Packet Capture, part 1

We are pleased to present the full chapter on Packet Capture from the O'Reilly book, Network Troubleshooting Tools. In this first part you will learn about Traffic Capture Tools, Access to Traffic, and Capturing Data.

 By O'Reilly Press
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Network Troubleshooting Tools
by Joseph D. Sloan

Packet Capture -- Part 1
Network Troubleshooting Tools - click to go to publisher's site

Packet capture and analysis is the most powerful technique that will be discussed in this book -- it is the ultimate troubleshooting tool. If you really want to know what is happening on your network, you will need to capture traffic. No other tool provides more information.

On the other hand, no other tool requires the same degree of sophistication to use. If misused, it can compromise your system's security and invade the privacy of your users. Of the software described in this book, packet capture software is the most difficult to use to its full potential and requires a thorough understanding of the underlying protocols to be used effectively. As noted in , you must ensure that what you do conforms to your organization's policies and any applicable laws. You should also be aware of the ethical implications of your actions.

This chapter begins with a discussion of the type of tools available and various issues involved in traffic capture. Next I describe tcpdump, a ubiquitous and powerful packet capture tool. This is followed by a brief description of other closely related tools. Next is a discussion of ethereal, a powerful protocol analyzer that is rapidly gaining popularity. Next I describe some of the problems created by traffic capture. The chapter concludes with a discussion of packet capture tools available for use with Microsoft Windows platforms.

1.1. Traffic Capture Tools

Packet capture is the real-time collection of data as it travels over networks. Tools for the capture and analysis of traffic go by a number of names including packet sniffers, packet analyzers, protocol analyzers, and even traffic monitors. Although there is some inconsistency in how these terms are used, the primary difference is in how much analysis or interpretation is provided after a packet is captured. Packet sniffers generally do the least amount of analysis, while protocol analyzers provide the greatest level of interpretation. Packet analyzers typically lie somewhere in between. All have the capture of raw data as a core function. Traffic monitors typically are more concerned with collecting statistical information, but many support the capture of raw data. Any of these may be augmented with additional functions such as graphing utilities and traffic generators. This chapter describes tcpdump, a packet sniffer, several analysis tools, and ethereal, a protocol analyzer.

While packet capture might seem like a low-level tool, it can also be used to examine what is happening at higher levels, including the application level, because of the way data is encapsulated. Since application data is encapsulated in a generally transparent way by the lower levels of the protocol stack, the data is basically intact when examined at a lower level.[1] By examining network traffic, we can examine the data generated at the higher levels. (In general, however, it is usually much easier to debug an application using a tool designed for that application. Tools specific to several application-level protocols are described in .)

[1]There are two obvious exceptions. The data may be encrypted, or the data may be fragmented among multiple packets.

Packet capture programs also require the most technical expertise of any program we will examine. A thorough understanding of the underlying protocol is often required to interpret the results. For this reason alone, packet capture is a tool that you want to become familiar with well before you need it. When you are having problems, it will also be helpful to have comparison systems so you can observe normal behavior. The time to learn how your system works is before you have problems. This technique cannot be stressed enough -- do a baseline run for your network periodically and analyze it closely so you know what traffic you expect to see on your network before you have problems.

This article was originally published on Nov 9, 2001
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