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Network & Systems Management
F E A T U R E  
Design Tools Come Into Focus

  September 17, 2001
  By Howard Marks

Over the years we've seen all sorts of tools used to document networks. Some of the more popular have been spiral notebooks, Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and, of course, the ever-popular Post-It note. More technically savvy administrators have used Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView for autodiscovery, and we even know of one company that had two full-time AutoCAD operators, equipped with the high-end workstations and wide-format printer/plotters that are the AutoCAD user's stock in trade, just to keep LAN documentation up to date. Not many companies can go to such lengths, and Post-It notes invariably lose their stickiness and end up as coasters, so we set out to find a better solution.

In gathering products for this article we considered tools capable of performing three common network-documentation tasks. The first is to diagram existing networks using ping, NetBIOS queries, SNMP and other techniques -- probably the most important task for network managers.

The second job is developing proposals for customers or senior management. To perform this task well, products must produce diagrams of proposed networks and bills of materials. It would be a bonus if the product would also let you configure device options, reminding you that you need a memory upgrade to support all those ports on that router, a useful feature for anyone designing a network.

The last task is interacting with an external database so you can see information on specific devices -- for example, the service contract number and configuration file name for a diagrammed router. High marks here go to products that also update the diagram from the database to show changes.

While network-management tools like HP OpenView can generate network topologies automatically, the tools we tested are simpler, produce more aesthetically appealing diagrams and typically are much less expensive than management consoles (for a look at network-management frameworks, click here.)

Surveying the market, we identified seven possible players, but two of our old favorites declined to be included in this roundup. NetSuite Development Corp. has been acquired by Visionael Corp. and its technology integrated into Visionael. NetCracker Technology Corp. has ceased actively marketing its Microsoft Windows-based Designer product, instead shifting its marketing direction to Unix- and Web-based solutions for service providers.

Left answering the call were Altima Technologies with its NetZoom 2000; Fluke Networks with Network Inspector Network Monitoring Software; Microsoft Corp. with its new release of the ubiquitous Visio, Visio Professional 2002; Netformx with its Network Designer 3.0 with Enterprise AutoDiscovery, also sold as Cisco Systems Network Designer and SBC Enterprise Designer; and netViz Corp. with netViz 3D. These five very different products all fall into the broad class of network documentation and diagramming tools, and we found each has strengths.

For example, Netformx's Network Designer excels at design tasks. Not only can you quickly build a diagram of a proposed network, you can validate that you have selected all the memory upgrades and software options needed to make your system work. When the time comes to tally your bill of materials, Network Designer can even include prices. Its autodiscovery is also strong, building diagrams and equipment lists with more configuration detail than that of any other product tested. The product doesn't, however, offer real database integration or living documentation showing changes from your asset management or circuit database right on the drawing.

Visio 2002 is the most accessible product -- nearly anyone can use it. As you would expect from a general-purpose drawing package, Visio did just about every diagramming task we asked it to do, but its reporting features for creating bills of materials are limited, and the database interfaces are obscure. Even though building a diagram with Visio's autodiscover and layout feature wasn't as automatic as we'd like, if you can have only one tool, a Swiss Army knife like Visio could be the right pick.

Fluke's Network Inspector doesn't do proposals, but it does discover data we've never been able to find with other tools -- including what ports on your hubs and switches your devices are plugged into. If you want to diagram this data, Network Inspector generates diagrams in Visio. Network Inspector also can monitor your switches for error rates and generate alerts, as a network-management platform does. If you've found yourself in charge of a network where the wiring closets look like an explosion in a spaghetti factory, you'll want Network Inspector.

If you're trying to build living documentation, netViz 3D is the solution. This product contains all the features of the popular netViz Professional 5.0 plus 3-D views and exports to .rib and .tif formats. Its database interface is powerful yet simple to use and even allows changes to the data, which could come from a network-management application or trouble-ticket system, to be reflected in the diagram. NetViz also rises above the pack thanks to its Web publishing functionality and unique ability to create 3-D and composite views showing interpage or diagram links.

Finally, Altima sent us its NetZoom 2000, which didn't quite fit with the others but which we consider a must-have for large, heterogeneous networks (see "NetZoom Shapes Up as a Good Buy").

We took our testing show on the road to a major New York-based advertising agency. The agency's network, with six remote offices; 30 branch offices; and more than 4,000 nodes, including PCs, Unix machines and Macintosh workstations and servers, gave the products a chance to shine. Or not.

While each product has strengths, Network Designer took our Editor's Choice award because it has both a stronger-than-average autodiscovery engine, which excelled at collecting SNMP and configuration detail about network gear, and the ability to validate network designs and Cisco equipment configurations. Each of the other products is either a one-trick pony -- Network Inspector with its Layer 2 discovery, netViz with its database integration -- or, in the case of Visio, a jack of all trades, master of none.

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