Handheld tool simplifies troubleshooting desktop-to-network connectivity

In the past, trouble-shooting problems with desktop to network connectivity was a time-consuming process for the technicians who service Bell Canada’s PCs and networks.

Bell Integrated Computer Services (ICS) provides internal support for Bell Canada’s PCs and networks. Included in this mandate is on-site installation and service for business users of Bell’s high-speed Internet access. Certifications held by the group’s technicians include NORDX CSV, MCP, MCSE, A+, CCNA, as well as PMG NetAnalyst cross-technology and architect.

The group has access to a number of sophisticated network tools. Due to their traditionally high cost, however, there is a practical limit to the number of such tools kept on hand, so they are shared among the technicians.

Occasionally, all tools are in use when a call comes in from a PC user who can’t connect to the network. In this case, the technician assigned to visit the site typically performs a pin-by-pin check of the cable.

With the cable checked out as OK, the technician might suspect and replace the network interface card (NIC). If that doesn’t solve the problem, the technician might replace the IP stack. Still no connection? Maybe it’s the software.

No matter which component is the culprit, troubleshooting is usually step-by-step, trial and error, and time intensive.

I recently had the opportunity to review a new diagnostic tool that addresses some of those issues. The NetTool, made by Fluke Networks, is a handheld tester that combines cable, network and PC configuration testing. It’s compact, about the size of a cell phone, and from an availability standpoint it’s affordable enough to be issued to individual technicians.

A major time-saver

We’ve found it a practical tool for troubleshooting existing systems as well as assisting with installs. Because NetTool identifies which side of the system has the problem, it’s particularly useful for service groups with separate maintenance staff for desktops and networks.

The cable-testing feature is a real time-saver for us here at ICS. To test the Patch cable that connects the PC to the network jack, its just a matter of plugging each end into the jacks on the NetTool, and pressing the test button. Cable problems show up on the built-in display screen. To test the network cable, you put a terminator at one end of the cable and the NetTool at the other. The display shows wiremaps and distances.

Once the cables have been verified, more detailed tests will pinpoint the problem to the PC or network.

The technician simply plugs the PC cable into one side of the tester. A spare cable connects from the other side of the tester to the network jack. All the information needed to troubleshoot and pinpoint the problem appears on the display.

NetTool also overcomes another network industry problem – identifying the network behind the RJ45 jack. When it’s plugged in, the unit displays the network behind the jack – token-ring, Ethernet or ISDN.

The NetTool displays the network speed, whether it’s full- or half-duplex, and when the network is broadcasting. It identifies the MAC address, the broadcast protocol that’s running and whether the PC card is configured properly (MAC address, protocol, speed and duplexing). Right away, the technician can tell whether the problem is on the network or PC side.

NetTool is intuitive and easy to use. Within the first hour, I was able to get good results with it. Pressing a button powers up the unit, a second press starts the autotest. By drilling down into the data, the technician has access to more detailed information for analysis. Examples include network protocols and IP information on servers, printers and other network devices.

The tool also identifies the key devices on the network, and whether it has an IP server or network server, a router, printer and so on.

The activity log feature lets the technician save information and download it to a PC. The results can than be printed out and sent to the user, for example, to help explain the problem in more detail.

standard and in-line models

There are two NetTool models to choose from, standard and in-line. With the standard model, each side of the connection, either PC or network, is tested one at a time. In my opinion, the in-line model delivers the best value. It costs a little more, but it tests both sides of the connection at once, providing a whole picture in real time.

The NetTool compares very favourably with Fluke’s OneTouch Network Assistant. The OneTouch does more, but it’s also more expensive, larger and heavier. For most IT departments, the OneTouch would serve as a group tool, with NetTool used by individual technicians.

While it supports most protocols, the NetTool version we’ve used here at ICS is missing some that would be very helpful. One example is PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet). Hopefully, Fluke will add protocols like this in future versions.

NetTool’s documentation includes an easy-to-understand CD-ROM user manual and quick reference guide, as well as a utility software update program.

Gauthier (yves.gauthier@bell.ca) is regional manager for Bell Canada ICS in Ottawa. His staff of technicians is responsible for ICS duties in the 613 area code. He holds NetAnalyst – Cross-technology and NetAnalyst – Architect certification from Pine Mountain Group Inc.

Review Box: NetTool Connectivity Tester

Supplier: Fluke Canada Inc.

Cost: NetTool Standard : $1,434; NetTool Inline: $2,390

Pros: Compact, easy to use, affordable, reduces PC to network trouble shooting time, provides valuable information on network and PCs.

Cons: Current version supports most, but not all, network protocols.