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What is Wireshark - and how does it work?

Chances are if you're capturing packets and analyzing network traffic, you're using Wireshark – it's the world's leading capture tool, after all.

But how exactly does Wireshark it troubleshoot network issues, and who can benefit most from using it? Well, in this blog you'll find out!


What is Wireshark?

Wireshark is the most well-known, and frequently-used, protocol analyzer. It can be used to capture packets, too. A packet is simply a unit of data, and Wireshark catches them as they pass from your device to the internet.

Once captured, Wireshark lets you monitor your network at a granular level and in real time. This comes in handy when conducting traffic analysis, which can then be used to troubleshoot problems by locating the root source.

Wireshark can analyze data from the wire, via a live network connection, or analyze data files from packets that have already been captured. It can capture traffic from a variety of media types, too, like Ethernet, LAN, USB, and Bluetooth. What's more, the tool is also capable of reading live data from all sorts of networks: Ethernet, IEEE, 802.11, point-to-point Protocol (PPP) and loopback included. And, as an extra cherry-on-top, a user can trace VoIP calls made over the network when analyzing captured traffic.

That's a lot of information! Fortunately, Wireshark comes loaded with various filters that make it possible to make sense of all this data.

You'll be able to zero in on what interests you and colorize your packet display. Wireshark also allows users to visualize network streams and create statistics.

Wireshark currently supports thousands of protocols. The majority of these are old and unpopular, but TCP, UDP, and ICMP are fully supported, allowing for the analysis of IP packets. Wireshark users can also decide how to dissect protocols and create plug-ins if they're like to dissect a new protocol that's not currently supported.

The uses of Wireshark

The above can all seem rather complicated if you're new to Wireshark or networking. Wireshark is often compared to a flashlight – a handy tool that lets you see what you're doing more clearly, and is pretty indispensable if you're going to be fixing a car at night or exploring a wooded area. With one, you can highlight things, you might've otherwise missed and identify threats.

Primarily, Wireshark is used by administrators to troubleshoot network performance issues. If you notice something awry on your network – like a hike in latency, dropped packets, retransmission issues, or a malicious threat – you can use Wireshark to investigate.

With the analysis provided by Wireshark, you'll be able to inspect issues as they occur to figure out what's causing them. Of course, Wireshark makes this easier by rendering the traffic it captures into a readable format – seeing as we mere humans have trouble reading binary. Thus armed, you can check out your traffic in far greater detail, monitoring the type of traffic and its frequency, quantity, and latency.

As for who uses Wireshark, you might be surprised by how popular it is across all sorts of digital-spheres. Businesses, schools, tech-savvy individuals and even the government make use of the tool. Part of Wireshark's appeal is rooted in the fact that it's a great way to learn more about how network traffic works in the first place, as well as how to solve problems when they crop up.

However, you'll need an existing grasp of networking basics to use Wireshark effectively. This would ideally include knowledge of routing and port forwarding, as well as the three-way TCP handshake, the TCP/IP stack, and a variety of protocols, like TCP, UDP, DHCP, and ICMP.

One more thing...

It's also important to note that Wireshark is not an intrusion detection system (IDS). It's a protocol analyzer, and cannot alert you if someone's up to no good on your network. What it can do, however, is display malformed packets and visualize traffic – making malicious threats easier to inspect and root out.

All in all, Wireshark is adept at creating a baseline. With it, you'll have a far better understanding of what's normal – and what's not – for your network.


Where to get Wireshark

You can download Wireshark directly from its website. It's free, and seeing as it's GPL licensed, it can be shared, used, and modified by anybody. Wireshark is compatible with any Windows, Mac, or Linux device, too.

Gerald Combs started the Wireshark project back in 1998 – though it was known as Ethereal then, and was until 2006 – and it has since flourished thanks to contributions made by experts and volunteers alike. Combs still works on Wireshark's code today, and is involved in rolling out new versions and updates.

Written by: River Hart

Originally hailing from Wales, River Hart graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a 1:1 in Creative Writing, going on to work as an Editor across a number of trade magazines. As a professional writer, River has worked across both digital and print media, and is familiar with collating news pieces, in-depth reports and producing by lines for international publications. Otherwise, they can be found pouring over a tarot deck or spending more hours than she'll ever admit playing Final Fantasy 14.


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