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Network architects must have the right tools on hand to create a manual network diagram. While automated tools can dynamically build maps of existing network infrastructures, architects use vector graphic tools to help visualize concepts or to create diagrams with highly granular detail.
For years, Microsoft Visio was the one diagramming tool that stood head and shoulders above the others. Now, both commercial and open source tools rival or even surpass Microsoft's diagramming software. In this article, we look at some of the most important features of network diagramming software from an architecture perspective. We then move on to highlight eight of the top network diagramming tools that are currently available and why network pros might consider choosing one product over another.
What network architects look for in network diagramming tools
Network architects require fewer features compared to other architects that use the same diagramming tools to produce mechanical and electrical engineering schematics, UX/UI wireframes, and building and floor plan layouts. These types of diagrams often require far more complex functionality. Instead, network architects tend to gravitate toward tools that meet six simple requirements.
1. Ease of use
Architects should look for intuitive tools to make diagramming easier and faster. These include features such as the ability to drag and drop stencils and objects, auto object alignment and keyboard shortcuts.
Third-party integrations are increasingly important from a diagram sharing and management perspective. Many tools offer integrations with third-party services, such as cloud storage, collaboration and document sharing tools.
3. Templates, stencils and symbols
Some diagramming products come pre-loaded with network templates and network-centric objects that provide contextual detail behind the physical makeup of a network. Additionally, many network hardware and software vendors create their own stencils and shapes for the specific products they sell. These are typically distributed in a VSS/VSSX stencil format. Since that time, many diagramming tools now enable the import of these proprietary stencils.
4. Supported document formats
Similar to proprietary stencil formats, Visio uses proprietary VSD file formats -- as well as more recent VDX and VSDX formats -- to save newly created diagrams. Businesses that already manage a catalog of diagrams using Visio often found that these file formats created a barrier to switching to a different diagramming platform. In response, many network diagramming tools have developed ways to import, convert and export documents using the VSD, VDX and VSDX formats.
5. File sharing and control
It's increasingly important that team members can easily share network diagrams with each other using the latest enterprise collaboration tools. Diagramming tools are now available fully integrated with collaboration tools or with the ability to link with third-party tools through pre-built integration hooks.
6. Platform flexibility
Diagramming software was once a power-hungry standalone application that had to be installed locally on every end user's workstation. While thick client installations are still possible, some diagramming companies have developed their tool functionality within web browsers and mobile device OSes, such as Apple iOS and Android.
Leading network diagramming tools
Next, let's briefly highlight eight diagramming tools that, based on our research, can satisfy many or all the requirements a network architect will seek.
Dia is a free, open source diagramming application that's distributed under a GNU General Public License. While Dia is one of the more limited products compared to others on our list, it is a decent option for companies without budget for diagram software. The tool can be installed on Windows, macOS and a few Linux distributions. A portable Dia package that can run directly off a USB flash drive is also available. Dia is limited when it comes to third-party integrations, so architects will need to use some manual processes in order to share and manage completed diagrams.
From a usability perspective, Dia can import VDX files but not VSD or VSDX. Additionally, architects cannot export the diagrams they create within Dia to a Visio-native format. Thus, architects who maintain diagrams using nonsupported file format types may need a different way to convert files.
Dia is a good fit for experienced network diagramming users. It offers adjustable rulers, grid lines, zoom in/out capabilities and a library of drag-and-drop vector objects that are easily resizable and intelligently alienable.
Dia software is well documented and available in five different languages, but unlike commercial products, it doesn't have email, web, chat or phone technical support. Due to these limitations in file format capabilities and support, Dia is best for single users that need an easy way to draw basic and abstract network diagrams.
Draw.io, which is moving to the new name and website Diagrams.net, is an open source diagramming tool that has been a popular Visio alternative for many years. As an open source system, Diagrams.net offers two different ways to use the software for free. One option is to download and install an executable application that's compatible with Windows, macOS and several Linux OS distributions. Alternatively, users can both directly access and use a cloud version of the tool within a web browser. This is a nice alternative for architects that require high tool portability. Another useful feature is third-party integration capability with cloud storage services, such as Google Drive, OneDrive and Dropbox.
One glaring omission from the free version of Diagrams.net is it cannot import or export common Visio file formats. For that functionality -- as well as several other benefits -- a user must opt for the paid version of the product. It is currently available on Atlassian Marketplace. Atlassian is the maker of Confluence -- an enterprise-grade collaborative workspace tool. For Confluence users who require the ability to work with legacy Visio documents, including support for Visio-formatted stencils, this may be a good option.
Pricing for the paid version of the software depends on the number of licenses required. For up to 10 users, the cost is $5 per month. Documentation for both free and paid versions is available, along with an FAQ section and some video tutorials. The paid version includes email and web support that is staffed during normal business hours. There is also a community forum and Q&A section through the Atlassian Marketplace portal.
Gliffy by Perforce
Gliffy is a fully commercialized diagramming tool set that's a solid choice for network architects looking for a Visio-like experience with some added collaboration benefits. Gliffy can import VDX and VSDX, making it a great option for users who manage legacy network diagrams originally created from Visio software.
Users can install Gliffy as a standalone app or access it through a public cloud using a web browser. Additionally, like Diagrams.net, Gliffy is available for purchase and native use within Atlassian's Confluence collaboration platform. A flat $10 per month license can support up to 10 users. While the Professional license -- priced at $7.99 monthly -- may be all that's necessary, the Team -- $4.99 per user per month -- and Enterprise options are likely a better choice for teams that require enterprise features, such as third-party app plugins, team sharing and commenting options, single sign-on authorization and a dedicated support channel with trained support staff.
Lucid Software's Lucidchart is one of the more popular Visio alternatives on the market today. Unlike most of its competitors that offer a standalone version for desktop OSes, Lucidchart is fully cloud-operated and browser-based. This may be a drawback for some users, but cloud services are likely the future of these tools. Additionally, Lucidchart boasts a large number of third-party integrations, including Google Docs, Google Drive, Atlassian Confluence and several Microsoft Office products, including Word, Excel and Teams.
Lucidchart is available in one of three license options. Prospective buyers should note that the free version is quite limited and shouldn't be considered for professional network diagramming purposes. The first paid license available -- called Individual -- starts at $7.95 per month and is a good option for a single architect who doesn't need collaboration or advanced administration and document control capabilities. For larger teams or multiple architects, Team or Enterprise licenses are likely a better choice. All three options include more than 1,000 built-in templates and diagram shapes and objects. The product is also highly flexible from an import perspective, as it can import VSD/VSDX/VDX files and VSS/VSX stencils.
For network architects that use macOS as their primary OS, OmniGraffle from The Omni Group is an excellent choice. This product has been the macOS equivalent to Microsoft Visio for many years and has a sizable following in the network architecture community. An iOS version of the diagramming software is available that enables users to view and modify diagrams across all of Apple's OS platforms.
Visio-formatted files, including VSD, VDX, VSS and VSX, can easily import into OmniGraffle. The Omni Group also maintains a continuously updated set of templates and stencils for users to download. The product comes with highly detailed documentation to instruct users through diagramming basics, including info from working with shapes, inspectors and layers to importing and building stencils and file exporting options.
OmniGraffle software is available through the company website, as well as on Apple's App Store for both macOS and iOS. OmniGraffle comes either as a monthly or annual subscription service or as a one-time perpetual license. Monthly subscription costs start at $12.49 monthly per user, while a perpetual license costs $249.99. With the one-time fee license, customers receive updates for the lifecycle of the major revision they purchase. From a support standpoint, The Omni Group support will continue even after a new major version is released and customers choose not to upgrade. Additionally, The Omni Group offers significant discounts to existing customers that wish to upgrade their perpetual license when a new major release launches.
Often considered to be one of the most feature-rich diagramming products next to Visio, SmartDraw provides a comprehensive package in terms of flexibility, compatibility and ease of use. This product runs on Windows and macOS and as a cloud service through most web browsers. Users can save documents in the SmartDraw cloud, as well as share and edit easily with team members. Additionally, SmartDraw can import all Visio document and stencil types, as well as export newly created diagrams as a VSD or VSDX, making it a great option for those that collaborate with Visio users.
SmartDraw also includes a massive library of templates and objects to create network diagrams. This, along with the ability to import third-party stencils, gives this product an edge on competition. Many architects find that SmartDraw is the most Visio-like when it comes to the UI -- making it easy to migrate to with little relearning required.
Looking at pricing options for SmartDraw, the per-user cost is a bit higher compared to many alternative options. A single user license costs $9.95 per month, billed annually, while a multiuser account starts at $5.95 per user monthly. However, the multiuser software also comes with administrative features that are useful in large enterprise environments. A one-time perpetual license is available at $297 for a single user and $595 for a multiuser account for five or more users. The perpetual license comes with 12 months of updates, as well as support and upgrade protection in the event a major release comes out soon after purchase. Users can choose to renew support and maintenance for their perpetual license for $69.95 a year.
Microsoft Visio is considered the leader in the network diagramming tool space, but it's far from perfect. When Microsoft acquired Visio in 2000, many users have since complained that the company has been slow to innovate, giving opportunity for competing products to eventually catch up. Despite the lack of innovation, Visio still leads from a network diagram tool perspective. It has also made some key updates in recent years, such as the following:
- the ability to use Visio as a cloud service through a web browser;
- integrations with other Microsoft tools and services;
- file and user management capabilities; and
- updated templates and objects.
What sets Visio apart from competitors is the fact that customers can purchase the tool set as a simple add-on license for Microsoft 365 users. A $5 monthly fee with an annual commitment gives a user access to Visio's latest web-based version, OneDrive native support, and 2 GB of cloud storage for easy diagram management and sharing. A second plan that starts at $15 monthly gives users the Windows-compatible, standalone version of the software, as well as a massive number of templates, shapes and objects. Perpetual licenses are also available starting at $280 for the standard version and $530 for Pro. The perpetual license comes with one year of updates and customer support. While this puts Visio at the high end of the cost scale compared to all others on this list, Visio remains a top-tier product.
YEd from yWorks is another free option that's supported on Windows, macOS and Linux. A new cloud and browser-based version called yEd Live is also available. Like other free offerings on this list, users must understand there are limitations compared to paid options, especially when it comes to limited file format support, lack of customer support, built-in templates and objects, and third-party integrations.
Where yEd shines, however, is in its streamlined UI. If customers are seeking a tool that can quickly create simplistic diagrams, yEd isn't a bad choice. On the other hand, if you need the ability to open Visio or other diagramming software formats -- or need to be able to easily share documents through cloud storage or collaboration services -- better options are available. From a support standpoint, yEd includes basic user documentation, a Q&A section and a video tutorial of the product on the yWorks website.