Networking

Trace your steps with NeoTrace

Tracing network issues can be a hassle when they exist outside of your own network. Jack Wallen, Jr. gets you started with NeoTrace, a nifty little tracing tool that can help you simplify this task.

Network connections can often be a real pain in the stack! Unfortunately, network troubleshooting tools don't always relieve that pain. Text-based tools are often unfriendly and confusing. GUI tools generally overcompensate by trying to do too much. So where's the in-between?

One option is NeoTrace by NeoWorx, a simple-to-use networking tool that lets you find information about and troubleshoot network connections.

Overview
NeoTrace acts as a full-blown, belled and whistled GUI for a few of the primary network troubleshooting commands like traceroute (or Windows’ tracert command), ping, telnet, and whois. It displays a graphical representation of the route (and any inline issues) from your local machine to a remote location.

NeoTrace works by sending out ICMP packets to the specified location. These packets can travel only a limited distance, which causes the packets to expire prematurely and return to NeoTrace. NeoTrace then takes the returned packets, examines them, and pieces together the route a normal packet would travel to the specified location. By this point, NeoTrace has collected information on of all of the IP addresses, the nodes that returned the packets, when the packets expired, and the total round-trip time of each packet. With this information, NeoTrace assembles the names of the individual nodes, their locations, and the registrants of each node.

Once the information is put together, NeoTrace produces a map that looks somewhat like a flight vector map. In Figure A, I ran a NeoTrace on the official Rob Halford site.

Figure A
Much like an airplane flight path, NeoTrace maps out the route to the specified address.


The call started in Louisville, KY (the home of TechProGuild), went immediately to the West Coast (where CNET lives), bounced off Chicago, and then flew off into the east somewhere. By clicking the right mouse button, you can zoom out of the view and see the destination somewhere near Greenwich, UK (with the accuracy ranging from one mile to several hundred miles). (See Figure B.) During the actual trace, you will see the map zoom in and out on each hop as it is located.

Figure B
With all the hops in green and the destination in yellow, we're good to go.


Failures
The Themes.org site is quite often down. In light of that, let’s run NeoTrace! Entering the www.themes.org URL into the location bar causes NeoTrace to start sending out ICMP packets and collecting its data. From Louisville, KY, the packets bounce off IP address 12.123.198.2 in St. Louis (node 5 of 16), then to IP address 12.122.5.221 in Chicago (node 8 of 16); from there, the information starts to break down. At the tenth node (IP address 209.1.169.173), both the location and the network are unknown (although the registrant is known). The 14th node gives up the IP address (64.14.80.154) and the network, but now both the location and the registrant are unknown. Once we get to node 15, the only information we have is the IP address (64.28.66.204). Finally, at our destination, node 16, we can see the IP address (64.28.67.81), the network (Exodus communications, Inc., Boston), and the registrant (VA Linux Systems), but no location. See Figure C for a close-up of our destination address.

Figure C
A question mark marks the spot! NeoTrace was unable to determine the location of our destination.


Interestingly enough, if you run the whois command (by right-clicking the desired location and selecting External Applications | View Whois In Web Browser), you will see a question mark indicating an invalid IP address and that the information has been obtained either directly from the registrant or a registrar of the domain name other than Network Solutions.

Switch the map view to Node View (see Figure D) and you see that the destination shows a Response Time of None. On the Timing tab (see Figure E), you see that four packets were sent with 100 percent loss. We can now determine that the problem with www.themes.org is, in fact, the final destination.

Figure D
All nodes except our final destination show a response time.


Figure E
Drop one packet, shame on thee; drop four packets, shame on me!


Useful tools
Select the Show Map Of Location tool in NeoTrace (found in the right mouse menu); a new browser will open and a map of the area of the node will appear. MapBlast serves up these maps.

Another really cool tool is Show Satellite Photo Of Location. Right-click on the desired node and select External Applications | Show Satellite Photo Of Location; a new browser window will open to the Terraserver pages to display a satellite image of the location.

You can also copy node information to the clipboard for later perusal. Simply select the desired node, click the Copy/Paste icon in the Info pane, and then paste the information into a text editor.

Issues
The most common issue will be getting NeoTrace through a firewall. If you have to pierce through a firewall, three rules must be added to the firewall. Those rules must allow the following ICMP packet types through:
  • RECV Echo Reply
  • RECV Time To Live Expired
  • SEND Echo Request

You will also need to make sure that both ping and tracert are allowed through the firewall.

You may also have to deal with platform compatibility. The NeoTrace application will only run natively on Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP. To run NeoTrace on the Macintosh platform, you have to run the application in a Virtual PC instance of Windows 98. There is no current plan for porting to Linux/UNIX/BSD, but I did successfully run NeoTrace in a Windows 2000 instance of VMware. (There’s always a way around issues when you’re using Linux.)

Conclusion
If you’re looking for a really great graphical tool to help troubleshoot external network connections and routes, NeoTrace could be just the ticket. The full-blown version, NeoTrace Pro, is available from the NeoWorx Web site for $29.99 (for individual licenses). NeoWorx has a separate price scheme for multiple licenses that goes as low as $6 per user for 500-999 users.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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