"The ideal product would show me the problem immediately, before I had to run around and find what is down or not performing," says Jim Farmer, manager of systems administration and telecommunications at Superior Essex Communication in Atlanta. For him, SolarWinds' Orion network management software is invaluable for its ability to collect information on traffic volumes, system health and network communications.

"I go to it every day to see the top 10 errors, the top 10 talkers and more. I can't start my day without checking it," Farmer says.

Other favourites of IT pros include tools for tracking end-user behaviour, reaching out to remote machines and securing distributed systems. What these management tools have in common is the ability to provide actionable information, reduce manual effort and deliver consistent results.

Old faithful: Packet sniffers

Packet-sniffing technologies are as old as they are invaluable to network managers hoping to prevent bandwidth bottlenecks.

Chris Majauckas, computer technology manager for Metrocorp Publications, relies upon Network Instruments' Observer packet-sniffing product suite to help him keep an eye on application traffic and end-user behaviour.

"I use it to be on the lookout for people accessing applications or using the network in ways they shouldn't be, for instance, downloading a ton of music and eating up bandwidth," he says. "I leave it running always, and it's the first thing I go to when I get complaints. It shows me the top talkers and any trend to help narrow down the cause of the problem."

Security dashboard

The most valuable tool for Bruce Bonsall combines network-monitoring capabilities with security intelligence. As CISO at MassMutual Financial Group, Bonsall needs a dashboard view of his network - from the security perspective.

"I need a real-time view of our security posture, what poses a risk and where our vulnerabilities are," Bonsall says. He uses Archer Technologies' SmartSuite framework, which provides MassMutual with the security information management (SIM) features he says are essential to securing the environment daily and maintaining compliance over time. SIM products collect log data from multiple devices and systems, correlate the data, and communicate to IT staff the potential risk or threat the device or system poses.

"We are tying system vulnerability information to asset data and it helps us more quickly identify potential problem areas and secure them," Bonsall says.

Bonsall believes gaining access to such information daily will continue to become more critical as companies need to secure dynamic, Web-based applications, and the content and data contained within those applications. "As an executive, I need to be able to understand our risk posture. With this tool, I can look at a line of business and see what applications are related to that line of business and understand the risk rating," he says.