Once upon a time, operating system and networking vendors touted their abilities to juggle multiple networking protocols with a certain degree of pride and enthusiasm. For Windows, this meant NetBEUI, IPX/SPX (a.k.a. NWLink or "NetWare-compatible protocol"), AppleTalk, and TCP/IP. For the Macintosh, this meant AppleTalk and TCP/IP, with other add-ins available. For NetWare, it meant IPX/SPX, NetBEUI, AppleTalk, and ultimately TCP/IP. For UNIX and Linux, TCP/IP has always come first, but it too has offered its share of add-ins for the protocols already mentioned (as well as other exotica).
Those days are gone, if not forgotten. Today's networks are invariably linked to the Internet, which virtually mandates TCP/IP. And be it for simplicity's sake (a single protocol is easier to manage than multiple protocols) or other reasons, TCP/IP pretty much rules the networking world as we know it today. If all protocols are theoretically equal, TCP/IP is definitely more equal than all other protocols in practice.
This means that network administrators need to know and understand TCP/IP, and be familiar with a basic set of commands and utilities to help them configure, inspect, and troubleshoot this ubiquitous networking protocol suite. In this article, you'll inspect the contents of a toolkit that most administrators should be ready to open up and rummage around inside whenever the need arises. Because of the prevalence of Windows on desktops worldwide, this story focuses primarily on Windows; where platform differences may intrude, we mention various alternatives as needed.
Generally speaking, useful IP tools come in at least three categories:
Built-in tools and utilities. These come as part of the operating system (or its normal networking portion or add-ins). These are basic, free, and essential to learn and understand, no matter what platform you use.
Freeware or shareware add-ins. These are readily available for download and use on the Internet, and can easily find a slot in a savvy network administrator's IP toolkit.
Commercial toolsets and applications. These items cost money but when budgets permit, can add useful and powerful capabilities to an IP administrator's toolbox. You may have to justify the need for such items, but they can tell you things you might not otherwise be able to learn (and at a minimum, should enhance your productivity to justify their cost).
We'll visit each of these categories in the sections that follow.