Whether you’re a cybersecurity professional, software development enthusiast, or aspiring network engineer – if you’re looking to tackle network troubleshooting, including inspecting individual packets, you’re probably considering using Wireshark.
It’s a go-to network packet analyzer – it’s open-source, free, and one of the best network traffic capture and analysis applications available today. Wireshark allows you to see what is happening within your network and you can do it on a microscopic level.
Started as an online project by a young but enthusiastic Gerald Combs in 1998, Wireshark has come a long way from being a simple network analysis tool with only four protocols to a benchmark for the many diagnostic tools we know today. Wireshark continues to thrive thanks to its dedicated community of networking experts around the world.
Wireshark’s official site is unsurprisingly blue and shark-themed, but you won’t feel out of the water there – it’s intuitive, easy to use, and offers a comprehensive introduction to their flagship product.
You can also visit Wireshark’s plain-looking blog and if you do, you’ll discover some well-written posts, including insider tips and tricks.
As for social networking sites, Wireshark invites its users to follow them on Twitter.
Subscriptions and prices
Wireshark is open-source, free-to-use software, meaning you can download and use it for as long as you want without spending any money – so no pricing, no tiered plans, and no limits on how many computers you can use Wireshark on .
In addition, all source code is in the public domain under the General Public License (GPL), making it easy for enthusiasts to add new protocols to Wireshark, either as plugins or built into the code.
Wireshark works with most major and minor operating systems (OS’), including Windows, Linux, Mac, OS X, FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD.
Features and functionality
As one of the most popular packet sniffers in the world, Wireshark is also packed with features that provide three primary functionalities: packet capture, filtering (opens in new tab)and network visualization.
Like most network packet analyzers, Wireshark tunes in to a network connection in real time and captures entire traffic flows – up to thousands of packets at once.
After that, it can check all captured data by applying filters and remove all irrelevant information. So you only get the information that is worth looking at.
And then, finally, like any solid packet sniffer, Wireshark lets you dive deep into a network packet, visualizing the entire conversation and network streams.
While Wireshark can be used for a number of things (such as tracing connections, inspecting the contents of suspicious network transactions, and identifying microburst congestion), for most users it is a tool for troubleshooting networks with performance issues.
Other notable features of Wireshark include a wide variety of supported recording file formats (tcpdump, Pcap NG, Catapult DCT2000, Cisco Secure IDS iplog, Microsoft Network Monitor, and many more), decoding support for numerous protocols (such as IPsec, ISAKMP, and Kerberos ), application of color rules to the package list for easier analysis, and ability to export output to XML, PostScript, CSV, or plain text.
Interface and ease of use
First of all, if you have little to no understanding of network protocols, this probably isn’t the tool for you. To use Wireshark correctly, you need to have some technical know-how such as a TCP 3-way handshake and protocols such as TCP, UDP and DHCP.
Wireshark is best suited for security (opens in new tab) agencies, educational institutions, small to medium-sized businesses and non-profit organizations, but it can also be used as an educational resource for future security experts.
We should also note that while Wireshark can be helpful in preventing zero-day attacks once the alarm bells have gone off, it is not a true Intrusion Detection System (IDS) and should not be used as such.
Also, while Wireshark may apply color coding for ease of use and display malformed packets, there are no warnings. However, graphical statistics visualization tools make it easy to spot changes and general trends.
So, to sum it up, the easiest part of using Wireshark is downloading and installing it (especially if you’re using Windows) – after that it gets complicated, so beginners beware.
Since we are talking about an open source solution, we didn’t really expect to find a dedicated tech support team that would be ready to lend a helping hand 24 hours a day – Wireshark is closer to a DIY self-solution. Nevertheless, there are several self-sufficient options that you can explore.
Go to Wireshark’s official site and click on the “Get Help” drop-down menu, which allows you to choose between posting a question to the forum (and patiently waiting for the answer), consulting an FAQ section, searching for reply to the documentation page, visit their wiki site, and go to the issue tracker. While you’ll find some good tutorials (including how-to videos), these aren’t suitable for new users.
Like Wireshark, Ettercap is free, open-source, cross-platform software created for network protocol analysis and security auditing. However, it does little to disguise the fact that it’s designed to make hacking easier, making it a top choice for anyone looking for man-in-the-middle attack tools. Wireshark, on the other hand, is better for sniffing packets.
If you’re looking for a Wireshark alternative for Windows and don’t mind paying a pretty penny for it, check out a browser-based package sniffer called Cloud Shark. It’s slightly easier to use than Wireshark, but it lacks features.
OmniPeek is another notable alternative to Wireshark, but it’s not free. With a good add-on, OmniPeek can work as both a network management system and a packet sniffer, surpassing Wireshark in terms of capabilities. However, it only works on Windows.
To sum it all up, Wireshark is a powerful, professional and very useful software for solving all kinds of errors, problems and bugs. While it was a long way from its previous versions, Wireshark remained a bit complicated at first – and that’s the only significant flaw we could find with it, so go check it out.