Top 3 Network Monitoring Techniques

Network Monitoring Techniques

Whether or not you are new to network monitoring, there are three main network monitoring techniques you should know about. These three techniques are:

  1. SNMP-based monitoring
  2. Passive analysis and
  3. Active monitoring

When I explain the main difference between these three techniques, I simply say that SNMP is good at monitoring the status of network devices, passive analysis to view how the network is consumed by users and applications, and active monitoring to make sure that services are functioning and performing as expected.

Network Monitoring Techniques Pyramid

Let’s review each one of them starting from SNMP, which stands for Simple Network Management Protocol. For each network monitoring technique, we’ll also provide some command line tools to familiarize with the concept.

SNMP Overview

SNMP is an Internet standard developed to monitor network devices. SNMP is used by network management stations to request information to a network device, also called network element. This standard can also be used to push configuration changes (snmpset) to network elements and to receive notifications (snmp traps) when problems occur. In this context, a network element could be, for example, a router, a switch, or a server.

The information requested to a network element via SNMP could be the CPU utilization, the amount of free disk space, or how many packets or bits were sent and received across its network interfaces. Each resource of a network element is represented by an Object Identifier (OID). Each device has a set of OIDs available. Some of these are standardized across manufacturers. Other OIDs are specific to a vendor and device. 

SNMP queries are organized into sets of Management Information Base (MIB) files. Most network monitoring solutions in this category allow the import of custom SNMP MIB files to integrate with a specific device.

SNMP Commands Examples

If you are a Linux or Mac OS X user, then you have access to a set of SNMP command line utilities (Windows users may have to install them). I found two commands in particular, snmpget and snmpwalk, that are very useful. I’ll use these commands to demonstrate how SNMP works and what type of information this type of network monitoring technique offers.

The snmpget command allows you to query a network element specific SNMP OID at and retrieve associated information. In the following example, I am querying a local router by IP (192.168.1.1) to discover its hostname (OID = SNMPv2-MIB::sysName.0):

A snmpget query from an SNMP server to an SNMP agent running on a network element.


In this following snippet, I am running a snmpwalk command against the same router. The nice thing about snmpwalk is that it returns all OIDs available on that specific network element. In this case, I am truncating most of the output for sake of space …

Passive Monitoring

Passive network monitoring is a technique that relies on “listening” to network traffic to determine its utilization. By doing so, a passive network monitoring tool can reveal what website and applications network users are accessing and identify top talkers as well as top applications. Top talkers refers to the network users that are consuming most of the bandwidth. This technique is widely used in security and surveillance, especially in SIEM (Security Information and Event Management) and DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) products.

There are three ways to passively monitor a network. The first one is by using an in-line device called network TAP. Network TAPs are dedicated devices installed in-line where user traffic flows. A network TAP replicates the entire content of the frames (layer 2) flowing across. 

The second method relies on configuring a SPAN (Switch Port of ANalysis) port on a network switch. The switch will send all traffic flowing across a specific interface of VLAN to a destination port to which a traffic collector is connected.

The third method relies on configuring a flow analysis protocol on a networking hardware (either router or switch). There are proprietary flow protocols, such as NetFlow which was developed by Cisco, and standard ones, such as IPFIX which was developed by IETF. 

What’s the best solution for passive monitoring? It depends really from the use case and information that you want to extract. In general, use a TAP or a SPAN if you need to capture the content, or payload, of network traffic. Use a flow-based protocol if you just need to inspect the header information to gather statistics on the traffic flowing across a network device or segment.

Passive Analysis Tools

The best way to learn more about the passive analysis monitoring technique is to install tcpdump, which is a data-network packet analyzer computer program that runs under a command line interface. If you prefer working with a GUI, you can use Wireshark

Once installed on a computer, the user can capture network traffic sent and received on that same computer. In alternative you can connect that same computer to the output interface of a TAP or a SPAN port to analyze capture traffic.

In the following example, I am running tcpdump on my Wi-Fi interface, and logging all traffic sent and received to host google.com. On a separate console, I am running a ping test for demonstrating what I am able to capture with tcpdump.

I encourage you to learn more about how to use tcpdump. It’s a great tool that can help you troubleshoot the most head scratching network problems such as IP conflicts, don’t fragment issues, and more.

Active Network Monitoring

Active network monitoring is the ultimate technique used to proactively detect network and application issues. This technique works by performing continuous testing and verification of network services and applications. In the application monitoring world, this technique is also referred to as synthetic monitoring.

An active network monitoring system works by sending real traffic across a network. When testing an application or a service, the system performs a real transaction with the system. In either cases, active network monitoring periodically verifies that a network is able to deliver traffic.

Internet Service Providers monitor service level agreements by implementing different standards (RFC 2544) and protocols (TWAMP/OWAMP). Their goal is to assure that they honor Service Level Agreements (SLA) to their customers. In the enterprise world, this can be accomplished the same way with active network monitoring.

There are two main benefits of active monitoring. The first one is to proactively detect outages and performance issues: thanks to continuous checks, the system knows when something stops working or performs below a certain threshold. The second benefit is to efficiently troubleshoot network and application issues by comparing real-time with historical data. With this method, a network engineer can understand whether the network recently changed and that caused the degradation of services and applications.

Active Network Monitoring Tools

Two commands that I always use to illustrate how active network monitoring works are ping and traceroute. Most network engineers are familiar with these tools in their day to day network troubleshooting efforts. Ping reports in real-time how long it takes for a data packet to reach to and return from a remote host or service. Running continuously ping tests will provide round-trip time and packet loss, which are key metrics that impact network throughput and application performance. In the example below, I am running a ping test against google.com:

Traceroute is another utility that can be used to inspect the route that packets traverse to reach a specific destination. The benefit of traceroute is that it can spot the point in the network that is causing traffic congestion.

Summary of Network Monitoring Techniques

When managing large and complex networks, SNMP, passive analysis and active monitoring are three techniques all equally important.

TypeDescriptionBenefits
SNMPRuns SNMP GETs to collect information about devices’ status and resourcesMonitor device status and resources.
PassiveIntercepts user traffic for analysis and statistics.Monitor network usage and user behavior.
ActiveRuns tests and checks against other hosts in the network.Test and monitor network resources, services, and applications.