Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Pockethernet, "The Swiss army knife of network administrators"

Being a systems & network administrator, sometimes I get to deal with making, crimping, repairing, or otherwise generally troubleshooting cables, switches, and basic networking functions. Generally one might use a Fluke or other network tester in a situation where you might need to test any of the above - for example, a user calls in and says they need a long Ethernet cable made and you don't have any non-bulk cable handy. Unless you do this a lot, a Fluke isn't something that you're going to just have sitting around and so you might try visually looking at a cable or plugging it in to network hardware you have laying around to see if the cable works. This process can be cumbersome, inefficient, and take far more time than it otherwise should.

Well, not anymore. The Pockethernet, a network testing device stemming from an Indiegogo funding campaign early in 2014, is attempting to change all of that. Brought to life by German duo Zoltan Devai and Jeroen van Boxtel, the device is aiming to be an all-in-one device to make every IT person's life easier. I received mine in the mail a few days ago and have been playing with it to develop some first impressions since then. Past the video, I get into the unpacking and the Pockethernet's uses!

The original Indiegogo campaign closed in March of 2014 with 370% of the original $50,000 goal, and there have been several delays since the devices were supposed to have been shipped. This is not the end of the world, and I only had thoughts that I might not get the device a couple of times. There have been over 20 updates sent out to backers between the campaign closing and now, keeping us up-to-date with the status of production, shipping and several challenges that were encountered along the way. Producing the devices took longer than expected with a couple revisions and retooling required, regulations taking longer than expected to be sorted out for all the governing bodies worldwide, and even running into difficulties dealing with UPS/DHL.

All of that is now nearing completion, and devices have been and are being shipped. After being unpacked, this is the case that the unit and cables came in.
Pockethernet in case
In addition to the case above, two documents were included: a welcome document, and a manual about the device itself. The first page of the information document is dedicated to regulatory information (legally-required text, yadda yadda yadda). and the rest of it talks about the device itself.
Pockethernet case opened
The Pockethernet comes with a dual-function dongle so that you can either test to find the wire map of a cable or turn what you have into a loopback cable, an Ethernet cable, and a short USB cable for charging.
Front of Pockethernet 
The device itself is contained in a machined metal case, and feels incredibly sturdy. The front and back of the device are closed with clear plastic so that you can see through to the other side. The PCB is the main component inside the case, and the 750mAh battery is situated just on top of it.
On this front side are the Ethernet jack itself and 5 LEDs:
Pockethernet - Front
Pockethernet - Rear
Rear of Pockethernet
It appears that the logo and regulatory information printed onto the outside of the case is reversed from where it sound be. When seated so that the Pockethernet name and logo are visible as such in the photos above, the PCB is seated near the top of the case with battery hanging below it. When flipped to match the documents in the manual, the regulation information is right-side up - and who wants to see that?
Wiremap/Loopback dongle
This little dongle comes with the Pockethernet; there is not yet any documentation to go along with it, so the "Loopback" and "Wiremap" labels on it are all there is to go on. Those are fairly self-explanatory, however.
Pockethernet start screen
When starting up the Pockethernet Android application this is the first and main screen that appears. Down the left column are icons for the 4 cable pairs, Power over Ethernet, link, and DHCP/network information. Selecting Connect at the bottom of the screen starts the connection between the phone and the Pockethernet. To do a regular cable test on a disconnected Ethernet cable, the Wiremap portion of the dongle lets you test to make sure that the cable generally works.
Wiremap test function
Once connected to the cable that you want to measure or test, selecting the Refresh button at the bottom is what gets the test to actually run. The screen above shows the cables and the which pins are connected where. This test took place with a regular straight-through Ethernet cable, so the wiremap function served to simply reflect the signal back to the Pockethernet from the opposite end. Per the backer forums, the O S and C listed next to each pair appear to stand for Open, Shielded, and Closed in relation to the electric circuits.
Wiremap TDR results
Time-Domain Reflectometry (TDR) is used to find the length of the cable that you have connected. In this case, I tested with a 2-meter cable. The reporting is wonky and shows different lengths for the pairs, which is a known issue. After a few weeks, the developers hope to release an updated version of the application with fixes for bugs reported in that timeframe. Given this, the results appear to properly show that the cable is not "connected" to another device (Wiremap function, not Loopback) but is returning results.
Cable gigabit information
This screen isn't the most helpful, but it appears to show that all four pairs of cables are connected and which is the transmit or receiving side.
Online network test
One of the neat features of the device is that you can do an Online test with it, meaning you can make it connect to your network, receive a static or DHCP address, and ping up to three addresses. A quirk of the device appears to be that you have to run a test on the cable first before you are able to run the Online test. Each test to verify connectivity with the server(s) that you specify takes approximately 3 seconds so you can get enough information to know what is working and what might not be.
Offline network testing
If you have a cable toner, the top half of the Offline testing screen is useful to you. Like any other tone test, you can try to use this to find a cable that you're looking for in a patch panel or other scenario when otherwise finding it would be difficult. The bottom half lets you test the Bit Error Rate (BER) of a cable using the Loopback side of the dongle. Testing at 1000Mbps is currently broken (another known issue) but 10/100Mbps works just fine.
Generate report screen
A neat feature built into the software is that you can send a PDF of the latest test result that you have generated to an email address in order to export some data. It piggybacks off of whatever mail program you have set up on your phone, but it gets the job done. The report itself is basic and includes all the information shown above minus the graphics, so it isn't incredibly useful yet. Styling and image work will go a long way to make the report feature more useful. Yes, that is a button in the bottom-right that lets you attach a photo to the generated report, perhaps of the drop that you are testing on or other verification of the job you've just completed.
Generated PDF of test results
The report, while nifty, isn't incredibly useful yet. The wiremap and TDR information, as shown above, appears to be inaccurate/incorrect displaying Short/Open when Closed would be the proper information to have been included and a > 0m length result. Again, this is a software bug that can and hopefully will be be fixed with an app update.
Finally, the software has a couple basic options that you can change as well as lets you see the device and software information. There isn't all that much here yet, but I expect more to come in future software updates.

While playing with the device for a short while I discovered and read about a few odd things it does, some of which can be worked around.
  • There isn't yet a quickstart or how-to guide for using the product, although there is an active backer forum where questions are being answered very quickly. If you generally know something about networking and what you are doing, then it probably will not take you long to get up to speed and make use of the device.
  • The Pockethernet cannot be used while connected to its USB charger.
  • Before you can start an Online test, you are required to run a generic cable test, presumably to let the software know that it's connected to something.
  • The cable length results are sometimes correct, but not in other cases. This is a known issue which should be fixed shortly.
  • Testing the BER at gigabit speeds currently does not work, although it does at 10 and 100Mbps. As before, this is another known issue reported on the forums.
So...does it really do that?
The device as delivered is a solid piece of hardware that accomplishes many of the goals it set out to accomplish, but the software is not completely there yet. For something that I put money down before there was even a physical product, it holds great promise through continued software updates to fix bugs and add additional functionality. One item specifically mentioned that will be added is LLDP/CDP support, and other features to be added include VLAN support, SNMP/web configuration, and 802.x support.

The Pockethernet is still in its early stages, but looks to only have a bright future ahead with continued software updates. At $150 (not yet generally available for purchase) or even slightly more, it is a steal compared to the larger and more-expensive network tools for basic network testing and will continue to chip away at the higher-end tools as more functionality is added. Having only possessed the device for around a week I have already had to use it several times to verify cables both at home and at work, so it is already paying for itself. If you can steer around the various bugs that exist currently, I would definitely suggest looking to purchase the Pockethernet when it becomes available. Otherwise, wait a few months for those to be ironed out and new features added, and then purchase yourself a Pockethernet. I can certainly see myself never needing another network testing tool as long as I have my Pockethernet by my side.