Get a grip on managing your network

Large networks can be as inscrutable as the Cheshire Cat. Understanding their connections takes plenty of infrastructure knowledge. Any administrator who wants to manage assets or find performance bottlenecks must have a map. The GCN Lab took a look at three tools, Visio Enterprise, Micrografx NetworkCharter Pro and netViz 4.0, for mapping devices connected to a network. Each takes a slightly different approach that fits specific purposes.

Large networks can be as inscrutable as the Cheshire Cat. Understanding their
connections takes plenty of infrastructure knowledge. Any administrator who wants to
manage assets or find performance bottlenecks must have a map.


The GCN Lab took a look at three tools, Visio Enterprise, Micrografx NetworkCharter Pro
and netViz 4.0, for mapping devices connected to a network. Each takes a slightly
different approach that fits specific purposes.


Ideally, you would simply click one button and receive a wealth of information about
all connected devices. None of the three tools was that good, but each one could direct
you toward a reasonable graphical view of your network.


Visio Enterprise is the simplest to use and makes helpful diagrams. NetViz and
NetworkCharter Pro are a little difficult but set up better back-end databases.


Visio Enterprise is multipurpose. Not only can it diagram, it also handles database and
software modeling. Users familiar with Visio Corp.’s Visio Standard and Visio
Professional packages will feel comfortable with it.


I found Visio Enterprise easy to install and run. Help menus were never far away, and
they would helpfully pop up for certain tasks.


The first step is to invoke Visio’s AutoDiscovery feature, which makes Simple
Network Management Protocol calls and TCP/IP pings and goes into the network router’s
Address Resolution Protocol cache to find device-specific information. AutoDiscovery can
map a small workgroup LAN, a departmental network or even an enterprise with WAN links,
bridges and switches.


When this examination is finished, Visio makes logical network diagrams. They might
show, for example, an IP subnet without describing how its various devices are connected.


The GCN Lab’s test network has a number of hubs connected to a multiprotocol
switch. All the devices, including the lab’s router, are either connected via hub or
directly to the switch. Visio diagrammed this setup correctly, breaking out the router and
WAN. But it represented all the devices as simply hooked up to an IP cloud representing
the lab’s network.


Such an approach can be useful in a WAN environment. It does not, however, show the
true physical hierarchy. That job has to be done manually in Visio Enterprise.


Visio Enterprise has a library of more than 14,000 vendor-specific device shapes. Each
shape appears with full port detail, letting you diagram connections to ports on a device.
The huge shape library is searchable by vendor, product type or product line through the
Locate Network Equipment utility.


Devices discovered by Visio Enterprise can have information associated with them,
especially if they are SNMP-enabled. But Visio Enterprise failed to recognize many of the
lab’s SNMP devices such as hubs and switches. In view of the many different SNMP
implementations, this could be the fault of Visio or of the hardware vendors.


Overall, I found Visio Enterprise diagramming extremely easy. Creating nested diagrams
was not so easy, nor was the handling of device information. Visio Enterprise has an
internal database, but it is not as accessible as those of the two other packages. The
AutoDiscovery feature certainly helps you get started, but expect to apply elbow grease to
make the diagram look the way you want.


Visio Enterprise builds multiple layers into a diagram so that you can add or strip
away information. You can also make a multipage diagram.


If the network runs Novell Directory Services, Visio can import NDS information. The
same will likely be true for the as yet-unreleased Microsoft Active Directory. If you find
it difficult to visualize or describe your network from its directory tree, Visio
Enterprise is an excellent tool for you.


It’s also a good choice for simply diagramming a new network. The wealth of
vendor-specific and generic shapes lets any administrator diagram in great detail. If you
want a visual front end for network or asset management, however, consider one of the
other products.


NetworkCharter Pro makes network diagrams, but its primary task is documenting the
network by putting data behind the pretty pictures.


I found it easy to install, though problems did arise on one test machine running beta
versions of Microsoft Explorer 5.0 and Office 2000. On another machine with nonbeta
software, it installed and ran fine.


What most impressed me was NetworkCharter Pro’s device discovery. Visio
Enterprise’s AutoDiscovery found all the IP devices on the lab network, but
NetworkCharter Pro did a much better job of identifying them. Whereas Visio Enterprise
simply saw a router, a printer and 16 stations, NetworkCharter Pro could identify the
router and printer models and break out the servers from the clients.


NetworkCharter Pro goes a step beyond the usual pinging and looking at SNMP
communities. It can log in to Microsoft Windows and Novell NetWare services with a user
identification and password that you supply. This paints a much more complete picture.


NetworkCharter Pro makes incremental updates to its database whenever it discovers new
devices or network changes. Components that might be part of a larger device can be
logically linked, giving a granular view.


There are 9,000 network shapes to customize diagrams. The network shapes all possess
configuration rules and attribute fields.


As many as 50 fields might contain data about a particular device or component. Such
fields are valuable for asset management, maintenance or customization.


NetworkCharter Pro’s strong database makes it easy to generate reports about
devices’ year 2000 status, inventories and bills of materials.


If it sounds as if NetworkCharter Pro is just a relational database with a graphical
front end, that’s correct. It deals with diagrams and the devices displayed on them
as if they were views of the underlying database. But you need not be a database expert to
manipulate NetworkCharter Pro.


It is plenty flexible at dealing with multiple diagrams. They not only link devices in
a parent-child relationship but also can take the child back up the chain to a
higher-level diagram. Child diagrams can uplink to multiple parent diagrams.


For example, you might have a diagram of all computers connected to a hub. Another
diagram might show the hub in relation to the larger network. You can link the two to
another diagram showing the different departments served by the network. One parent
diagram shows the network hardware while another shows how the network reflects
organizational structure. Both of them link to the same child diagram.


The $995 NetworkCharter Pro handles an unlimited number of devices; a $349 version
called NetworkCharter supports only 150 devices. There are differences between the two
versions’ shape inventories and other features. Government offices probably should
buy the Pro version.


As a whole, NetworkCharter Pro makes an excellent choice for the serious administrator
who needs diagrams plus a way to leverage device information for asset management.


NetworkCharter Pro’s simple interface and powerful features deserve the GCN
Reviewer’s Choice designation. The ability to add, delete or modify multiple objects
at the same time simplifies use on large networks.


The underlying database is a powerful aid in technical and asset management. Though not
as easy as Visio Enterprise, NetworkCharter Pro probably is the best choice for many
offices.


Does that mean the third product is less good? Hardly.


The netViz 4.0 package from netViz Corp. is as solid as NetworkCharter Pro—even
better in some ways. It also gets a Reviewer’s Choice designation with certain
caveats.


In terms of features, netViz 4.0 stands at the top of the heap. But it is so complex
that it is daunting at first.


The other two products target the solo manager who wants network diagrams and data.
NetViz is better suited for multiple users who control large networks and WANs.


Interestingly, netViz 4.0 does not go out and discover network devices. Company
representatives told me that in large environments, automated discovery takes too long and
delivers results of limited value.


After evaluating all three products, I have to agree with them. Automated discovery is
just the jumping-off point. An administrator still must do lots of manual work to get an
accurate diagram.


The best compromise, achieved by Micrografx’s NetworkCharter Pro, discovers
devices but does not try to describe their relationships. This cuts down on the amount of
work the administrator has to do, without inserting a lot of incorrect information that
must be changed later.


Unlike the other tools, netViz does not merely diagram a representation of an
underlying database.


The diagram instead is an integrated part of the database.


NetViz can make Open Database Connectivity calls to other databases, such as those
maintained by network management software, and it can write back changes to them. If you
already have a network management infrastructure, you can use netViz as a visual front end
without needless duplication of data. And because the diagrams can be refreshed at any
time via ODBC, they become a big help in diagnosing problems or recognizing changes.


Another nice feature is that once you incorporate some of the 4,000 bundled device
shapes—or some of your own—netViz 4.0 creates a new shape catalog including all
the shapes.


Getting all the data on one page is a big problem for anyone trying to diagram
networks. The netViz approach is to set up a diagram hierarchy with layers.


Such diagrams need not be just lines and boxes. One diagram that came with netViz
showed a digital image of an office building.


To share the diagrams with users who do not have netViz, export them to Microsoft
PowerPoint or—with an optional module—to the Web. Exported diagrams maintain
their links between diagrams and devices.


One of the most useful features is that once an object is created in netViz, it can
exist in more than one diagram.


The single best thing about netViz is that it gathers all network documentation into
one place and presents it visually. But don’t expect to draw charts the day after you
install the tool. It takes time and a group of people to get the most out of netViz. When
the initial work is done, managing your network will be easier and cheaper. 


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