Anyone who has done any significant network diagramming has experienced the desire to do it right. That means using shapes and icons that closely represent what is actually present in the infrastructure and keeping track of information related to that object, such as rack location, asset tag, and purchase date.

NetZoom VisioStencils from (a.k.a. includes more than 4,500 stencils with more than 50,000 shapes for Microsoft Visio—the tool most commonly used by administrators to diagram networks. VisioStencils features manufacturers ranging from the well-known vendors, such as Cisco, Dell, and Microsoft, to much smaller companies like Ixia, Infrastor, and Draytek. So the chances are good that you’ll be able to find a stencil with a shape for the equipment you’re documenting.

Using the Web site
The VNEStencils Web site (Figure A) could use a little work. In this day of elegant, easy-to-use sites, the VNEStencils site stands out as not quite on par with other companies, and it’s not as well maintained. Luckily, the design of the site does not reflect on the product, which is excellent.

Figure A
The site

Opening an account
Opening an account with VNEStencils is easy and can be accomplished in a number of ways—Web, e-mail, telephone, and fax ordering are all supported purchasing options. However, you need to consider a few product options before ordering. All options are based on a Universal Subscription for NetZoom Stencils, which gives you access to download any stencils you want for a period of time.

First, you can purchase a Universal Subscription for a single user or in a five-user license pack. In addition, you have three options for the length of the subscription:

  • The standard option provides you with a 12-month subscription, which will allow you to get all updates for 12 months.
  • The basic option provides a 30-day subscription.
  • The renewal option provides a 12-month renewal to either subscription.

The standard option for a single-user pack is $399. Basic and renewal options are $299. For a five-user version, the pricing is $1,800 for the standard pack and $1,350 for the basic and renewal options. For an additional $10, many of the stencils will be shipped to you on a CD.

Once you place your order, you will get an e-mail message from Altima Technologies with your subscription ID.

Getting stencils
Getting stencils is quite easy. A number of vendors are listed at the bottom of the Web page with a check box and a message indicating the number of stencils currently available in that collection. As an example, I downloaded all of the available Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series stencils.

First, I searched for the word “Cisco” on the front page and checked the selection box for the Cisco stencils. Then, I scrolled to the bottom of the list and clicked Download Stencils for Visio 2000/2002. This brought up a form asking for my subscription information.

After I entered a valid subscription ID, a Java applet started to handle the download process. Figure B shows this applet, which confirms your download selections.

Figure B
The file download applet

When saving, it’s important to enter a pathname specifying where you want to save the stencils. One area for improvement that should be considered by VNEStencils is to provide a file system browsing option for this field.

After my stencils were downloaded, I found them in a subdirectory underneath the location I specified: C:\downloads\stencils\cisco6550. There were 86 files in this directory, each representing an individual stencil. Unfortunately, there were no stencils listed for the Catalyst 6500 series switch, which I found rather unusual. Upon further investigation I found them listed under the manufacturer CiscoSystemsMore and not in the CiscoSystems pack on the VNEStencils site.

Searching and selecting
To avoid this type of problem, you can use the VNEStencils search and preview feature. It lets you find the stencil pack you want and download specific stencils instead of all of the ones related to a manufacturer.

To do this, you click the Search Shape button on the home page and fill in the appropriate search information, as shown in Figure C. When you click Search, you’ll get the results shown in Figure D.

Figure C
Searching for a Catalyst 6500 stencil

Figure D
Search results for “6500”

Clicking on the name of a stencil will display a list of all the shapes it has available. When you click on a shape, you’ll see a preview of it, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
A preview of the stencil for Catalyst 6500

If you look at the bottom of the screen, you’ll see that the preview includes an option to look at four different views of the shape.

Using the stencils in Visio
Once you locate the stencil you want to use, you can open it up in your Visio drawing by choosing File | Open, navigating to the location of the saved stencil, and double-clicking it. For this example, I opened up the Catalyst 6500 stencil, which includes chassis views, options such as the WS-X6148 48 port Fast Ethernet module, and power supply modules.

For a chassis-based system such as the Catalyst 6500 series, the chassis is placed on the page and the individual modules are bolted on top of it. Each shape also has a properties page associated with it (Figure F).

Figure F
Properties page for a Catalyst 6503

Final analysis
My overall reaction to is good. I rate this site and product a score of 7 out of 10. The Web site needs to be a little more intuitive, and the stencil locations need to be more consistent. For example, Catalyst 6503 shapes are in the Catalyst 6500 stencil, while Catalyst 6509 shapes are in the Catalyst 6000 stencil. This can be rather confusing. Other than these two usability problems, VNEStencils provides an excellent product that can significantly enhance network diagramming.