A look at some tools that can help round out your management toolbox at little to no charge.In many cases, the best things in life are free - and when it comes to software applications that can help protect and manage networks, and improve performance - freeware and shareware can be a blessing for network executives on a tight budget.Freeware and shareware applications remain a staple in many network managers' toolboxes. Take ping. This free utility has been ported to major operating systems, including Unix variants and Windows. The small utility has been around since 1983. Its task is simple: establish if devices can be reached over the network. It's usefulness is critical.Here's a look at some tools that can help round out your management toolbox at little to no charge.Expand AcceleratorExpand Networks, a data-compression vendor, recently made available from its Web site\u00a0a free download of software that can evaluate WAN network performance, pinpoint trouble spots and show network managers where improvements can be made.Expand Accelerator runs on a standard Windows PC, and requires users to plug the PC into a network hub or mirrored switch port. Once installed, the application can provide information about applications running on the WAN. Expand also includes a graph that shows how much better the network would perform if the traffic was being compressed by one of the company's commercial products.Jason Meurer says the download required a minor configuration change to his switch, but after that it offered him insight into application top talkers, network bottlenecks and other WAN latency issues. The systems engineer at K. Hovnanian Companies, a national home-builder based in Red Bank, N.J., says he typically doesn't put money down for software until he is satisfied it will perform as he expects."Mainly we purchase more robust products, but I like to get some insight into how they work first, and free programs can do that," he says. Mostly a sales tool for the vendor, he says the monitoring software gave him the information he needed to go ahead and put the commercial Expand product in his budget plans. And in the meantime, he is going to use the freeware to keep updated on his WAN application traffic."I haven't been able to buy the robust software yet, but I am still getting the benefits from the free version," he says.Peer MonitorLondon-based independent software programmer Daniel Clarke drafted\u00a0Peer Monitor, a ping-based network freeware program, for his personal use in 2001. The entire process was "fun," he writes on the download site, and with a little help from his friends he can maintain and update the software."It was needed in a home network where Microsoft Internet Connection Sharing was used to share a single dial-up. We needed to see if the gateway computer was turned on, whether the connection was open, and who (if anyone) was left computing (so someone would not disconnect the modem if there was another user still possibly surfing)," he explains.Once installed on a PC, network users must configure which hosts to monitor for access and connectivity, and how to be alerted (for example, by e-mail) if a host is not available. That means network managers can write rules into the software and set thresholds. The software pings hosts using Internet Control Messaging Protocol, and then displays results with a color-coded graph that indicates the status and the severity of the host.Old favoritesNew freeware applications emerge all the time, but network managers still won't give up the originals.What it\u2019s called: Big Brother Monitors systems using scripts on remote servers tracking disk space, CPU usage and services. It sends the data to a central location, which network manages can access via the Web.What it does:Get it here:What it\u2019s called: MRTG Tracks traffic load on network links and collects data from routers via SNMP. It also displays the data in a graph on a Web page, and can save the data to show trends for a week, month or year.What it does:Get it here:What it\u2019s called: TCPdump Prints out the headers of packets that go through the computer\u2019s network interface and network managers can filter out the specific packets for which they\u2019re looking, either by protocol or TCP port number.What it does:Get it here:What it\u2019s called: Tripwire Determines if any protected files have been altered, by watching for unauthorized changes and alerts network managers via e-mail when suspicious activities occur.What it does:Get it here:Download directionsUse these links to try these freeware applications in your network. Program: Expand AcceleratorProgram: Peer MonitorProgram: Visual RouteProgram: JabberThe program has help built-in, and lets users post a support call via e-mail or to the Peer Monitor forum directly from the program interface.VisualRouteCombining a series of famous freeware applications, Visualware's\u00a0Visual Route\u00a0is a graphical traceroute, ping and whois utility that analyzes Internet connectivity problems.The software is downloaded onto a PC and is available for Windows, Solaris, Linux, FreeBSD and Macintosh platforms. It can track hops between IP addresses and track connectivity. Traceroute results are displayed in a table and world map via a Web-based interface. VisualRoute processes all IP hops in parallel, and supports Loose Source Route (LSRR) information for advanced debugging. LSRR is an option in the IP header that lets network managers specify a collection of nodes that the packet must traverse before reaching the destination.An optional add-on, the VisualRoute Server package lets customers install VisualRoute on a central server and have external users access VisualRoute through a Java-enabled Web browser. VisualRoute Server can be installed on a server outside a firewall, which gives network managers inside the firewall the ability to see traceroute information.Downloads are available in Windows, Unix and Macintosh versions, and can be used free for 15 days. A single-user license of VisualRoute Personal Edition will cost about $50 after the free trial period.JabberWhen Rick Sant Angelo wanted an easy way to control and secure an instant-messaging platform, he looked for an open source product. The senior network engineer at Cricket Technologies, a Reston, Va., provider of electronic data-discovery tools for litigation customers, says an open source product from\u00a0Jabber Software Foundation\u00a0met his needs."In our field, we work with a lot of customer data that has to be kept completely secure," he says. "This is sensitive information that hasn't gone public yet, so we can't take any risks."Sant Angelo says the Jabber IM platform provided him with the features he needed at no cost. Jabber is a set of streaming XML protocols and technologies that let any two entities on the Internet exchange messages, presence and other structured information in close to real time. The first Jabber application is an IM network that offers functionality similar to that of legacy IM services such as AOL Instant Messenger, MSN and Yahoo.With Jabber, users install clients and servers, and the program supports multiple platforms. Users can tap into a centralized Jabber server via a client on their desktop, or they can set up a client and server to manage their Jabber platform. It's also secure in that Jabber servers can be isolated from the public Jabber network.Sant Angelo says organizations that provide freeware "do a great service to the IT industry. You need to have some expertise to use open source tools, but they give you the opportunity to test things on your network without making a big investment."