tools; capable filters; good expandability.
Cons: Quirky user interface; small screen; expensive.
Platforms: Variety of networks supported via additional modules.
Price: Available on application.
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