Wireshark vs Netcat for Network Protocol Analysis

Last updated by UpGuard on March 31, 2017

Network Protocol Analyzers (a.k.a. traffic packet analyzers or sniffers) are essential instruments in the network and/or security professional’s toolbox. The ability to examine traffic in motion across a network is critical for optimizing network topologies, troubleshooting malfunctioning or poorly-performing applications, and perhaps most importantly—identifying and mitigating cyber attacks. In this comparison, we’ll look at two leading network protocol analysis tools—Wireshark and Netcat—to see how they stack up against each other.

Protocol Analysis 101

Data packets form the essential building blocks of information technology. All internet communications and media/files—from video and music to email and chat sessions—are transmitted as these discreet units of data. Tools for capturing and decoding data packets are therefore fundamental instruments for proper network management. Without them, IT and operations are at a loss as to what is actually being transmitted across their networks. Network protocol analysis tools give IT specialists a microscopic view of data moving back and forth across network nodes.

Wireshark by Riverbed Technology

Wireshark is arguably the most widely-used network protocol analyzer on the market today. The free, open source tool was originally known as Ethereal, but has since been renamed due to trademark issues.

File:Wireshark screenshot.png

Netcat by Hobbit

Commonly abbreviated and referred to as nc, Netcat is a hailed by many network professionals as the Swiss Army Knife for TCP/IP-based network analysis. Its popularity is primarily due to its lightweight extensibility and feature-rich network debugging and investigation capabilities.


Side-By-Side Scoring: Wireshark vs. Netcat

1. Capability Set

Wireshark is capable of capturing and analyzing data from wifi, ethernet, VLANs, Bluetooth, and USB devices, among others. Additionally, Wireshark is able to inspect hundred of different protocols. At the most basic level, Netcat captures and analyzes data packets over TCP and UDP connections between two nodes over any port—specifics in regards device type must be configured manually by the operator. Netcat is extremely extensible, and is highly capable when integrated with other tools and utilities.

Out-of-the-box, Wireshark possesses a broad commercial capability set as the tool is productized by Riverbed Technology (which offers a whole suite of enterprise offerings). Netcat feels bareboned but is designed to be custom-tailored and tweaked by hand; subsequently, its capabilities are straightforward but nonetheless comprehensive. In terms of packet analysis, both tools are competent utilities for network debugging, port scanning, port listening, and more. 

Capability Set

2. Ease Of Use

Wireshark features a competent GUI and is available on a wide array of platforms: Windows, Linux, OS X, Solaris, FreeBSD, NetBSD, among others. Netcat is only available on *nix platforms and is primarily CLI-driven, offering no visual interface for the command-line impaired.

Ease Of Use
Wireshark star5.png
Netcat star2.png

3. Community Support

Both tools are highly popular tools with longstanding market presence; subsequently, both have vast volumes of community support materials available online.

Community Support
Wireshark star5-1.png
Netcat star5-2.png

4. Security and Surface Attack Probability

Per the CVE database, Netcat has 8 documented vulnerabilities since its inception while Wireshark possesses a whopping 322. That said, Netcat is a popular Black Hat tool amongst hackers and its mere presence on a host makes it a somewhat of a liability.

Security and Surface Attack Probability
Netcat star2-1.png

5. Release Rate

Netcat is currently at version 1.10, with 8 years having passed since its last release. In contrast, Wireshark's latest 1.12.8 release was made available in October 2015, with a preview of 2.0.0rc1 also released at the same time.

Release Rate
Netcat star2-1.png

6. Pricing And Support

Both tools are free and open-source. Again, Wireshark is backed by a commercial entity and offers official documentation and support materials from Riverbed Technologies. Netcat has no such official support materials but has a broad array of support materials created on its behalf by reputable organizations such as the SANS Institute.

Pricing and Support
Netcat star2-1.png

7. API and Extensibility

Wireshark supports a broad range of languages and possesses a rich LUA-based API. Netcat has no API to speak of, though operators with the requisite skill set can build their own minimal REST web server to fulfill this need. 

API and Extensibility
Netcat star2-1.png

8. 3rd Party Integrations

For those competent with the CLI, Netcat is highly integrable with 3rd party tools. Wireshark allows for a host of 3rd party integrations through native C libraries or Lua modules.

3rd Party Integrations
Netcat star2-1.png

9. Bug Bounty Program

No bounties exist for either, as both are free tools. However, Wireshark hosts an expansive, community-contributed bug database.

Bug Bounty Programs
Wireshark star1-1.png
Netcat star2-1.png

10.  Companies That Use It

Both tools are ubiquitous and utilized extensively by enterprises, non-profits, and individuals alike. It's worth noting again that Wireshark is supported by Riverbed Technology, a global leader in application performance infrastructure solutions with over $1 billion in annual revenue. Notable customers include Intuit, Michelin, Tribune Media, Allianz, and T-Mobile, among others.

Companies That Use It
Netcat star5.png 

11.  Age Of Language Developed In/Used

Netcat is written in C; Wireshark is written in C/C++. Both are of course venerable, foundational programming languages. As mentioned previously, Wireshark can be extended through modules written in LUA, a lightweight cross-platform language implemented in ANSI C.

Age of Language Developed In/Used
Netcat star2-1.png

12.  Learning Curve

Wireshark features a competent GUI, while Netcat is CLI-based. The latter therefore requires a stronger technical skill set to manipulate and manage; that said, operators wishing to perform advanced protocol analysis are in most cases adept in using the command line—with many regarding visual-based interfaces as hinderances rather than beneficial.

Learning Curve
Netcat star2-1.png

Scoreboard and Summary

The following is the scoreboard for Wireshark vs. Netcat based on the 12 criteria listed above:

            Wireshark             Netcat
Capability Set     
Ease Of Use    star5-1.png   star2-1.png
Community Support    star5-1.png   star5-1.png
Security and Surface Attack Probability     star2-1.png   star2-1.png
Release Rate      star2-1.png
Pricing And Support      star2-1.png
API and Extensibility      star2-1.png
3rd Party Integrations     star2-1.png
Bug Bounty Program    star1-1.png   star2-1.png
Companies That Use It    
Age Of Language Developed In/Used   star2-1.png   star2-1.png
Learning Curve     star2-1.png
Total   48   35
Average Score    

So for an easier to use, API-extensible GUI-based tool backed by a enterprise software company, go with Wireshark. Netcat is a no-frills, powerful CLI-based protocol analyzer for experts—it gets the job done quickly and efficiently. Both tools are free and open-source, so cost will never be an issue. And for continuous security monitoring and vulnerability assessment, ScriptRock is the platform to beat. Try it today, the first 10 nodes are on us. Free DevOps and Security eBooks