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Everyone Loves an Awesome Network Diagram

Level 10

This is my last post as an ambassador. I've had a ton of fun and appreciate everyone’s feedback and opinion. Now let’s talk about some network diagrams!

No network should be without a good visual representation of the overall design and layout. When push comes to shove any documentation is better than no documentation. For me an awesome network topology is worthy of printing it out on a plotter and handing it on my cube walls. But what techniques can you use to build great visual representations of your network that are both clean and provide adequate details?

Here are several of the techniques I use:

  1. Basic shapes for equipment. To me stencils can get messy where a plan square is simple to organize the layout of connections. I avoid rack view stencils and real images unless Im doing an elevation diagram.
  2. Separate the network into multiple pages. I usually build a separate layer two and layer three diagrams and I will also usually keep network and servers/services in different workbooks all together. Depending on the complexity I will also separate WAN, VPN services etc into their own page. This keeps each page clean and simple.

          If you get annoyed with jumping back and forth between diagrams or tabs then you can use layers. To me this adds more complex and doesn’t always work well. That could just be me though.

  1. Organize the layout in a way that can quickly represent the flow of traffic but always try to avoid crossing connections. For physical cabling and connections I like to keep lines running horizontal and vertical and never run at an angle. Angled and curved lines for me represent logical connections.

So, what are the techniques you have used?

What has worked for you in the past and what do you try to avoid?

84 Comments
Level 10

We use nested maps with locations as the first view and each click on equipment takes you into a more detailed view. Take a few amount of up keep but it is what works best for us.

Level 13

I used to frequently comment to customers and coworkers that I've yet to see an up-to-date and complete network diagram.

Now I just don't say it as much.

Visio diagrams seem to be the most frequent format I've seen, followed very closely by hand-drawn diagrams that are to be converted into Visio docs "when I get a moment".  Sometimes those temporary hand-drawn docs are over a year old.  And sometimes those have included my own docs.

As to what's on there, that usually depends on what the artist cares about at the moment.  Some of my coworkers create docs that are just layer 2 connectivity, some are just layer 3 and include route info such as protocols and redistribution.  Other coworkers create project oriented docs with multiple tabs, each dedicated to a different function such as layer 2, layer 3, physical installation, routing, addressing, and even inter-organizational areas of responsibility.  Most of my docs are firewall oriented so they are centered around entry points into the network, management IP of the security appliances, and who is on the other end of the link.

Something I've found to be very important is the last revision date of the doc.  It is very frustrating to look at a diagram and have no idea how relevant or reliable any of the information is.

Level 10

or how about a jpg image taken of a whiteboard several months ago when we drew it out.

I agree with you on revision dates. Either place it inside the visio or in the file name. I prefer in the file name so you know how old it is before opening.

Level 10

Great idea. I think Ill play around with that on my current network and see how it goes.

Level 13

I think I've got 3 or 4 of those whiteboard photos on my phone right now.  And they're still waiting to be put into a Visio.

Level 15

First, I love network atlas for elevation diagrams and some crazy custom stuff.

However when speaking about a traditional topology diagram, for some reason I just cannot find a replacement for a diagram on paper or whiteboard. There's just something about the ability to flip back and forth between pieces of paper that I cannot shake. (Probably why I don't have a Kindle either)

-ZackM

Loop1 Systems: SolarWinds Training and Professional Services

MVP
MVP

I find the logical diagrams to be much more useful and give me the view I need most.

But agree that keeping these things up to date is a headache.

Am looking to get much of these into Atlas to give them a better use than becoming dusty wall art.

The new NOC view really helps that

Level 10

Im a VERY visual person, even more so when the network starts getting complex. When I first started my current role I had to use almost half my whiteboard to map out traffic flows and WAN setup for some changes. The detail is great and I still have not moved it off the whiteboard and into Visio with the rest of the topologies. There is just something about being able to swing around in my chair and look at it that makes it great.

Level 10

I dropped our topology in my last job into Atlas and found it pretty good. Didnt play with the dynamic mapping/linking feature much. If that was solid I could see its use.

I know this is SW forum but there are other tools out there such as NetBrain. Anyone ever use them? thoughts?

Level 9

I'm a great believer in visually representing information in drawings rather than burying it in text and tables and my weapon of choice is definitely Visio. I see no quicker way to remind myself how a system is configured, communicate that to others or quickly reference important details in trouble-shooting scenarios than using a good drawing.

Keeping drawings accurate and up-to-date is certainly a challenge, but making that part of a change management system, where you reference specific versions of drawings, is usually a reliable method. It's also one that enforces a certain level of diligence in managing change.

I agree with many of the points on technique and approach that have already been made, but I also think it's important to understand your intended audience and for that reason my approach can vary. There are some rules of thumb however, and I don't think I'd ever create a drawing without including basic version information - version number, change date, originator, modifier, file location info (I tend to use templates, and populate fields from the document properties). I find keeping a repository of useful Visio stencils is always a time saver, but I agree that using basic shapes/icons is preferable.

One final point, I always think it's worth taking the extra time to neatly space and align elements of the drawing and use white space and other dividers intelligently. It might seem pedantic but I believe it makes complex drawings far easier to digest.

Level 10

great points!

Level 9

Thanks that1guy15. I meant to add, great original post. A very interesting subject to me.

MVP
MVP

Network diagrams are great and can be a full time job to keep updated.

But I see the need for critical path diagrams for business services as well. 

These are separate but crucial views into the companies business. 

We don't just monitor the network...  The two views are complementary in that together they show a more complete

view of the enterprise and can aid in helping to determine the existence and scope of a problem that may not be discernible from any one view or map.

Level 15

FIrst off- I hear lots of others saying they to rely on whiteboards to start off drawings and then hopefully get them translated to Visio?

has anyone else just uploaded the whiteboard camera pic as a network atlas background and overlay nodes?

MVP
MVP

For SolarWinds maps, it can vary depending on the customer but either a topological diagram of the core and any networks/sites hanging off it or a geographical map. You can click on a site and drill down to a local topology diagram. Depending on the core diagram, you can either drill down to another map or groups but the benefit is being able to quickly see where something has caused a network outage. The downside of having individual site maps is the maintenance of the maps whenever any network changes are made.

Regarding local maps, we typically start with whiteboard (with phone photos) and these are then recreated in Visio. Customers generally prefer nice and neat diagrams versus a sketch on a piece of paper or photo. Internally, less so...

MVP
MVP

Hmmm....I was working on an etch-a-sketch engineering diagram idea...maybe not

Level 10

Print it out and hang it up so you have to look at it and find ways to make it look better and more meaningful.

Level 10

White boards seem to the best method for us right now. Our environment keeps changing so rapidly its hard to keep up. In the past 6 months we migrated our primary data center to an off site location being hosted by a 3rd party instead of in house. We're in the process of planning to do the same thing with our disaster recovery site.

Level 10

That's a really good point and one I haven't really thought about. I guess I usually rely on my apps team to understand this.

So who does this responsibility usually fall under from your prospective?

Level 10

Up until recently I always made my diagrams plotter size so I could do this. It was a little annoying having to zoom in and out but I loved having a printed out version. I dont have access to a plotter anymore so it dosent make sense to do it this way.

I do miss my geeky network diagram posters though...

Level 10

So whiteboards seem to be pretty popular and I know I use my a ton.

Anyone out there used the whiteboard paint for your walls?

I put in a request to have a couple walls painted in my area but I dont think its going to fly.

MVP
MVP

We had a "whiteboard" wall covering applied to the back wall of our engineering pit.

It's 4'high by 20+' long...

Level 15

small conference room has a whiteboard wall - at home I have Ikea glass sections across all the walls around the home office desk - great for diagram and process maps

Level 10

Do you like it? how did it come out?

Level 10

I've told my wife I wanted to do this to my home office and I dont think she is taking me very serious

MVP
MVP

Works out great...  super tool for brainstorming, working out process flows, project lists, solarwinds posters...  I'll post a photo shortly.  I am not sure if my wideangle lens is wide enough.

MVP
MVP

Like any other documentation, the trick to making an effective network diagram is to remember your audience.

Are you making a network diagram for your fellow engineers? Then make it accurate first, then worry about the aesthetics. Function over form. But if it's for your management to hang on a wall or refer to during high-level discussions, you'll want to focus on the presentation of the information over the technical accuracy. Symmetry will be important for this group. Trust me.

MVP
MVP

In a perfect world, all walls would be whiteboards.

MVP
MVP

Please excuse the horrible picture...lighting totally sucked in there. 

Having to shoot from one end with a wide angle lens and shallow Depth of Field and a very high ISO doesn't help.

JHB2657.JPG

Level 8

I keep our network diagram safely in my head because, you know, job security.

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Maybe some visio too....okay, it's done up in visio.

Level 12

This is some great discussion happening. I want to take the opportunity for users who haven't taken the Orion Atlas Survey, to please make your voice heard. I beleive the subject is very close on what needs to be improved in Atlas.

HIDDEN GEMS IN ORION NETWORK ATLAS

(Hit the Survey button at the bottom of the post)

Level 10

Nice!

Level 10

Very good points!

Level 9

For the initial concept or to get an idea down in a visual manner quickly, whiteboards are great. The problem with them is accidental erasure and getting cluttered with other items on the whiteboard.

But eventually, they need to be placed in a document (Visio or other) for historical purposes and to hopefully be able to track when, and even why a change occurred.

For a dynamic, up to date version of the network, 'Network Atlas' works great for capturing both layer 2 & layer 3 diagrams.

I have made a career out of developing network diagrams and documenting networks.  As a military dependent we move around A LOT.  Contracting for me is a way of life.  A contract may last 6 months or 2.5 years.  I can usually count on at least a year where ever I end up.  One thing is for sure, out of the 15 jobs I have had over the last 18 years only two organizations had network diagrams that were usable.  Most places documentation is over a year old or not even existent.  I tend to break my networks up into several pieces.  I start with the Public Facing network to the firewalls.  Then move to Firewalls to the Core and DMZ's.  Then I have an enterprise map(s).  I also like to separate my VPN and Special connections.  This allows myself and my coworkers to take a sheet from out Network Book and troubleshoot outages.  I stay with vision network icons and not to make the diagrams so busy you go blind looking at it.  Basic rule: "Keep it Simple and Readable, you never know when a finance person may need to look at it." (no offense to you finance people out there). 

Level 10

The overall network diagram I tend to keep it simple. Rectangles represent devices, interfaces identified, my OSPF area depected, and clouds for server farms and user groups. I have seperate system interconnect drawings which show the nitty gritty of it all.

Level 9

I used a NetBrain eval copy once and was VERY impressed with its drawing or the network. When you zoom out, detail disappears to fit the scale of what you're looking at. Zoom in far enough and you see every physical interface. I didn't take it far enough to get familiar with how it does the L2/L3 visualization.

Visio is certainly the tool of choice across many organizations.Without discipline and strong change control though, it's easy to get out of date quickly. That's why - given the choice - I like tools that derive the representation from actively querying the actual network. However that only works for as-built - not for build-to, nor does it generally capture how it was at point X in the past. Jeremy Stretch over at his packetlife blog just recently had a nice post on using layers in Visio for network diagrams.

I've used Cisco Prime LMS' topology tool for that nicely in the past - though it depends on an all-Cisco network to give you the most functionality. They used to have a product they acquired (and then quietly killed off) back in the 90s called Netsys that would pull in all your configs and draw the network they represent very nicely. You could click buttons to show the L1, L2 or L3 topology - and in those days the latter could be the network according to OSPF or EIGRP or Appletalk or IPX or the bridged network etc.

One thing I have yet to see done well is mapping virtualization on all of this - not so much network virtualization but the compute side - ie. fabric intreconnect X goes to blade server Y which is part of VMware cluster Z whihc contains VMs abc through xyz. (and, oh by the way, maps to VSAN fabric A and B with the following LUNs...)

I started out my engineering career back in the early 80s when we still had draftsmen with drafting tables. This was in the military and my group was responsible for engineering systems spread across NE US and Europe. When we were working on a facility, the job couldn't move past design to installation until the master drawing had an open revision showing what was being planned. That included the rack elevations, wiring diagram, system diagram etc. The job wasn't done until the as-built was incorporated, closing that open revision. Today's tools have changed quite a bit but that fundamental attention to detail is something I've carried with me for over 30 years and it has served me well.

Of course in the magical SDN world it'll all be constantly changing and morphing so quickly that no documentation is necessary - only a controller, right?

Level 7

@that1guy15 I have a wall painted with IdeaPaint (whiteboard paint) in my home office. Great for Brainstorming and fun for kids too.

Level 8

I've tried a lot of tools and always ended up back at visio. There's a bit of marketing here but I found this site to be pretty damn helpful: http://networkdiagram101.com/

This is great for isometric templates and stencils: VisioCafe free visio stencils download site

Just download and start playing around until you get the hang of it.

I thought 10scape (10SCAPE Network Mapping Software) showed some promise but it doesn't look like it is going anywhere.

I love the realtime bandwidth view in NetworkWeathermap and I am glad that type of functionality has made it into solarwinds  I am going to start getting that going when we move to 10.7.

Level 10

Oh network Wweathermap I completely forgot about that tool! It was used at an old job for that reason. Very simple, to the point and effective.

Level 11

When developing changes to our current network, I prefer using a white board.... If I find it doesn't work or I make a mistake, it is easy to wipe clean and start over. Once my design changes have tested out and has been incorporated into the current environment, I then transfer that to Visio using the proper diagrams and host names, then place it in our network shared drive for other network admins to find if they need to. Another thing I found very helpful, is to save it as a .pdf file in the event I have to send it to someone. I also print out a hard copy and place it in a binder for quick reference, especially when the whole network is down and I can't get to our shared drive. This saves a lot of time and guessing.

Level 10

These are good points and also why I always keep my network docs on my laptop and thumb drive. I also keep config guides, topologies, production version of IOS. Never know when you wont have internet to look something up.

We are also developing a wiki which can be downloaded to your local system so you have it in lights-out situations.

Level 11

We have a couple of nicely detailed diagrams which have different levels of information on them

Level 17

A Lot of Visio Diagrams, layered. Simple images in some cases. But actual Box template images in other cases.

And more coming from Atlas.

Level 11

same as cahunt,

it all depends on what I want the diagram to show me

might just be a logical cabling diagram a rack diagram ect

Level 16

Thants what mine look like....  whats wrong with that??

Level 16

I would love to, but with over 20 large plants and over 100 additional remote sites there is NO WAY it would fit on a 4 foot by 8 foot paper....

With limited resources I find the mapping is the first to fall....  My mapping is almost non-existant....  too much to do just keeping the apps up along with alerting and reporting....

Level 21

I first want to point out that I can't agree with you more that1guy15 regarding how trying to use custom stencils is nothing but a pain and I don't honestly feel that they add much value.  In fact I am not a huge fan of Visio at all.  I know that most people use Visio but i think it almost gives you too many options making what should be a simple task much more difficult than it needs to be.  I just recently happened across the diagram tool Gliffy and I think it's great as I can create diagrams in half the time because I don't need to wade through a bunch of unnecessary bits.

I also agree with wbrown that unfortunately most network diagrams are in a perpetual state of outdated.

I think the key to successful network diagrams at the minimum requires that you...

A) Keep it simple, don't make them unnecessarily complex or use unnecessarily complex tools to manage them.  This makes it faster to apply updates and makes it more likely people will update them.

B) Make it part of your life-cycle management process.  If you have a change process that validates all necessary documentation is updated as a result of a network change this helps ensure those documents will be updated.

MVP
MVP

Hi that1guy15 , I did like the points mentioned by you (Basic shapes, multiple pages , not crossed lines, simple and a neat diagram), but then I would rather look for layering concept as well. A couple of years back I designed and built a network topology map using a reverse mechanism for the status update (server side polling rather than client side polling for the status update on nodes and links, server itself would trigger a command to the clients/web page hosting the map), Im sure it wasnt a great design   but then I wanted to try something new. (I used the following apps to build the same - Openjacob , dojo toolkit, cometd and bayeux protocol)

Level 10

Those are good points. One of the things I have started doing recently is actually backing off the amount of detail in each diagram. This helps keep the diagrams up-to-date and acurate longer.

Things like removing interface number and smaller details on all the links that can change. These smaller details to me are better looked up on the device when needed. You do it anyways to double-check so why not.