Review: Observium open-source network monitoring won’t run on Windows but has a great user interface, price

network monitoring concept
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Open source network-monitoring tools continue to gain in popularity, and Observium came up on our radar as an enterprise-grade offering. Deployed worldwide by large organizations like eBay, PayPal, Twitter and the US Department of Energy, Observium is capable of handling tens of thousands of devices. The client list is impressive, but our test reveals what’s really under the hood.

Observium runs on Linux but can monitor Windows and many other device types. The vendor recommends running Observium on Ubuntu/Debian, but it will also work on distros such as Red Hat/CentOS.

Since Apache and MySQL are prerequisites for Observium, your server needs to meet the hardware requirements to run them. In our test, a quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM and adequate storage provided enough horsepower to run our medium-size test environment.

Observium is currently in version 17.9 and available both in a Community and Professional edition. The Pro version is available as an annual subscription for about £200 (about $284) per year and receives real-time daily updates, whereas updates to the Community version are available for download about every six months. The subscription license is valid for a single production installation and two testing or development installations. There is no difference between the two versions as to capacity and capabilities, but the Pro version has a few additional features - automatic grouping, traffic accounting and restful API.

Installing Observium

Observium can be installed by using an automated script or in manual mode. The manual mode is a more granular approach, which requires downloading and installing each component (Apache, MySQL etc.) separately. We used the automated script, which provides the option of installing the Community Edition or the Pro Edition. We opted for the CE (Community Edition) and the installation wizard presented a very short prompt sequence where we were asked to create both a MySQL and an Observium user. The install downloads the needed files on the fly and at the end you have an option to create an Observium agent on the server, which we opted to do. The whole process took about 15 minutes. While the installation is easy to complete, we would have also liked to see an appliance version that could be run as a virtual machine for testing purposes.

After completing the install, it was time to launch the Web management interface. This is accessed using the IP address of the server and upon successful login we were presented with an overview screen, dominated by a map and a list of recent events as reported by devices. The map is helpful when monitoring geographically dispersed devices.

Adding devices for Observium to monitor

With the server up and running and the basic configuration in place, we added more devices. Observium can connect to pretty much any networked device that supports any version of the SNMP protocol (v1, v2c and v3). Currently over 400 OS types are supported, including servers, storage and wireless devices, and network infrastructure. We started with a small collection Linux and Windows devices, which were easily added using a combination of CLI scripts or the Web interface. In addition to using SNMP, Observium also provides an agent that can be deployed on Linux devices as well as some UNIX devices, but not Windows. There are also ways to gather data using a few other methods such as ‘syslog’, ‘rancid’ and ‘collectd’. These require additional configurations both within Observium and on the devices themselves. Observium also has an auto-discovery feature that, when launched, probes the network for devices configured to use any preset SNMP community.

Once the devices have been added, Observium starts polling information. On the overview page, you can easily view the number of devices and the status of each, whether up, down, disabled etc. Observium makes it easy to perform a quick device health check or a conduct a more thorough, deep-dive into details for each device. Observium makes extensive use of graphs to display a host of parameters, ranging from memory utilization and CPU loads to network traffic and the number of users logged into each device. In the past we’ve experienced issues with the graphs being slow to load, but using PHP 7.0 as recommended seemed to resolve most of them.

With six different user levels, we found Observium to have more than adequate flexibility allowing users to view device information and perform configuration tasks. For instance, a normal user account can be configured to have just a read-only view of data from a preset group of devices, whereas the administrator account has access to both viewing all data and performing all configuration tasks such as editing devices and setting alerts.

Creating alerts in Observium

Observium does not have any pre-defined alerts per se, but the user manual provides examples of how to build a variety of common alerts. For instance, by using the examples, we were able to quickly create an alert to warn us if the disk space exceeded 85% of capacity. Another alert notified us if the processor utilization went over 80%. We found the process to create alerts to be very intuitive and offered enough granularity to either create a network-wide rule or one that only applies to a certain set of devices, such as all Linux servers.  

The online user manual is very good and provides enough detail for completing most tasks without getting too deep into the weeds.  There is a comprehensive reference guide with a large number of metrics and attributes that can be used to build rules. Our only complaint is that it would be nice to have a downloadable PDF version of the user manual.

Observium provides support at a rate of £200 for a two-hour minimum (about $284), with the ability to purchase blocks of time at a discount. Paid installation support is available along with the option to have custom features created.

Since our last review of Observium in 2014, we note it has matured quite a bit. One of our main complaints in the past was inability to add devices by IP address. This has been corrected and makes life a whole lot easier for administrators who live by IPs as much as host names. There is still no way to export reports and data from the Web interface, but the on-screen reporting is very good. As the name indicates, Observium is an observational tool and a good one at that. It has an easy-to-use interface that allows for both quick at-a-glance overviews with the ability to drill down for more detail. Although we were not able to test with tens of thousands of devices, Observium scales well with only modest hardware requirements, although we note there is no built-in clustering capability.

Pros: Easy to install and use with great interface layout, low cost

Cons: Relies mostly on SNMP protocol monitoring, does not run on Windows, has no data export or clustering capability

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