Pockethernet: A review of the net admin Swiss Army Knife

About a year ago, I decided to fund a nifty project called Pockethernet on IndieGoGo. With the product being marketed as “The Swiss Army knife for network administrators,” I was really looking forward to the final product being released sometime in July of 2014. When the team started missing target dates due to various setbacks, I shrugged it off as the business learning experience of a few hard working guys, and I largely forgot about it. I would just read the campaign updates, confident that my device would arrive eventually. Well, it’s finally here!

If you don’t know what the Pockethernet is, you’d better take a look at the list of features. The main goal of the project is to provide a significantly cheaper (~$200) alternative to the far more expensive devices made by companies like Fluke. The Pockethernet also boasts the ability to be managed by an app on any Android or iPhone device. For a $150 IndieGoGo backer’s fee, I really couldn’t pass this up. After finally receiving and playing with my Pockethernet, I’m happy to say that it was absolutely a worthwhile purchase. Below is a review that I hope makes my fellow network administrators excited about the potential for this awesome tool.

Unboxing

The Pockethernet comes in a fairly generic case and includes the following:

  • The Pockethernet itself. The circuit board is enclosed in a fairly sturdy metal case with a power button, USB charging port, serial port (for future use), and an Ethernet port (obviously).
  • A two-ended Ethernet adapter with female ports on both sides. One side is for loopback, and one is for running wiremap tests.
  • Everyone’s favorite generic blue Ethernet cable with sturdy clips.
  • A USB cable for charging.

Also included is a basic instruction sheet and a letter of thanks for being a backer of the project. You’ll have to download the app via the Google Play or Apple App store and pair the device with your phone via Bluetooth. From there, it’s smooth sailing. Just open the app and enjoy all of the cool features that you would expect in a far more expensive device.

pockethernet_unboxing

I’ll explore all of the various features offered by the Pockethernet by working through each screen in the app. As I mentioned, it’s really a nice turnkey solution. There’s no weird configuration and no frustrations with getting it to work. You just pair it with your phone and you’re good to go.

Troubleshooting layer 1

The first thing that I did was connect the included Ethernet cable to the Pockethernet and pop the crossover adapter onto the other end. Then, you just hit “Refresh” on the app and it pulls the most current information. Below, we can see an accurate wiremap of the (now) crossover cable, appropriately matching the specs of TIA/EIA 568A.

crossover_wiremap

Next, I switched from the crossover adapter to the wiremap adapter, and refreshed. Based on the output below, it’s obvious that this is a straight-through cable.

straight_wiremap

Great, the Pockethernet can tell me pinouts. But so can staring carefully at the end of an RJ45. What else can it tell me? What if I have a user who is complaining about dropouts, and I suspect a cable fault or a run that exceeds the 100 meter 1000BASE-T specification? Pockethernet has your back with it’s helpful off-line tests. With absolutely no additional adapters, you can attach the Pockethernet to one end of the cable and run a time-domain reflectometry (TDR) test.  Below, we can see clearly that I was running tests on the included 3 foot cable.

disconnected_tdr

We can also run a bit error rate test (BERT) at various speeds with the crossover adapter connected to see if the cable is electrically faulty. This is useful if you’re seeing the switch or router interface taking errors. Below are the results of a clean test. You’ll also notice that you can tone a cable or cause interface ports to blink. This can be extremely useful in finding an individual cable in a rat’s nest of Ethernet purgatory. You’ll need to get a toning probe separately to fully utilize this functionality, and I wasn’t able to test it out because my tool bag doesn’t currently include a probe. Having this functionality integrated directly into the Pockethernet removes the need to carry around a separate toning device, and this can be a real lifesaver in crowded network closets.

crossover_bert

So far, our experiments have largely been on working, known-good cables. Since you’re probably not going to be troubleshooting imaginary layer 1 problems too often, I’m sure you’re wondering how the Pockethernet performs against actual cable faults. Specifically, the fault that is most common to encounter is a broken cable run somewhere in your walls or cable trays. Luckily, I had an approximately 50-foot cable missing one RJ45 connector and the wires on one end completely exposed. Running the TDR against this cable immediately revealed the location of the fault (49ft), as seen below. This is absolutely invaluable when you’re trying to track down where a cable might be broken in a 300ft, multi-floor cable run.

50ft_fault

Troubleshooting layers 2, 3, and beyond

Being able to find faults at the PHY layer is the main purpose of any good cable tester. While anything beyond this is really just added functionality, it’s really a pain to pull out your laptop every time you need to see if DHCP is working properly. If you’re stuck in a cramped network closet, it may be entirely impractical. Once again, the Pockethernet shines.

Plugging into a live network port gives you link speed, duplex, and MDIX support information. The Pockethernet also provides you with your IP address and mask, gateway, and DNS servers (you have to scroll over to see them in the interface). You’re also able to see PoE information, but I didn’t have a PoE switch to test with.

ip_info

Pockethernet also includes useful on-line tests that allow you to run pings to 3 servers of your choice, your gateway, and your DNS servers. It then provides the minimum, maximum, and average round-trip times.

online_tests

Now that you’ve run all of these great tests and verified the health of (or found the fault in) your network, you’ve probably forgotten to write everything down and have to start again from square one. Or, you’ve taken screenshots of every test and have to email them to yourself in 10 different emails because the image files are too big.

Not with the Pockethernet. One of the coolest features of the app is the ability to send a PDF report directly to  your email (or save it to your device, like I did). You can check out the report that I made here. This was really one of the features that I found to be the most impressive, because it saves all of the time and confusion involved in manually keeping notes while crawling around under the data center floor.

pockethernet_report

 Wrapping up

The Pockethernet truly is a fantastic device. That said, there is certainly room for improvement, and the developers have been showing a drive to accomplish just that. Specifically, I’d like to see the following improvements and added functionality to the overall product:

  • Documentation needs to be better. What do the “OSIC” abbreviations mean? One backer suggested that they probably indicate open, short, interconnected, and connected, but official documentation on this would be ideal.
  • Support for CDP, LLDP, and VLAN information would be awesome. The developers are already planning these features (and more, such as SNMP and 802.1x) on their roadmap.
  • A more rugged version. While the device certainly isn’t flimsy, it doesn’t have the rugged feel that one of the classic yellow Fluke testers has.

Of course, these are largely just minor suggestions (some of which are already being accounted for). I’d rather spend my time pointing out the features that are absolutely amazing and provide a sound argument for every network administrator to own one of these things:

  • The price should be (hopefully) fantastic. The developers are aiming for about $200. I funded mine for $150. Comparable devices by bigger names range $400+
  • Adding new features is simply a matter of upgrading the firmware. This is a huge benefit. When CDP, LLDP, SNMP, 802.1x, and VLAN support are available, it will simply be a matter of upgrading the app.
  • The Bluetooth enabled portability features of this device are absolutely essential if you’ve ever worked in a crowded network closet or under a data center floor. There’s no need to stuff your hand behind a rat’s nest of cables and haphazardly press buttons, hoping your tester is performing the right functions. Just plug the Pockethernet in and tap away at the app on your phone.

This really is the device that every network administrator will need in their toolkit. When I used to perform more field work, I always loved the functionality of our cable testers. I always knew that I wanted to get one, since they were just so useful for fast troubleshooting. The Pockethernet provides a best of all worlds solution: good existing functionality, a roadmap with plenty of new features, ease of upgrade, and a price that really can’t be beat by any other cable tester on the market. If you spend any amount of time troubleshooting Ethernet and IP (my condolences if you’re stuck in the godawful world of TDM), then go sign up for product updates and order one as soon as it becomes available. You’ll definitely thank yourself the first time you have the pleasure of using it.

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