With the new year rapidly approaching and users easing up on their network usage, IT experts say now is the time to prep your network for optimal performance and reliability in 2007.

"The holiday season is the best time to take a look at what's going on your network," says Bret Moeller, CIO at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts.

Moeller says while it's good to be vigilant all year, the lightening of the enterprise load lets you focus in on core network issues.

Here are some tips for what should be on your holiday to-do list.

1. Install comprehensive monitoring tools

"You should always know about a problem before your users," Moeller says. The only way to accomplish this goal is to have monitoring programs attached to your mission-critical applications and infrastructure.

Moeller says e-mail is one of the most important applications in his network so he pays special attention to its performance. "I don't just monitor whether the server is up or down but how the information store is doing," he says. "The server might be working fine, but if the information store is full, no one will get their messages."

He also uses monitoring tools to keep a close eye on student applications and the school's financial programs.

Monitoring tools help him ensure that enterprise disk space is always available. He has set capacity limits on all mission-critical storage and if thresholds are reached, the monitoring tools send out alerts to the team's cell phones and pagers. "If our servers and storage went to 100 percent capacity, we'd be dead in the water," he says.

2. Beef up your network protection

Jon Gossels, president of consulting firm SystemsExperts, says IT groups must rethink the way they tackle network security. "The days of the hardened perimeter are long, long gone. With so many connections to outside users, there is no such thing as a tough outside anymore," he says.

Instead, everyone should implement defence-in-depth applications, such as intrusion protection and detection systems. "These days, you have to require authentication and authorisation on your applications and systems," he says.

Gossels says critical advances have been made in all areas of security. For instance, he says biometrics is ready for prime time. "The obstacle used to be that you needed a separate reader to process the fingerprint. But that technology is now being integrated in many laptops and other hardware," he says.

Doing defence in depth at all levels of the network is key, he says. He recommends addressing security at the network, application and Web-based application levels. "Application-based exploits are the fastest growing area of penetration and vulnerability," he says.

3. Make sure you can produce reports

Moeller says it's imperative that IT groups be able to run reports on all their major systems. "Reports allow us to present our activities to management objectively," he says.

His team uses reports in numerous ways, including as a way to show server and network performance. "The application that we use allows us to show our percentage of uptime across the enterprise," he says. This allows him to prove IT's successes throughout the year.

Reporting is also useful to help efficiently schedule maintenance. Moeller says he can see when his servers and other enterprise equipment are available to be worked on with minimum disruption to users.

Finally, reporting programs show his team network anomalies and allow him to be proactive in fixing problems. "I don't want my boss to find something wrong before I do," he says.

4. Review your event logs

With enterprise use easing up over the holidays, Moeller says his team will take the time to closely review event logs. "We'll be able to identify any possible intrusion attempts and security breaches," he says.

He says it's also a good time to review user accounts and make sure that all access has been denied for students, staff and faculty that are no longer at the college. "We've streamlined our systems to use ActiveDirectory as the single point of identity," he says. ActiveDirectory allows his team to manage access for e-mail, remote users, network users, ERP systems and other critical applications. "If we had five places to manage identity, we'd have a greater risk of not being able to lock down our systems," he says.

5. Audit, audit, audit

Both Moeller and Gossels say auditing should be a built-in part of any IT team's to-do list.

For Moeller, auditing means making sure that all computers are running licensed software. "With less activity on the network, now is a good time to check that all your applications are legitimate," he says.

He says he gets very granular with his network auditing, even looking at MP3 files to make sure they are legal.

Gossels says IT teams must move from periodic to ongoing auditing. He points to firewall checking as an example and says it must be done on a regular basis now to satisfy compliance and other mandates. "This is not just a person looking at logs; it's got to be a process," he says.

For every business rule or auditing point you create, you have to document its business purpose. "You have to know what's happening and why," he says. He also encourages IT teams to assign ownership and time to live to each rule. "That way, over time you don't end up with an accumulation of rules that have no purpose," he says.

In addition to tackling these five chores, IT experts say you should add your own tasks so that your network is the best it can be in 2007.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor near Boston. Former events editor and writer at Network World, she developed and hosted the magazine's technology road shows. She is also the former managing editor of Network World's popular networking site, Fusion. She has won several industry awards for her reporting, including the American Society of Business Publication Editors' prestigious Gold Award.