"I could watch what sites people are surfing, but frankly with only 10 people in my IT department, I don't have time," says Patrick J. Osborne, senior vice president of information systems at the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).

From his northern Virginia office, Osborne oversees three networks, one of which serves the 80-member association staff. One is used by the federal government to facilitate background checks for aviation workers at US airports. The third supports training systems the association maintains in airports world-wide to serve its 7000 members, which are divided equally between airport executives and academics.

Here's how he uses his monitoring software.

1. Aggregating traffic data: "I have six T1s coming into my facility, and I had no way to aggregate my usage," Osborne says. "Each carrier tells me the traffic levels on their line, and I had to add them up. ETelemetry's Metron gives me a snapshot of the traffic across my whole network." And it can aggregate that information to show use over the day, week, month or year.

2. Heading off problems: Although sometimes thought of as a utility to check on what employees are doing on the Internet during office hours, that is not why Osborne uses it. "If HR comes to me and says they suspect someone is spending their day playing or shopping or looking at porn, I can check the sites that person is browsing. But the real advantage for me is I can see a traffic problem before the network is driven to its knees. Then I can figure out what it will take to make an application that worked well a little while ago work well again. Is it a problem with the design of the software, a network issue or just a server that is getting old?"

3. Identifying scheduling problems: One of his most-used views is users ranked by the amount of network traffic they generate. "One of my heaviest users is the backup system, so I expect to see that server on top of the aggregate list. But if it is there at 2pm, I have a problem."

He also knows the normal usage patterns throughout his organisation, so he can recognise anomalies quickly. For instance, when the CFO's Internet usage jumps, he knows she is setting up a business trip for the next week. And he expects seasonal variations. "Around Christmas, of course people are going to shop some.

"As long as it stays within bounds and doesn't become habitual, I have no problem with it. The interesting thing is I didn't see any increase during the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] tournament last month. So either we don't have any college basketball fans here, or they are surfing all the time, and I don't know it." He did, however, notice an increase when the news of the Virginia Tech shootings broke. "We have a lot of Tech alumni here," he says.

4. Finding underused components: Metron also shows use by major network component, such as by switch or T1. This lets him anticipate traffic issues on the network, particularly when a new application goes live, and take action before complaints start coming in from users. And it lets him identify under-used network components. "If I find that one of my T1s isn't getting much usage, and I can get rid of it and save $750 a month -- oh man!"

5. Charge-backs: Another nice Metron report is a summary of usage by department. Osborne does not do formal chargebacks, although "if I were, all I would need to do is print out this page, and there is your charge-back bill." But it can be useful to know what departments make most use of the network, and it can provide ammunition for budget discussions. And it can have implications for network planning, particularly if one department's usage starts growing.

6. Justifying budget requests: One problem he does have is justifying infrastructure investments. Metron provides usage statistics that can be useful in his formal annual budget requests. But its real strength comes when he needs to justify a new switch or server to his boss.

"He is a CEO; he doesn't need 20 PowerPoint slides," Osborne says. "I can walk into his office, say, 'Let me show you something,' and show him the live usage and why we need the device on his computer screen. That is powerful."

Bert Latamore is a journalist with 10 years' experience in daily newspapers and 25 in the computer industry. He has written for several computer industry and consumer publications. He lives in Linden, Virginia, with his wife, two parrots and a cat.