Over the past decade or so, Network Diagram tools have become an essential part of modern administrative toolkits. As companies begin to maintain more complex IT infrastructure, the ability to map these complex landscapes becomes even more important. After all, if you don’t have a clear understanding of your network topology, you don’t have complete network transparency. Network mapping is a key element in network monitoring tools. Getting a visible representation of each of your network devices and their relationships gives you a context for all of your equipment monitoring tasks.
A tool that produces a diagram of your network and maps its connectivity from head to toe can tell you a lot about your technical infrastructure. This not only increases your efficiency but also enhances your ability to troubleshoot problems. You simply cannot respond to performance concerns intelligently unless you have a thorough understanding of your network’s geography.
By understanding where your hardware sits in your network infrastructure, you’re better able to address problems promptly when they occur. You will also be able to maintain a targeted approach to cybersecurity ensuring that you systematically protect every system available on your network. In most cases this will be achieved by identifying faulty hardware or optimizing your network.
What is a Network Map?
As the name suggests, a network map is a visual diagram of your network that displays each device within your local IT environment. A network map details the location of components like routers, VLANs, access points, firewalls, switches, hosts, laptops, and computers. This map acts as a schematic guide to your network.
While a network map can be drawn by hand, doing so is very complex and inefficient. Today most enterprises choose to employ a network diagram and topology tool to automate the process of drawing up their network. This ensures they can can produce a diagram promptly and scale it to the needs of their enterprise in the future. Network monitoring tools usually include a network mapping module.
Why Do I Need a Network Diagram and Mapping Tool?
The main reason administrators use network diagram tools is to save time. Creating a network map from scratch without the help of a dedicated program is very complex and time consuming. In addition, once you’ve taken the time to draw up your map, its most likely going to be out of date by the time it is finished.
The IT infrastructure of most large organizations is constantly evolving. A network diagram tool has the potential to keep up with these changes and ensure that you always have an accurate depiction of your network on hand for reference. Drawing up network diagrams manually simply takes too long to keep up with the changes occurring on most networks (particularly enterprise grade networks!).
One of the most well-known network mapping tools is SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper. Tools like Network Topology Mapper are great because they offer an auto-discovery feature that automatically identifies devices on a network and charts them on a map. This map can then be used as a network guide for administrators or used for PCI and FIPS-142 compliance. By using tools like Network Topology Mapper, you end up with a clear overview of your equipment.
Utilizing a network diagram and mapping tool is the only way to design a network diagram promptly in way that keeps pace with the evolving infrastructure of a modern IT environment. Having an up-to-date map is fundamental to troubleshooting your network and optimizing services.
In other words, topology plays an integral part in how your network performs. For example, the longer a data packet travels on your network, the longer your communication time. It thus makes sense to design a network path that is as efficient as possible. Below we’ve produced a short list of essential features of network diagram mapping tools:
- Autodiscovery – Top of the range network mapping tools can discover devices automatically, and run port scans to see which services are up and running.
- Troubleshooting – Part of effectively troubleshooting a network is having a top-down view of what’s happening on each individual host or device.
- Live Monitoring – You can see what’s happening on your network live and receive alerts when changes occur in your infrastructure.
- Intelligent Scalability – You can use a network mapper to run reports on your network and identify which components need to be upgraded.
Mapping tools for network analysis
The network map assists you with analysis tasks as well as day-to-day monitoring. If the network suddenly slows, it is important to isolate whether the problem is truly system-wide or really the fault of one piece of equipment. Live network maps that graphically represent the statuses of all of your network’s elements instantly highlight the location of a problem.
Getting a map is often the starting point of any project to expand a network in order to serve more users or include new software services. Capacity planning needs to be performed on two levels — for the network as a whole and also on a per-device basis. Impact studies of changes in the network can only be performed when you understand which neighboring devices attach to any network segment that is the subject of change.
Network topology tools recommendations
- SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (FREE TRIAL)
- Paessler PRTG Network Mapping Tools (FREE TRIAL)
- ConceptDraw Pro
- CADE (Free)
- Dia (Free)
- Network Notepad (Free)
- Microsoft Visio
- Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold
- GoVisual Diagram Editor (Free)
As mentioned above, SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper is easily one of the most popular network mapping tools available today. It has all the core components expected from a top-of-the-range Network mapping tool without the exorbitant price tag. Solarwinds comes in at a price of $1,537 (£1,135). This price includes an auto-discovery feature that can be scheduled to automatically detect new devices and automatically scale according to your IT infrastructure.
As a bonus, you can generate extensive reports for switch ports VLANs, and subnet scans. These can then be exported for further analysis if you wish to get a more in-depth perspective. When exporting, you can turn reports into PDF or PNG files and view them with a third-party tool of your choice. You can also filter what you see by device type and network elements if you want to take a microscope to your topology.
What really sets SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper apart from more generic diagram construction tools is its auto-discovery feature. This really helps get your map completed without spending ages building one from scratch with templates. You can download and evaluate SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper on a 14-day free trial here.
The Paessler PRTG infrastructure monitoring suite features network mapping tools that offer you a range of formats. The most eye-catching map that PRTG produces is its sunburst view. This shows circles of applications together with the services and hardware that supports each. The sunburst view can be applied to a range of map data.
Other mapping options include a straight-forward plot of all of the devices in the network with connections depicted as straight lines. The standard map shows icons for the nodes. Each icon takes the form of the device type. You can customize the icons if you like. Color-coded statuses are shown for each device. The links between devices are also color-coded with healthy link shown in green and problem links colored red. This is a very easy-to-read map and it gives you statuses at a glance as well as the relationships and dependencies between devices.
Other map options give you templates that you can adapt and personalize. A building plan will show the location of each device on your premises and even integrate photos of your offices. Another option, which is great for WANs, plots your network on a real, zoomable map of the world.
The focus of each map can be altered on command to show only Layer 2 or Layer 3 devices. You can feature applications, protocols, and throughput. You can also create your own custom maps using a mapping module that links through to the underlying data of the device inventory.
The fact base that underpins any mapping format is the register of equipment and software that you command. This database is assembled automatically by PRTG when you install the software. The network discovery function keeps running, so any changes that you make to your resources gets registered by the monitor. Those changes get rippled through to your network maps automatically.
PRTG installs on Windows. However, you can opt to use the monitor as a cloud-based service. The data collectors of the monitor are called “sensors.” You can get PRTG for free to monitor up to 100 sensors. Paessler offers a 30-day free trial with unlimited sensors so that you can assess the software.
3. ConceptDraw Pro
For medium size enterprises, ConceptDraw Pro stands its ground against every other network-mapping program on this list. The user interface (clearly inspired by Microsoft Visio) allows you to create a variety of visual displays of your network environment as well as export Visio files. Though it may look like a generic diagram construction tool, it has the depth needed to build complex network designs.
As a result, features like Building Plan Designer and Smart Connector allow you to automate the entire process of creating a network blueprint. This makes it suitable for organizations looking to keep up with dynamic network environments. This is all the more impressive when you consider that the price tag of ConceptDraw Pro 11 is $199 (£146).
The biggest advantage of ConceptDraw is it’s easy to use. If you’re familiar with Microsoft Word, then you’ll be able to find your way around ConceptDraw with no issue. You can create complex designs while using the simple navigation tree to find what you’re looking for. When starting out with ConceptDraw, newer users simply can’t go wrong. ConceptDraw can be downloaded from the company’s website here.
Lucidchart is one of the less known network mapping platforms that packs a tremendous punch. If you’re looking to fast track your map production, then look no further. From the outset you can launch straight into a template and start building your IT environment. This allows you to hit the ground running and get the basic elements down before you add your own unique network tools (it even has iPhone and Android mockups!).
For a single user, Lucidchart comes in at $4.95 (£3.66) a month but if you want to use the program with an entire team of people, it’s available for $20 (£14.77) a month for three or more people. You can also import Visio files straight into Lucidchart if you have existing diagrams you wish to use. Although you don’t have an inbuilt auto-discovery feature, UVexplorer is now compatible with Lucidchart, so you can use that as an ‘auto discovery plugin’. This platform is available on the Lucidchart website here.
Coming in with a price tag of $303 (£223) for 25 devices and $765 (£564) for 25 devices, Intermapper is one of the pricier network mapping tools on this list. This program is available for users on Windows, Linux, and Mac, making it a flexible platform in terms of deployment. Intermapper was built with auto discovery in mind and will automatically locate devices throughout your network and record them on a map.
Intermapper also allows you to filter through to specific parts of your setup. For example, you can view components in your network infrastructure by their location in your office or their floor. This helps tremendously when troubleshooting performance issues. Overall the user interface is simple to use and all working network devices are color coded so you can easily tell when your network is running smoothly. Intermapper can be downloaded from this link here.
6. CADE (Free)
In terms of network diagramming solutions, CADE takes a back-to-basics approach. While there is no fancy GUI, you’ll find that there is an extensive 2D vector editor. CADE is a free application that can be downloaded online. This makes CADE a good choice for teams looking for a suitable remote deployment platform. As a welcome addition, remote users can contribute in real time to a drawing on the web.
Once you’ve finished creating your drawings, you can also export them in EMF, JPG, XAML or PDF format. One of the more unique features CADE offers is its “draw cable” functionality. You can draw up unique cables to differentiate between devices. In the event that you need to look at your network more closely, you can simply zoom in (this is invaluable when dealing with an enterprise grade network).
The only issue with CADE is that it lacks an auto discovery feature. While it is incredibly flexible in its design potential, larger enterprises looking for a tool with scalability should go elsewhere. However, if your network environment is unlikely to change drastically within the next 12 months, then this is a solid tool. CADE can be downloaded for free here.
7. Dia (Free)
Smaller enterprises looking for an entry-level network mapping tool would be well advised to consider Dia. Dia’s general appearance is somewhat rudimentary but this is somewhat redeemed by its cross-OS availability. Dia is available for Microsoft Visio on Linux, Mac, Windows and Unix. This cross-platform application allows you to create a range of network maps. It has all the core IT component graphics to allow you to clearly see what your dealing with.
You can save your maps in XML format before exporting them in PNG, SVG, WMG, XFIG or EPS format. Although Dia is a great free tool, it simply isn’t prepared to map out complex network infrastructures. As a result this tool is only recommended for smaller enterprises that want to experiment with a low-cost network diagram mapping tool. You can download Dia for free on the platform website.
eDraw Max is another network mapping tool with a Microsoft-inspired user interface. Over 200 map template designs can be exported into PNG, JPEG and PDF formats. eDraw is more of a generalist diagram tool rather than a specific network mapper. However, its capacity to map out flow charts and complex layouts makes it a solid choice for drawing up a network plan.
One of the features that makes eDraw extremely useful is that you can zoom into your network objects without distorting the image. eDraw can handle complex diagrams, but if you’re looking for auto-discovery and a tool specifically made for network mapping, you’re probably better off with something like SolarWind’s Network Topology mapper.
eDraw has a free trial period, but if you wish to purchase you will need to pay $179 (£132) for a perpetual license. Alternatively you can purchase a lifetime license for $245 (£180) or a subscription license for $99 (£73) per year. eDraw Map Pro can be downloaded from the eDraw website here.
As the name suggests, LanFlow is tailor made for mapping out networks. As a result, it is a great choice for network administrators looking for a topology tool with a simple user interface. Everything in LanFlow is drag and drop, so if you want to add a new element to your diagram, all you need to do is click and move it.
You can also click on the Connectors tab to link diagram elements together (this is very useful when working with more complex network designs). LanFlow is available on a single-user license for $99 (£73), up to nine single user licenses for $639 (£471). All the onboard diagrams and devices like computers and laptops are vector free so that you can zoom in and out as needed. LanFlow can be downloaded from the Pacestar website here.
Next up we have NetProbe, a diverse Windows-based network topology tool. From the moment you download, NetProbe is simple to use throughout the design process. Simply open up the startup wizard and you can start designing your network from scratch. However, NetProbe isn’t your run-of-the-mill network mapping tool either: you can conduct real-time monitoring as well.
You can also log device information and use it to run local scripts to create graphs and alarms. All-in-all this is a good tool for users seeking a topology tool with an extra touch of network monitoring potential as well. While it doesn’t have the lean design of some of the other tools on this list, it still offers a very competitive package.
The Pro version costs $40 (£29) and covers up to 20 hosts, or buy the Enterprise version for $295 (£217) to accommodate up to 400 hosts. The quality of the core product and its scalability makes NetProbe a solid choice for SME’s and large enterprises alike. This platform can be downloaded from the NetProbe website here.
11. Network Notepad (Free)
Network Notepad is a freeware application available for Windows made specifically for mapping out network elements. While Network Notepad doesn’t have an extensive auto-discovery feature, it does have the Cisco Discovery Protocol Neighbor Tool (CPD), which can speed up the discovery process. The CPD tool allows the user to search through their network devices and pull information from elements with CDP information.
In terms of diagram construction, you can create multi-page diagrams with vector-based graphics, dragging and dropping elements in as you see fit. You can also create flow charts if you want to add more visual display. The core version is free, or you can purchase the Professional License for $24.00 (£18.00). Network notepad can be downloaded from the platform website here.
12. Microsoft Visio
In the world of network mapping tools, Microsoft Visio is somewhat of a household name. This nifty product has helped to inspire many other network mapping tools on this list. Visio comes in at a hefty price tag of $299 (£220) for the standard version and $590 (£435) for the pro version. For this price you buy the luxury of using over 70 templates and thousands of IT image objects to map your network.
One of the most noticeable things about Visio is its slick design. The default diagrams look very sharp, which makes it more convenient to draw distinguishable network maps. Unfortunately, Microsoft Visio is let down by its price. Though it offers an extensive suite of network mapping features, it doesn’t offer an auto-discovery feature. That being said, if you’re looking for a diagramming tool made specifically for network administrators, then look no further. Visio can be downloaded from the Microsoft website here.
13. Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold
WhatsUp Gold is a network device monitor with a number of add-ons available that extend the reach of monitoring through to your network traffic, servers, and applications. In each module, the installation completes with a system sweep. This will discover all of your IT property and log it. The device and software registries get interpreted automatically into maps. The discovery process is continuous and will update the registries automatically. Those changes also get shown on updated maps without any manual intervention.
The discovery and mapping functions are not limited to covering just the devices on your premises. It can extend to cloud services and also include infrastructure located on remote sites. So you can unify your operations and view all of your equipment, services and software in one central map.
The standard network map shows your Layer 2 and Layer 3 devices plus servers and the links between them. The devices are shown by a circular icon and the rim of each circle shows a status color: green for healthy and red for problems. The connections between devices are all shown on the map. You can customize the generated maps to make the layout more readable. You can also alter the views of the maps to show statuses and traffic flows for a specified application or protocol.
If you use virtualization on your system, you can get WhatsUp Gold to generate a map showing all of the linked elements that compose those VMs.
WhatsUp Gold and its add-ons all install on Windows. You can get a 30-day free trial so that you can assess the system before you buy.
14. GoVisual Diagram Editor (Free)
GoVisual Diagram Editor is a free diagram creation platform for Windows that matches up perfectly with the purpose of network mapping. The default network-inspired shapes cover an extensive range of network equipment, allowing you to piece together quite a complex IT environment. While this wasn’t made especially for network mapping, it certainly accommodates that market.
You can print and export your designs to PNG, JPEG, BMG and SVG. This is convenient if your planning to use your designs with a third-party tool. GoVisual Diagram editor has received a lot of criticism for being overly complex, but if you take the time to get past the initial learning curve, it is more than capable of creating diagrams for complex IT environments. In short, GoVisual provides a very impressive package for a free tool. GoVisual can be downloaded from this link here.
Network Maps: Showing You the Way Forward
Designing a network map from scratch can seem like an impossible task in the beginning, but with the help of a network mapping and topology tool, it doesn’t have to be. Employing the assistance of a network-mapping tool will ensure you don’t have to spend hours plotting your network on a map just to get to grips with your IT environment. If you want to be even more time-efficient, you can opt for a tool with auto-discovery like SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper.
In the world of network monitoring, network diagram mapping tools are very underrated. Many enterprises spend thousands on network monitoring suites but overlook the importance of managing their network infrastructure from a geographical perspective. Network topology tools are essential for restoring balance.
By incorporating network topology tools into your current network monitoring environment, you ensure the bare minimum standard of visibility necessary to see a complete view of your network. Ultimately, the better your view is, the more you’re able to adapt to the needs of the future. This not only allows you to maintain the integrity of your network but, helps take your performance to the next level.