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Network Sniffers: What Are They and How Can I Use Them?

A network sniffer “sniffs” or monitors network traffic for information (e.g., where it’s coming from, which device, the protocol used, etc.). Network administrators can use this information to help optimize their environment.

What are example uses for network sniffers?

For example, a network sniffer can monitor network usage and track down someone using excessive bandwidth at a university or business organization. You can also use them to help find security holes in your environment. These are all legitimate uses for a network sniffer.

However, a common use for them today lies in black hat hacking. In the wrong hands, network sniffing tools can allow anyone with little to no hacking skills to monitor network traffic over unsecured WiFi networks in order to steal passwords and other private information. This can give network sniffing tools a bad reputation; however, there are still many legitimate uses for network sniffers.

Network packet sniffing can help enhance your security, performing network penetration testing by monitoring the data and ensuring it is encrypted. Other positive uses of network sniffers include:

  • Tracking down network traffic bottlenecks
  • Testing firewalls for network security efficacy
  • Acquiring statistical data on network bandwidth, availability, etc.

How do network sniffers work?

To best explain how network packet sniffers work, let’s take a step back to review what makes a network work. Networks function as a collection of “nodes,” such as your smartphone, laptop, server, etc., which transfer information over a networked connection. To speed these transfers along their route, networks use packets of data—chunks of data that are broken down and then reassembled after transmission is complete—to help avoid network congestion.

By using network sniffers to “sniff” the packets en route, a user can analyze the traffic via “passive sniffing” (i.e., snooping in on the inflight data) or “active sniffing” (i.e., directly interacting by sending packets and receiving responses from the target devices). The latter unfortunately also allows for cybercrime instances.

Using encrypted protocols can help prevent unauthorized network sniffing, but since nothing is 100% guaranteed in the world of IT security, using a real-time monitoring system to alert you to any networking abnormalities is a good idea.

What are some of the best network sniffers?

The best network packet sniffer depends on your use case. Are you primarily looking to:
Monitor bandwidth? If you’re wondering what employee is binging online streaming all day, look for a network sniffer that lets you specify non-business traffic, like streaming sites, torrenting, and social media.

Bolster security? Seek out a network sniffer that can detect anomalies and highlight suspicious activities from outside sources, preferably a packet sniffer with real-time alerts.
Maintain performance? All network sniffers should offer this functionality but consider ease of use as well. Having customizable dashboards can prove to be a major plus in preparing stakeholder reports for monitoring metrics.

Finally, consider a network sniffer that can integrate with your existing tools to help keep a lid on costs. PagerDuty is purpose-built to help you extend your budget. Our real-time monitoring solution integrates seamlessly with over 350 tools. There’s a good chance you can use your existing networking tools, saving time, costs, and complexity.

Gain full visibility into your network health across your infrastructure. Start using PagerDuty today with a 14-day free trial. No credit card is required.