The Ultimate Guide to Network Design

The Ultimate Guide to Network Design

Network design is the backbone of any enterprise grade network you’ll ever encounter. The design of a network is almost as important as your infrastructure in determining your system performance and your network monitoring ability. As a result, it is important to learn everything you can about how your network is connected.

>>>Jump to our list of the best network mapping tools below<<<

The structure of your topology will provide you with a strong basis for conducting quality of service (QoS) monitoring and troubleshooting. Understanding how your topology works will determine how effectively you can exercise quality of service monitoring. In this article we look at the basics of network design, why it is important, and provide you with a range of tools to help you design your network from scratch.

Why is Network Design Important?

Having a firm grip on your Network design and topology is incredibly important because it serves at the basis of network monitoring. If you don’t know how your network is structured and how its components connect together, then there is little you can do to maintain your service quality. In other words, without a topology map you’re going to be flying blind.

How well your network functions all comes down to how your devices communicate with each other. The speed with which packet transfers occur will be one of the biggest factors in the quality of your service. Building your topology structure intelligently will allow you to create a network that minimizes any bottlenecks and works to prevent any single point of failure. When troubleshooting it will make it easier to point to faulty devices (particularly if you have a topology map).

Network Layers

At the core of any networks design is the OSI model. The OSI is a network model that is comprised of seven layers. The layers of the OSI model from seven to one can be listed as follows: application, presentation, session, transport, network, data link, and physical.

When it comes to network topology in particular, the lower levels are the main point of focus. As a result, this guide will not cover layers five through seven. Having a solid awareness of how your network layers operate will assist you when going through the process of designing your network.

Layer 1 – The Physical Layer  

This layer includes all of the equipment that you can physically touch on your network, from routers, computers, hardware and cables right down to printers and laptops. It can also be used to refer to electric and wireless signals. At this stage an administrator’s main concern is making sure that the right devices are connected together, and making sure that connected devices aren’t too far apart.

Organizing the Physical layer will be your foremost concern when designing a network for a large office environment. The location of your equipment will have a strong influence on the quality of your service.

Layer 2 – The Data Link Layer (The Logical Link Layer)

This layer takes PDUs (Protocol Data Units) transferred from the network layer and prepares them for transmission via a container. In most enterprise networks, Ethernet is the container of choice (many WAN providers will use Ethernet to transmit your service). This layer is also used by Wireless (IEEE 802.11) and ARP (the Address Resolution Protocol).

Layer 3 – The Network Layer

This layer is used as to determine the path and logical addressing (IP) of all communications. Devices and software function on this level of the OSI model take packets from a source and route them to their end destination. It is worth emphasizing that the network layer sends information down to the data link layer ready to be transmitted.

Layer 4 – The Transport Layer

As the name suggests, the Transport layer is where the transport of data actually occurs. The aforementioned layers deal with the addressing, routing and delivery, but this layer actually controls how the data is broken down. The Transport layer breaks down into chunks (or reassembles them depending on the direction they’re travelling) before passing them on to the Network layer.

Network Mapping Tools

Having the right tool to design your network is an important part of network design. After all, you need a quality topology map in order to truly understand what is going on from service to service. In this section we’re going to look at some of the best tools for planning your network design and topology.

Here is our list of the best network mapping tools:

  1. SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (FREE TRIAL)
  2. CADE
  3. ConceptDraw Pro
  4. Dia
  5. Diagram Designer
  6. eDraw
  7. Microsoft Visio
  8. Network Notepad
  9. LanFlow
  10. Net-Probe

1. SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (FREE TRIAL)

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper is a tool made specifically for designing network diagrams from scratch. This is one of the best tools on this list on account of its autodiscovery feature. Autodiscovery automatically locates devices on your network and plots them on a canvas. The great thing about this is you don’t have to design a network map manually in order to reap the rewards. Autodiscovery can also be used to update network diagrams when new devices are added.

Once you’ve built your network map you can then export it to Microsoft Visio. This is useful if you want to conduct further editing and annotations. You can also export your maps into PDF and PNG formats. Generating a PDF makes it easier to pass information to your team when responding to performance concerns. Likewise, there is also the ability to generate reports on your network inventory.

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper is a tool that we highly recommend for organizations looking to maintain an up-to-date topology map. The autodiscovery function allows you to lay out your network design without having to draw up your network elements manually. SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper is available for $1,499 (£1,135). You can also download a Free 14-day trial from this link here.

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper Download 14-day FREE Trial




CADE is a topology mapper and 2D vector editor.This Windows-based design suite acts like Microsoft Visio and allows users to create custom diagrams to plot up their network topology. In addition to being accessible on Windows it is also available as a web-based user interface.

One of the best features of CADE is its “locking/unlocking” function. This allows multiple users to contribute to the design of your network simultaneously. This means when trying to stay up-to-date with changes and upscaling your network, you don’t have to do everything yourself. In the long term, this helps to boost productivity and reduces the amount of time you spend maintaining your maps.

Once you’ve created a map of your network, you can then export it in EMF, JPG, PDF, and XAML. This means that you can pass information to other members of your team for further analysis. Exporting maps keeps them within reach when you need them, and precisely where you need them.

Overall CADE is a program that has enough functions to support organizations of any size. If you can overlook the basic design, this product has plenty to offer larger enterprises.The best part about the program is that it is free. If you want to download CADE then you can do so from this link here.

3. ConceptDraw Pro

ConceptDraw Pro

ConceptDraw Pro is a diagram construction tool that has developed a strong reputation amongst network administrators. ConceptDraw Pro allows you to design diagrams based on your network topology. The user interface of this product is simple enough that you can start dragging and dropping elements into your design plans from Day One.

One particularly beneficial feature is that of flowcharts. You can process flowcharts and data flow diagrams to help you flesh out your network design. It is also worth noting that ConceptDraw Pro is also compatible with Microsoft Visio. You can draw up a diagram in ConceptDraw Pro before exporting it to Visio. This is more important for larger organizations that are looking for a tool to supplement the users of Microsoft Visio.

ConceptDraw Pro has the design chops to stand against tools tailored specifically for topology mapping. We recommend this product based on its compatibility with Microsoft Visio. ConceptDraw Pro 11 can be purchased for $199 (£150) and ConceptDraw Office 4 can be purchased for $499 (£377). A full rundown of pricing can be viewed here.

4. Dia

Dia screenshot

Dia is an open source tool that allows the user to design network diagrams with ease. While it doesn’t have a sophisticated user interface, it makes up for this discrepancy by being easy to use. One of the reasons why Dia is so popular is because of its extensive library of objects. It also has a substantial range of Cisco-based network elements to use as well. Computer, miscellaneous, network, switch, and telephony are all types of Dia diagrams that are available on the device.

The main drawback with Dia is the user interface. Compared to other tools on this list the design is very rudimentary. That being said, you can still use it to create quality diagrams. Despite its user interface, we recommend Dia because it is an excellent free diagram designer tool. Dia is available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux and can be downloaded for free from this link here.

5. Diagram Designer

Diagram Designer

When it comes to freeware network designing tools, Diagram Designer has built a name for itself as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Visio. You can create custom diagrams with traditional IT devices to help you develop a clear view of how your topology connects together.

Diagram Designer allows you to export your designs in a number of formats. Once you’ve finished a design you can export it in WMF, EMF, BMP, JPEG, PNG, MNG, ICO, GIX and PCX format. In addition, Diagram Designer compresses your design so that you don’t have a bloated file size.

Diagram Designer is a solid, free product but the user interface is a bit congested for working on larger networks. As a result, Diagram Designer is a better fit for smaller organizations with less complex networks. This platform is available on Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8, and 10. You can download Diagram Designer for free from this link here.

6. eDraw


eDraw is a 2D diagram software available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. eDraw allows you to design diagrams with specially-designed network devices. When using the program the images are the embodiment of clarity. With over 50,000 vector graphics, you can product a network diagram with devices that almost pop out of the screen!

The user interface is fairly simple to use, but what really helps your learning curve are the free templates included. You can lay the foundations for a diagram without having to spend hours compiling a basic design; everything is there already. Once you’re finished designing you can export your designs into Word, PDF, PPT, JPEG, and HTML format.

eDraw is available as a subscription or a license. Subscription licenses started at $8.25 (£6.25) per month. A perpetual license costs $179 (£135)  with a three-year upgrade guarantee. The Lifetime License costs $245 (£185) and includes a lifetime upgrade guarantee. There is also a free trial which can be downloaded from this here.

7. Microsoft Visio

Microsoft Visio

Microsoft Visio is one of the most famous diagram mapping tools on the market. The Microsoft Visio name has taken on a particular significance for network administrators who use this platform to chart devices. It is no secret that Microsoft Visio brings a crisper user experience to the table than most other tools in this category.

What really sets Microsoft Visio apart from the crowd is its extensive templates. You can create templates for network devices and data center setups, which makes it much easier for you to design a new network. Whether you’re dealing with a small network or a corporation’s worth of equipment, Microsoft Visio has the bandwidth to accommodate.

There are a number of pricing options available for Microsoft Visio. The cheapest version is the Standard version which is available for $249.99 (£188). The Professional Version is available for a price of $559.99 (£423). The main differences between the two are that Microsoft Visio Professional provides you with a home plan, floor plan, site plan, sets, and trigonometry. Microsoft Visio can be downloaded from this link here.

8. Network Notepad

Network Notepad Professional

Network Notepad is a free network mapping platform that has created waves as one of the low cost alternatives on the market. It features a range of IT elements to be used to build networks and elaborate topology maps. The user can drag and drop elements straight onto the canvas to start building diagrams. There is also a paid version called Network Notepad Professional which allows you to create multi-page diagrams with custom shapes.

Unfortunately Network Notepad is only available for Windows. On Windows, Network Notepad is available on Windows 1087VistaXP, and 2000. The paid version can be purchased for $27.74 (£21) per license. Each license is only valid for a single PC (and you need to supply a hardware ID for each). Before making a purchase, we recommend downloading the freeware version of Notepad or the 30-day free trial of Notepad Professional. Network Notepad Professional can be downloaded from this link here.

9. LanFlow


As the name suggests, LanFlow is a diagram production tool designed specifically for creating network diagrams. You can create detailed network diagrams right down to the cabling between devices. LanFlow includes a range of networking symbols in 2D and 3D.

LanFlow can be purchased on a single user license for $89 (£67). You can also download a free trial version of the product for 30 days. The free trial is almost fully featured but you’ll be unable to create complex diagrams depicting larger networks. We only recommend this product for those looking for an entry-level network diagram product. You can download the LanFlow free trial from this link here.

10. Net-Probe


Finally on our list we have Net-Probe. Net-Probe is a bit different than most of the other tools on this list, as it is primarily a network monitor but you can create network diagrams with it by adding your devices. Once you’ve added devices to the main screen they are color-coded based on their status. Red means critical, green means okay, and amber means a warning. If you’re attempting to use your network diagram for monitoring purposes as well this is incredibly useful.

Net-Probe is available on Windows 2000XP20032008, and Vista. The free version has the ability to monitor up to eight hosts. If you’d like more monitoring capabilities then the Pro version supports up to 20 hosts and costs $40 (£30). The priciest version is the Enterprise version at $295 (£223) for 400 hosts. The free version can be downloaded from this link here.

The Best Tool for Network Design: SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper

Each network diagram tool on this list has the ability to create high quality network diagrams. Whether you’re using these as a guide to your topology for monitoring purposes or you’re simply trying to get a better understanding of how your network fits together, there are plenty of tools here to assist you. If you need a solution to track your network topology as it evolves, we recommend SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper.

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper’s autodiscovery feature will allow you to generate an up-to-date network diagram without having to draw up diagrams yourself. While the price point is competitive, if you want to go for a product that is less costly then Microsoft Visio is also a solid choice. No matter which direction you decide to go in, it is a good idea to try out some of the free trials available. That way you can take your network platform for a test run before committing to a single product.

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