Software

The 10 best ways to visually represent IT data

The right chart, image, or diagram can be invaluable in clarifying and conveying IT information. The trick is finding the best tool to illustrate the specific concept or type of data you're representing.

In all areas of IT, there are a number of situations where certain ways of presenting data, configuration details, or a sequence of events work best. We often tend to rely on one tool for everything because we're familiar with it, but that isn't always the best approach. Here is my top 10 list of the most effective ways to visually represent IT data.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download and as a TechRepublic photo gallery.

1: Network connectivity -- Microsoft Visio

I'll admit that one of my nicknames over the years has been "Kid Visio." Visio is a capable tool for documenting network connectivity. It's not the right tool for documenting the configuration, but it does a good job of outlining the logical layout. From a top-down perspective, I feel Visio does this best. Figure A shows a sample network diagram that clearly shows the logical layout of the network.

Figure A

2: Application layout and architecture -- Microsoft Visio

Let's face it: Applications can get complex today. Virtual machines, replicated databases, firewall configurations, virtual IP addresses, mobile applications, and more make documenting an application flow no easy task. Again, I've found Visio to be the tool that reigns supreme. In the example shown in Figure B, many complicated aspects of the infrastructure are represented visually in one flow. While it doesn't address the details of aspects such as the database replication, it is a good springboard to those other areas of key content.

Figure B

3: Free disk space -- Pie charts

I'm not really a fan of pie charts, but they do the trick for representing free space on a disk. This can be Windows drives as well as critical volumes, such as a VMware VMFS datastore or a drive on a storage area network (SAN). The pie chart is a veteran at representing free space, and in the example shown in Figure C, you can see its effectiveness for this application. But take a pie chart with a grain of salt. We need to visualize how much drive space is used as well as how much free space is available.

Figure C

4: Year-over-year performance tracking -- Excel 3D bar charts

For tracking performance year over year for a moving target, I find that the 3D bar charts within Excel do a good job of showing the progress. It doesn't have to be year over year, either; it can represent quarterly assessments or even a comparison of something, such as different offices. In my work experience, I created a simple 3D bar chart within Excel that looked something like the one in Figure D to track progress moving to virtual machines from physical servers.

Figure D

5: Consumption compared to other like entities -- Excel Bubble charts

Quickly visualizing the consumption in proportion to other like consumers is easy with the bubble chart. One common example is representing the number of servers (or PCs) in a given location, which the bubble chart in Figure E does well. But it's important to note that there is a significant limitation with the bubble chart: It assumes that all items are equal consumers. A good example would be 100 file servers compared to 100 Oracle database servers. In most situations, the file servers require much less maintenance and resources than the database servers. Nonetheless, the bubble chart is effective in displaying numbers by category.

Figure E

6: Performance reporting -- Line graphs

The line graph is a good way to represent direct consumption. A number of tools utilize the line graph for this function, including the VMware vSphere Client, shown in Figure F. But the line graph also has a limitation: If the tool displaying the consumption does any normalization of data, there may be missing highs or lows. To be fair, when there is so much data to manage, normalization of performance data is a common occurrence.

Figure F

7: Step-by-step procedures -- Camtasia Studio

When it comes to showing something onscreen, the de facto standard for recording the activity for replay is Camtasia Studio (Figure G). Camtasia has all the features you would want, including voice overlay and easy uploads to popular sites such as YouTube. This is a good way to practice a presentation and deliver solid emphasis without having to reinvent the wheel every time. I've also used Camtasia a number of times for prerecording demos to play during live presentations. Pausing the recording to explain an important point or field a question isn't as distracting as interrupting a live demo. Even if I am giving a live demo, a Camtasia recording is a nice backup or "emergency demo," if I need it.

Figure G

8: Topics in outline form -- Microsoft PowerPoint

There are a number of strategies for creating and delivering PowerPoint presentations (and presentations in general). But PowerPoint is especially useful for creating an outline that can be conversationally discussed (Figure H). I've learned a few tricks over the years: Never have a presentation go longer than 59 minutes and 59 seconds; don't cover more than three main topics per slide; and make the outline focus primarily on the problem, which you can then backfill with the solution.

Figure H

9: Customized maps -- Microsoft Visio

Visio has map stencil objects (Figure I) you can use to document all kinds of things, such as assigning territories within a business and mapping out network and datacenter connectivity. You can download the map stencils from Microsoft (click the Find Shapes Online option). A U.S. stencil and a world stencil are available for modern Visio versions.

Figure I

10: Specific data sets --Webdesigner Depot

This awesome resource has a number of links to tools that provide specific visualizations of things such as Internet trending topics and the Internet as a whole, as well as images of an event or even the history of science. Figure J shows a good way to visualize current events on the Internet using Web Trend Map 4. The popular Infographic series is also a great resource that will inspire new ways to present data in an interpretable manner.

Figure J

About

Rick Vanover is a software strategy specialist for Veeam Software, based in Columbus, Ohio. Rick has years of IT experience and focuses on virtualization, Windows-based server administration, and system hardware.

30 comments
jack6666
jack6666

... source of information this was for me personally. All the best and, again, my true appreciation for such a wonderful post! Outdoor Lighting | Landscape Lighting Ideas

uswah123
uswah123

very nice impressive article the information provided is quite useful and helping Laptops in Karachi

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

I believe that would come in handy, no?

AlexEvolven
AlexEvolven

Hi. This is a great post. So many ways to present data. I thought I would chime in here with the way we present data in the detailed area of configuration analytics where proposing an actionable dashboard for remediation is key in avoiding IT incidents. Hope our way of doing things can bring you some insight. ???Evolven has introduced a change control solution that discovers all changes in real time, analyzes their impact, detects the rogue ones, and proposes an actionable dashboard for remediation. It connects to the service desk change requests to determine what was authorized,??? writes Jean-Pierre Garbani, VP, Forrester Research. I invite you to check out: Speed, Complexity and Change - Facing the Pitfalls of Configuration Management http://www.evolven.com/blog/speed-complexity-and-change-todays-pitfalls-facing-configuration-management.html Best, Alex Gutman Technology Evangelist Evolven Software, Inc. alexg@evolven.com http://www.evolven.com

satiutni
satiutni

I shall apply the principles involved but prefer to substitute good Open Source equivalents for most of my clients now.

aniketbhosle
aniketbhosle

Hi Rick! Good Post I say. Excellent when your boss would want you to make a management level PPT for chunks of IT data. I think this post more or less covers all aspects of IT data - performance, space, architectures, etc.! Thanks! - @annoyket

elfchief-techrepublic
elfchief-techrepublic

I've been making network diagrams (and other similar things) for years with Visio, and I can't say I've ever considered it a good tool for much of anything. Sure, it's functional, but it ranks right up there with "root canal" on my list of things I want to have to deal with in a day.

CRSI-Tech
CRSI-Tech

The book was an eye opener for me. Too often the tools dictate the presentation not the need to communicate ideas. For example, how many times have you seen a used car with a sign in the window with a big picture of a car and unreadable text (at least while driving by)? If the sign maker were concerned with communicating to the possible buyer, they'd put a price and a phone number on the card and let the fact that it is ON THE CAR imply that the car is for sale. Instead the person building "templates" for presentation has to put a picture of a car on it so the mindless end user will "use the right template" when making Car For Sale signs! Absurd, but entertaining! Tufte's books are a bit pricy but worth the read. Library is a good source as its not something you'll need to reference over and over.

mhtaylor
mhtaylor

Pie Charts are great for estimating fractions and percentages by seeing angles, but only if the are circular and not "in perspective" where they appear elliptical on the screen. Why did not Microsoft see this rather than the elliptical view in the diagrams for disc free space? Simple is often best!

mikeho1
mikeho1

I got excited when I saw the headline, but the article doesn't say anything about what I expected: diagramatic representations of corporate / business data, such as ER diagrams. For an IT Business Analyst, needing to regularly give detailed yet intelligible representations of corporate data and relationships, and not having access to a full blown CASE type tool, I've used MS Access, and Powerpoint. I had several bad experience with Visio - it was very buggy a few years back, and don't go near it these days. Any other suggestions.

David Stratton
David Stratton

You're missing an item that is woefully lacking in IT. Dependency Mapping - the ability to determine which systems would be affected if this server went offline, etc. My company had spent several months writing an application that did this, and then we ran across Blueprints by Pathway Systems, which is incredible. We dumped our own product, and were up and running with Blueprints in no time. It's helped us immeasurably in our Disaster Recovery planning. http://www.pathwaysystems.com/products/blueprints/

RealGem
RealGem

The problem with bubble charts is that the they represent numbers through the area of the bubble. This is a problem because area increases as a square of the diameter. Linear dimensions, like diameter, are what people interpret best. Expecting people to understand Pi-r-squared is unrealistic. A bubble chart that has twice the diameter does not have twice the area (it has more). Vertical bar charts work because the horizonal dimension is fixed. The vertical dimension varies in a linear fashion compared to the others. In your bubble chart example, you actually provided redundant information. The x axis represented the number of servers, which you also represented with the size of the bubble. Completely unnecessary.

gahmed
gahmed

Rick Excellent selling for MS :-) I think that MS Excel is an exceptionally excellent tool with which you can carryout the most (if not all) of above listed data representation Would be a good idea if you can do a listing of tools that comes free which can get you similar results.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

lumps of data. If you wanted to show best, then you needed some not best ways of showing the same data. Just something to think about next time you present some data on the best way to present something....

max_aguilar
max_aguilar

Consider Six Sigma, as it gives one additional tools for viewing data. One thing we sometimes fail to see is the variation a process generates. Tools like Run Charts, Box Plots can show you not only Averages (mean or median) but also the variation (Q1 - Q3). For example, one could use these tools to see how the average and variation of the temperature/humidity of your data center.

Graydog
Graydog

I guess when the charting technology available was rulers, protractors and compasses, pie charts were OK. Even now, they're probably OK for data sets with seven or fewer segments (see George Miller for why seven.) So, technically, for free disk space, which is two segments - free and not-free - it'll work. But for every other application, the "treemap" (see WinDirStat for an especially good [and free] version) is a superior representation of the allocation of a whole to parts.

zalanmeggyesi
zalanmeggyesi

In my opinion, the best tool for presenting network architectures is Packet Tracer. It allows me to quickly put together a map of our network both in the logical and the physical sense to show to execs, who may or may not have the knowledge to grasp an entirely logical map, like you present, but need some simplification.

jstribling
jstribling

The dumbest thing ever invented was wicker underwear by Edna Thrushmoore of Pratt's Bottom, Kent. Seriously though, The information in the so-called perspective view pie chart is easily interpreted, especially if there are only two categories (used vs. unused) and the data is also presented as a true percentage alongside the visual. Enough anti-pie chart Chauvinism! Once in a while, even the lowly pie chart can be useful, particularly when reporting something as simple as free disk space. This was the author's point: different graphs for different tasks! I will concede, however, that 4-dimensional hyper-pie charts can be somewhat difficult to evaluate, even more so when viewed edge-on.

blarman
blarman

The only thing I can see is advertising for Microsoft Visio and Excel. The article Title infers that it is going to cover different types of charts - not focus solely on the programs the author thinks are good at displaying them. What I wanted to see included: 1. A particular type of dataset 2. The type of chart/graph best for displaying it. 3. (Optional) some various tools/programs to display it. Give this article a D.

bbbaldie_z
bbbaldie_z

Seriously, I do appreciate the knowledge I was able to glean, I can apply it to genning jpgraph PHP charts. I could never figure out what those perplexing bubble charts were good for!

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

The oval shaped "perspective" style pie charts are the dumbest thing ever invented. A pie chart has one purpose and one purpose only: to visually represent percentages of a whole. Squashing the chart so that the regions of the circle are distorted renders that chart useless.

b4real
b4real

But I'm not out to give a tutorial on OpenOffice or equivalent.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

To be blunt, the article would have been better in relating how presentation of data makes IT data easier to read. Something like a how-to guide and gallery, but instead we got a list of what to buy. While I must agree that I miss Visio (c'mon DIA team!), we have been producing Linux based networks for years with nary a Windows box among us. Our dashboards have been the envy of our local MS competitor, and no, Open Office is only used for writing the reports.

mSheppard+techRepublic
mSheppard+techRepublic

You can do most of the above without paying the Microsoft Tax using a number of free tools. The first one that comes to mind is Google Docs and Jing (pretty sure Jing is free for most things you'd use it for)

satiutni
satiutni

The only thing they are good for is to misrepresent the data - sadly a common thing in the commercial world!

David Stratton
David Stratton

I don't have that information. I was a part of the team that evaluated it and am the project manager in charge of implementing it and training users. The purchasing and pricing was handled by others in out IT department, but from what I understand they feel it was worth every penny. I'd say to contact Blueprints for a quote. They were not the type to keep pestering you once they got your contact informaiton. My interactions with them have been very favorable, and they have gone out of their way to help us out.

satiutni
satiutni

A better approach might have been to use a greater mix of software to produce the diagrams (and say so) - rather than just use the commercial software at the top of the sponsorship list.

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