The Multi Router Traffic Grapher

A short review of a free network traffic monitoring tool called the Multi Router Traffic Grapher.

This short review provided courtesy of Informit.


The Multi Router Traffic Grapher (MRTG) is a piece of free software released under the GNU General Public License. It was written primarily by Tobias Oetiker and Dave Rand. MRTG produces Web pages that display graphs of bandwidth use on network links on daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly scales. This can be an invaluable tool for diagnosing network problems because it not only indicates the current status of the network but also lets you visually compare this with the history of network utilization.

MRTG relies on SNMP version one, and optionally SNMP version two, to obtain data from routers or other network hardware. MRTG sends SNMP requests every five minutes and stores the responses in a specialized data format. This format allows MRTG to present the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly graphs without the data files forever growing larger. It does this by summarizing the older data as necessary. The graphs themselves are created in Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format and can be included in Web pages or used in other applications.

What MRTG Can Help You Do

In the middle of a crisis, or when you are debugging an immediate network problem, MRTG will allow you to view the traffic patterns of many networks at once and quickly determine if one or more is experiencing an abnormal traffic load. The fact that the graphs display the history of the network is key. In practice, it can be difficult to tell from immediate bandwidth and packet-per-second counts alone whether a network is operating normally. If a 100Mb/s link is carrying 85Mb/s of traffic, is this heavy but normal use or is the network straining under an attack? By having the history of the network available, you can look for sudden changes that might account for an operational problem. A denial-of-service attack that attempts to exhaust the available bandwidth on a network nearly always presents as a sudden, sustained increase in traffic levels; the attackers do not have much to gain by slowly ramping up the attack over a period of time.

When you are not tending to an immediate problem, MRTG is useful for studying trends in traffic on your network. It will help you understand how traffic is distributed across your network, plan capacity needs for the future, and so on.

A sample MRTG graph of a day's worth of network traffic is depicted in this figure. Note that time progresses to the left, not to the right. This is the default configuration and it is indicated at the bottom of the graph both by the small arrow at the left and by the direction of the time scale. Some MRTG configurations choose to increase time to the right, so be sure examine the graph first. The data at the top of the graph represents the amount of traffic sent into an interface, while the data at the bottom represents the amount of traffic sent out from an interface. You can see that over the past day, this router interface typically received about 20Mb/s of traffic and sent about 10Mb/s. You will also notice that just after 3:00 p.m. yesterday, there was a short spike in traffic out of the interface. While MRTG is most often used to collect data from router interfaces, it can also collect traffic data from switches or servers. In this way, you can monitor the bandwidth use of a particular machine. In fact, MRTG can be configured to collect any statistical data that a device makes available via SNMP.

The MRTG Web site and the MRTG software distribution both have detailed documentation on using MRTG, including information on cfgmaker, indexmaker, the configuration language and all other components of MRTG. The PNG distribution and further information about PNG can be found at http://www.libpng.org/. The GD library is at http://www.boutell.com/gd/.


You can also read more about installing and configuring MRTG at Informit.


This was first published in March 2005

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