"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.

Avoiding virtual sprawl

Tim Antonowicz, systems engineer at Bowdoin College in Maine, says the only way he can work daily is in a virtual environment. His organisation is about 75 percent virtualised, and he wants to stay ahead of virtual server sprawl before the number of virtual machines overwhelms IT managers.

Antonowicz uses VMware Virtual Centre to track both physical and virtual machines (VM) and ensure the number of virtual servers doesn't take over the environment.

"Without physical constraints, your virtual environment tends to grow too fast and become unwieldy," Antonowicz says. "Virtual Centre gives me an eye into the health of my virtual systems at the VM level but also at the physical infrastructure level, which helps me maintain everything that is going on."

Vendors such as Fortisphere, Veeam, VizionCore and Virtugo Software also promise to keep virtual environments in check - something that is essential to a successful virtual server deployment, Antonowicz says.

"Even with virtualisation, you have to consolidate your resources and prevent growth when it just doesn't make sense. Being able to stay on top of virtual servers is critical to my daily sanity check," he says.

Analysing NetFlow

NetFlow traffic is part of many enterprise networks, and tools that tap into the Cisco protocol can deliver key information to IT managers about how, when and where applications are being used.

Many network and systems monitoring tools from vendors such as Endace, Lancope and NetQoS, tap Cisco's NetFlow. James Maas uses SolarWinds software to gain additional insight into Cisco 1841 and 7200 routers as well as 6513 switches from the vendor.

"I have NetFlow turned on in all of those, and it gives you a great picture of what is happening on the network. I don't even think about starting to diagnose a problem without it," says Maas, network monitoring engineer at Fresenius Medical Care.

Open source options

Not every must-have tool comes with a high price tag. Some IT managers contend that they couldn't do their jobs without open source software alternatives to high-priced commercial tools.

"I've got a budget, however small, for commercial log correlation software like Cisco MARS, but I plan to look at open source alternatives if I can find such a thing," says Kerry Miller, network engineer at First Victoria National Bank in Texas.

Miller also uses products such as Argus and WireShark, formerly Ethereal, to monitor network traffic and troubleshoot network problems without breaking the bank.

James Kritcher, vice president of IT at White Electronic Designs, says he uses open source products to meet needs that don't have an immediate place in the budget. For instance, he says PingPlotter combines traceroute and pinging of devices, and then displays the results in a graphical format to highlight both short- and long-term trends. Specifically the product helps him stay on top of his ISP.

"This tool helps us to determine if a problem exists within our site, or within our carrier's infrastructure," he says. "Having a PingPlotter chart saves a lot of time when contacting our ISP to report a problem."

Remote assistance

Remote-control tools such as DameWare or pcAnywhere can be a lifesaver for companies with limited staff and travel time.

For Koie Smith, the open source application Putty enables him to connect to remote servers and desktops for administration and management reasons.

"It is an SSH client that allows me to connect to all my Linux servers, and I can use it to VNC into any desktops with VNC loaded on them," says Smith, IT administrator at law firm Rainey, Kizer, Reviere & Bell. "It is invaluable to me because I can do everything I need to do on my own without disrupting the end users," he says.

Metrocorp Publications' Majauckas also uses such tools to manage his company's Philadelphia network from his Boston office. "DameWare sits on the desktop as a service, and I can access it to make it seem like I am sitting right there with the end users, seeing what they see," he says.

Handheld addiction

Whether it is an HP iPaq, a Palm Treo, a RIM BlackBerry or even a laptop equipped with wireless access, IT managers can't say enough about using handheld devices to stay constantly connected to the networks they manage.

"My wife calls it my girlfriend," says Albert Ganzon, director of network services and engineering at international law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

Miller says he "personally could not live without a laptop and remote access" but if he is forced to make such a sacrifice, he will use an iPaq when he "can't carry the laptop."

Klara Jelinkova, director of computing systems at Duke University in North Carolina, says she couldn't do her job effectively without a BlackBerry. "You need to be in contact to relay information and escalate problems to the proper technician. I need to feel always in touch to feel secure about how well I am doing my job," she says.