Understanding Vista's Network Map

Friday Oct 10th 2008 by Joseph Moran

Network Map offers a bird's-eye, but potentially incomplete, view of your network.

When you've got a crowded home office network chock full of PCs and other devices, keeping track of everything connected to it can be a quite a challenge. Vista's Network Map feature was designed to address this problem by providing a bird's-eye, graphical view of the network that shows connected devices and how they're linked to each other.

Although it can be a useful tool, Network Map is also an imperfect one, because it may provide incomplete or hard-to-decipher information. In this article, we'll explore what Network Map can tell you about, what it can't and how best to interpret the information it reports.

You can access the Network Map from within the Network and Sharing Center. Just click the "View Full Map" link in the upper right corner. A new window will open, and within a few seconds it will display icons representing the various network devices found. In addition to your PCs, the network map should report the presence of the devices that link them, like a gateway router and switch, as well as any wireless access points or bridges you have.

The network map can be used to view either basic or detailed network info on a device. Hovering the mouse cursor over most device icons will quickly display the device's name along with its IP and MAC addresses. If the device is a PC, a double- or right-click on its icon will let you view its shared resources. Right-clicking will reveal options labeled Open and Explore, but they both do pretty much the same thing.

If the device is an access point or wireless bridge, the same action will automatically launch a browser to its administration page, which is a handy way to configure a device when you don't know its IP address offhand. Double-clicking your gateway router, on the other hand, will disconnect it from the Internet (not your network). To access the admin page instead, right-click and choose "View Device Webpage." The globe icon represents your Internet connection: Double-clicking it will open up your default browser; right-clicking will take you to its configuration options.

The icons used in the network map should help you quickly distinguish between different types of devices, but that's not always the case. You may sometimes find the network map displays an erroneous icon; it might denote an access point with a PC icon, for example. When this happens, it's usually just a cosmetic issue and doesn't affect what happens when you click on the icon.

The network map organizes its device icons to illustrate the network's topography, showing how different devices are connected to the network and to each other. Devices connected by a solid double line have wired links, while broken double lines indicate wireless ones. Seldom will the network map display all the devices on your network, however, because it relies on a protocol called Link Layer Topology Discovery (LLTD) that network devices may or may not support. Vista-based PCs support LTLTD, and so do XP systems running Service Pack 3 or those that have been updated with an LLTD patch from Microsoft that you can download from support.microsoft.com/kb/922120. (XP systems lacking the update will be detected, but they will not be placed in the map.)

Also, there's a better-than-even chance that non-PC networked devices like printers, NAS units, DVRs and game consoles will not show up in the network map since, the majority of such devices don't support LLTD. There are some exceptions, including Microsoft's own Xbox 360).

Although it may afford only a partial view, Vista's network map can be a convenient way to get information on major network devices like PCs, routers, and access points. If you like the idea of network mapping but find Vista's inability to certain types of devices too limiting, you might want to check out Network Magic from Pure Networks. Among other capabilities, it can detect and map things Vista's network map doesn't. You can download it from www.networkmagic.com/download/. The download is a seven-day test-drive for a paid version of the software, but the free version it reverts to after the trial period retains the mapping feature.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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