What Is Network Traffic Monitoring? Definition, Concepts, Tools

Zack Busch
Zack Busch  |  January 21, 2019

Nothing grinds my gears quite like slow internet speed at work.

Since I’m someone who performs 95 percent of my job directly over the internet, a slow internet connection can quite literally cripple my productivity.

I’m not alone in this. Personal computers have taken over the business world, and especially with the massive push toward cloud hosting and cloud infrastructure, we depend on fully functioning networks as a core feature of our day-to-day workflow, since the average working American spends somewhere from 4.5 to 7.8 hours a day online.

How, then, do we preserve the functionality of our networks? The answer lies in network monitoring software, and particularly in network traffic monitoring.

What is network traffic monitoring?

Network traffic monitoring, or network flow monitoring, is the process by which a person or program can track what devices are connected to a network, what kinds of data the devices are accessing, and how much bandwidth each device is using.

To fully understand the importance of network traffic monitoring, we have to start with a description of bandwidth. 

What is network bandwidth

Network bandwidth is the maximum rate of data transfer (bit rate) across a network. Bit rate is a term you’re probably already familiar with: When you select an internet package for your home or business, its speed is usually described by bit rate. For example, your internet service provider (or ISP) might provide a 200 megabit (Mb) download speed, also referred to as 200 Mbps (megabits per second). Faster ISPs in the US and around the world provide bandwidth speeds at or above 1 gigabit (Gb), equivalent to 1000 Mb.

Now, the bandwidth provided by an ISP is divvied up among all users who access a network. When there’s only one user on a network, you’re probably not going to have any issues (unless your modem, router or ISP is having problems of its own). But when bandwidth has to be distributed among multiple users, you have the potential of running into some issues. Under normal circumstances, bandwidth would be distributed equally. But what if one person is browsing social media and another is streaming video or playing a multiplayer game online?

Quality of service (QoS)

That’s where Quality of Service (QoS) settings come into play. QoS is — usually — set up on the modem itself, and dictates how to distribute bandwidth according to demand. Because streaming and online gaming take up significantly more bandwidth than browsing, QoS settings allocate more bandwidth to those activities so that users across the entire network aren’t negatively affected.

quality-of-service

Image courtesy of How-To Geek.

Monitoring bandwidth consumption

Now that we know how bandwidth is distributed on a network, we can turn our attention toward how to keep an eye on it. This is where network traffic monitoring comes into play.

There are two ways a device can connect to a network: The device can either be hard-wired by connecting a cable from that device to a router, modem, or switch or it can connect wirelessly to the network through a process called DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol). With either method, your device’s name is shared with the modem and is assigned an IP address. The IP address helps your modem to route network traffic to the correct device since IP addresses are unique on a network. This uniqueness allows network monitoring programs to distinctly identify devices or web services being called and examine the kind of information that is being sent to and received by each device or service.

network flow monitoring

An example of bandwidth monitoring, noting that YouTube is consuming most of the network’s bandwidth. Base image courtesy of Solarwinds.

There are numerous programs that can monitor a network’s traffic and usage automatically and even generate usage reports and alerts. Examples of this software are noted at the end of this piece.

It’s important, though, to know why these tools exist. What is the value in having the kind of information that network monitoring software provides? In short, the answer is analysis and optimization. Network traffic monitoring tools break down network usage to help create a more optimized experience for everyone — and everything — on your network. “Everything” is an important word in that explanation. Home users generally only need to worry about laptops, desktop PCs, mobile devices and smart TVs taking up bandwidth. Enterprise network users have to worry about a much greater number of network points, and those network points — namely local and cloud servers and services — are potentially more critical.

How to monitor your network traffic

How heavily you monitor your network traffic depends mainly on your needs. Home users and small businesses generally don’t have much need to monitor their network traffic, unless they’re looking for potential unauthorized users. Even then, your modem’s admin page should have a list of connected devices that you can manage. But network monitoring tools can be useful for finding out what takes up the majority of your bandwidth and potentially help you improve how your bandwidth gets distributed. For example, if you notice that your smart TV needs more bandwidth than the rest of your devices, you can follow up that network analysis on your modem and set priority to your smart TV by using that router QoS setting we talked about earlier.

Mid- and enterprise-level companies are where network traffic monitoring tools can really start making an impact. At the midsize and enterprise levels, businesses can have hundreds or even thousands of devices joined on the same corporate network. At that level of traffic, it’s just too difficult to watch that many devices without help, and fortunately, that’s where network monitoring tools shine. With bandwidth monitoring, automatic alerting and report generation, network admins can stay on top of all the traffic on a company’s intranet with relative ease.

What’s particularly valuable for enterprise use of network monitoring software is the alerting features. Often, large companies will have local network-connected infrastructure like data servers that need to stay at optimal functionality for day-to-day operations. Using alerting features, network admins make sure that network-connected infrastructure components don’t drop below baseline performance thresholds, and if they do, they can be brought back online quickly. Overall network health can also be watched this way, because if the network as a whole is struggling, then productivity will suffer as well.

So keep your needs in mind when considering network traffic monitoring tools. While these tools are potentially overkill at a small scale, they can provide major productivity and uptime benefits at the midsize and enterprise levels.

Best network monitoring software

Based on user reviews through January 14, 2019, the following are top network monitoring and network traffic monitoring solutions:

For an alternative to enterprise network traffic monitoring solutions, check out our list of the best free network monitoring tools.

Zack Busch
Author

Zack Busch

Zack is a Research Specialist who made the jump to the research realm after three years in IT support services. He studied mathematics, physics, and education at Truman State University. Zack enjoys video gaming, D&D, movies, TCGs, and spending time with his partner, dog, and two cats.