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Are Manually Created Network Diagrams Becoming Extinct?

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Intent-based Networking
(Image: Pixabay)

Modern network telemetry collection techniques are paving the way for next-gen automated diagramming tools. In fact, automated network diagramming is getting so good, it may replace the need for manually created diagrams in many cases. Yet, while some diagramming duties may be handed over to automation tools to build and maintain, don't expect manual diagramming skills to go extinct suddenly.

A discipline that any respectable network architect must master is the ability to create network diagrams using software such as Microsoft Visio. Useful network diagrams must be well-organized, easy to digest and provide the necessary information to show how data flows move throughout an infrastructure. This is a skill that seems easy to learn on the surface – yet is surprisingly difficult to perfect. Manually drawn diagrams are also notoriously time-consuming to create and a pain to maintain when changes to the production network occur. This is precisely why many IT leaders are looking to automated methods for network diagram creation.

Modern network monitoring and streaming telemetry tools such as network analytics are beginning to fit this bill. These platforms can accurately and automatically discover, identify, map and plot the network in diagram form. It’s also leaps and bounds ahead of legacy auto-network diagramming tools. To better understand this, let’s compare legacy and modern automated diagramming methods.

Legacy auto-diagramming tools have been around for several decades. These tools relied on traditional monitoring and troubleshooting techniques such as ping, SNMP, CDP, and MAC address tables. In conjunction, these methods were used to self-discover network devices and plot them into a diagram. While the overall concept was sound, the diagrams created left a lot to be desired. Because the auto-discovery tools were rudimentary in nature, little information could be gleaned other than cursory information such as device type, IP address, and active/inactive interfaces and their speeds. 

Although this information is indeed useful -- and shows the general composition of the network -- these early automated tools created didn’t accurately display how the network functions. It’s for this reason that manually created diagrams remained so popular. Because the architect that designed the network fully understood how it was designed to transport data from point A to point B, they could accurately depict this information in the diagrams they manually created. This lack of insight into data flows in early automated diagramming applications created information gaps that were traditionally available on manually created alternatives. Thus, early diagrams created with these tools always felt as if "something was missing."

This is where modern network monitoring and analysis tools -- like network analytics platforms – come into play. In addition to collecting traditional network telemetry data such as SNMP, these tools can also collect real-time streaming network telemetry directly from the network devices themselves. Streaming telemetry includes granular information such as network device health, detailed data flows, and deep packet inspections that can be plotted and baselined over time. This is exactly the type of information that has been lacking with older automated diagramming tools. Now that this information can be easily collected an appropriately interrupted, automated diagrams can be thought of as a legitimate substitute to manual diagrams. Additionally, because network analytics platforms are constantly receiving new information in near real-time, the auto-generated diagrams can be continuously updated without any human interaction.

That said, if you’re a network architect that prides yourself on manual diagramming skills, don’t assume your Visio skills are now worthless. While improvements gained in modern automated network diagramming tools means that they will likely take over the creation and ongoing updates for production networks, manual diagraming will continue to be a sought-after skill in other areas. These areas include the diagramming of new networks as well as proposed network upgrades and any major changes. Remember, automated tools can only map what they can discover. Thus, from a network planning and design perspective, manually created diagrams drawn by a human architect will continue to be the go-to method for years to come.