For many us in the 21st century, work involves sitting at a computer for much of the day. Almost everyone in business, whether an SME, a home-based business, or a large corporation uses computers. Equally, almost everyone that uses computers uses a network of some sort. In my own case, I have a small home network with a couple of PCs, a couple of printers, a scanner and a few other peripherals that make life easy.
However, when I go into an organisation in order to carry out some training I sometimes take equipment with me. These are normally laptop computers, but I will often take a projector and some other training resources as well.
So why use a network diagram? Well there are several reasons, but these will vary according to the circumstances. Sometimes, your network will be created for a short period of time in order to cover specific activity. This could be a conference, a training session, or a sales pitch. On other occasions your network will be fixed in terms of the infrastructure, but will need updating when new users join it or when the hardware or software is changed.
What Software is best?
The software you choose in order to create a network diagram will depend on several factors. Elements of Microsoft Office, such as Word, PowerPoint and Visio can all be used with varying degrees of success. If you don’t use Microsoft but prefer the Mac format, Ommnigraffle is the choice of most users. Specific third-party offerings include Smart Draw, E-draw Soft, Breeze tree and Gliffy; some of these are available on both Windows and Macintosh platforms and each contains its own selection of drawing shapes. For my money, the daddy of all diagramming software is Microsoft Visio Professional edition. Here’s why I recommend using a network diagram:
Reason 1 – Planning
If your network is a permanent fixture, you probably spent some time thinking about how you would configure it before you connected the bits and pieces together. Even then you may well want to change things as equipment is replaced, and having a network diagram takes a lot of the donkey work out of the process. When you start the planning process you commit your thoughts and ideas to paper, making it easy to change things around later on.
On the other hand, if your network is ad hoc, like mine is when I go on site, having a network diagram enables you to quickly and easily set up the equipment before you begin. A network diagram takes the guesswork out of configuring routers, switches and the other hardware required.
Reason 2 – Security
Whether your network is fixed or not, it is a very good idea to have a record of all the equipment contained within it. Indeed, in many cases when equipment is being taken off the site, it is a condition of the insurance company that all serial numbers, asset numbers, logins and passwords are recorded somewhere, and what better place to record all that information? If you create your network diagram using software such as Microsoft Visio you will be able to add all the relevant information to the shapes representing the hardware.
Visio also allows the creation of an inventory list from its reports feature — a very handy timesaver for a busy network administrator. Once the data has been added to the network diagram it is an easy matter to change it if an additional user or hardware is added. A variety of reports can be run, including ones created for a specific occasion, including the default choices of a network device report, a network equipment report, a PC report and the inventory report.
Reason 3 – Flexibility
Depending on the software you choose, you may find that you have more or fewer choices when it comes to the type of diagram you want to create. Visio professional comes out tops here again, with incredible versatility that allows the creation of:
- Active directory diagrams
- Equipment rack diagrams
- LDAP diagrams
- Logical and physical network diagrams
- Topologies for large networks and drill-down diagrams
If you work with large networks containing thousands of nodes you can use Visio Professional to create high-level diagrams showing, for example, all the routers on your network, or the service providers that support your network in different areas of the country. The Cloud shape on the Network Locations stencil in Visio professional is ideal for representing very high level connectivity.
Whatever software you choose, having a network diagram will make life much easier. Visio Standard allows you to create basic network diagrams, but with the Professional version you can create detailed network diagrams for networks, directory services diagrams, and rack layouts. You can add shape data to enhance the appearance of diagrams, allocate equipment to users, record serial numbers, asset keys, manufacturers and specifications and use this data to generate reports on the devices in your network.