Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Network and Protocol Analyzers Part 3

Protocol Decoding

The capability to take the raw bits that travel on the network and present them on a frame-by-frame basis is a powerful feature of the analyzer. Looking at a stream of byte values isn't very useful when troubleshooting a network problem. Looking at each frame, and understanding what kinds of frames are being generated by devices on the network, is a necessary component of a network analyzer.

Look for an analyzer that gives both a summary and a detailed view of the frame. The summary view usually shows just the addressing and header portion of the packet, whereas the detailed view displays every byte contained in the frame.


Filtering is a necessary component for any network analyzer. Filtering allows you to set criteria that the analyzer uses when it captures frames, or to selectively search through a buffer of captured data to retrieve only those frames that are pertinent to your troubleshooting efforts. Filters can usually be set to select frames by protocol type, frame type, and protocol address or MAC addresses. Some allow you to search for specific data patterns throughout the entire packet.

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Software-Based Analyzers

Software analyzers are the cheapest route for large, complex networks. Because processors have scaled to much greater speeds and network adapters can capture packets from the fastest LAN speeds, software analyzers are now catching up to hardware-based analyzers. And you can find some freeware analyzer products on the Web that perform some or all of the functions you might need in a small network.

Windows NT 4.0 through Windows 2003 servers come with a network monitor tool that enables the local workstation or server to monitor network traffic that is generated by or sent to the computer. The version that comes with the Systems Management Server (SMS) allows the network administrator to monitor all traffic on the LAN, using a feature referred to as promiscuous mode. The Windows 2000

Servers and Windows 2003 Servers network monitor can be found in the Administrative Tools folder.

Both of these products allow you to capture data on the LAN, filter, and troubleshoot many kinds of problems. Because these products run on a workstation, you can use them to collect and store large amounts of information for immediate analysis and long-term reporting.

To begin capturing frames on the network, choose Capture, Start. You can also use the Capture menu to pause or stop the capture process. As frames are captured by the monitor, you can get an idea of what is happening on the network by the continuously updated bar graphs in the Capture Window. To view the actual data being collected, you can stop the capture process by selecting Capture, Stop. Choose Capture, Display Captured Data to view the frames captured.

As you can see, a summary line is provided for each frame that the monitor captured. You can scroll up or down to view all frames in the buffer. At this point, the frames are stored in a temporary buffer. If you only need to view the data for immediate analysis and then discard it, you can do so from this window. If you want to store the data for later analysis, select File, Save As. To view data in a stored file, choose File, Open to read the data in the file into the temporary buffer.

To examine any of the captured frames and view it in detail, double-click it in the summary window. The window opens a Detail pane that shows the kinds of data in the frame. Click the plus sign (+) to expand the list of data contained in the frame. By highlighting the ICMP portion of the Detail pane, the monitor highlights the data pertaining to this in the data section. By showing the bytes that make up different parts of the frame, the monitor makes your job easier.

Capture and Display Filters

The amount of traffic that passes through even a small network can be overwhelming, but not when you're using a network monitor to watch statistical information about current traffic. When you are troubleshooting, however, it's helpful to be able to filter out the nonessential information so that you can examine only those frames that are pertinent to the problem at hand.

For this purpose, most analyzers allow you to set up a filter that screens out all but the frames you want to view. A capture filter is used to create selection criteria for the frames that will be kept and stored in the temporary buffer, whereas a display filter can be used to further select frames from those that are captured. Select Capture, Filter. For a capture filter, you can specify specific protocols, address pairs, or patterns that occur in the frame itself.

When using pattern matching, you can specify a string that must be found in the frame before it is considered a candidate for capture. You can specify an offset value also, which indicates a starting point for the filter in the frame when it searches for the pattern.

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