I rely heavily on many tools when it comes to maintaining my network. One of the tools I use daily is Microsoft’s Visio Enterprise edition. Visio is formally a product of Visio Corporation, which Microsoft bought out in late 1998.

Visio enables me, the superhuman PC-person, to diagram all my printers, computers, and network equipment. Now I know what you are thinking: Aren’t there many pieces of software that do the same thing? Yes, there are. However, this program allows me to not only import an AutoCAD file of the building’s floor plan, but to attach the equipment to an Access database. I want to share with you some of the reasons why I use this product and how it helps me in my daily routines.

Beginning with the basics
At first glance, the software looks a bit confusing, but after tinkering with it for a while, I was comfortable with trying my hand at creating a graphical diagram of my network. Figure A shows the basic blank network diagram screen that appears when you get started. The window is divided into two panes. In the left pane are different “stencils” to use for your particular diagram. These stencils are designed to use with most brands of network and computer equipment. For instance, I use Cisco 4000 and 5000 series switches on my backbone and Visio has a stencil that includes Cisco routers, hubs, and switches. Now I can drag and drop a detailed picture of my actual equipment onto the right pane.

Figure A
A basic blank network diagram screen created in Microsoft Visio 2000.

I also use Chatsworth racks and enclosed cabinets. That’s no problem for Visio, as it includes these products as well. So I can build a complete diagram with all my actual equipment, just as it sits in my server room.

From this point, I can print an 11-by-17 drawing on one of our copiers and hang the picture in my server room right next to the autographed picture of Stone Cold Steve Austin. (Actually, I don’t really have a picture of the wrestler hanging in my server room, but I figured that it sounded better than the life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley that’s made its home in there.)

Using Visio to design my server room
Now let me tell you what I really like about Visio. Last year, we moved into our newly renovated building, which we purchased from General Electric. As I was trying to design the server room, it occurred to me that it would be great if I could get my PC and network equipment built right into my building floor plan.

This is where Visio entered the picture. Not only was I interested in doing the layout of the server room, but also the rest of the data drops as well. So I had each data jack numbered the same as the room number on the floor plan, and I numbered all my patch panels the same as the room numbers. So now I knew exactly which blue wire went to which room and what the number was.

Visio allowed me to take another step in organizing my design efforts. I had the architect e-mail me a copy of the CAD file that the blueprint for the building was printed from. Visio allows you to import a CAD file into the software as an editable picture. After removing some of the layers on the DWG file, I ended up with just the floor plan of the building. I was then able to import the file into Visio so that I could plot my network and PC equipment.

It’s all about the Access
Figure B shows a glimpse of my building’s floor plan with some PCs inserted in the drawing. I used the stencil in the left pane to select desktop PC symbols and dragged them into each office on the plan.

Figure B
Matthew’s building floor plan with PCs inserted into the drawing.

The beauty of this program is the ability to connect these symbols to a Microsoft Access database. You don’t even need to know a programming language, although it helps if you want to tweak it a bit to link the drawing and the database. Visio comes with a Network Database wizard that allows you to select symbols on the drawing and build a database off them. Visio takes the custom properties for each symbol and builds a database that lets me have an inventory of my equipment as well as a graphical layout of where each item is in the building.

Getting down to the details
Right-clicking on a symbol brings up a dialog box like the one shown in Figure C, where you can enter information about a particular piece of equipment. Visio lets you add custom fields to these dialog boxes if you want. I’ve added boxes that allow me to enter specific information about the equipment and our facility.

Figure C
You can enter specific information about a device by using pop-up dialog boxes.

The final take
Visio is a great product, and I don’t see any apparent damage from the Microsoft takeover. However, there are a few things you need to know before you rush out to get this product.

  • First of all, Visio is not cheap. The Enterprise Edition I am using cost the company about $750. If you don’t require a detailed drawing of your PCs, printers, copiers, and network equipment, Visio Professional would do nicely for you. It allows you to make the same drawings, but it includes only standard PC, printer, and network equipment brands. The price for this software runs around $350.
  • Although you don’t need to know programming, you will need to be somewhat familiar with the C++ programming language if you really want to tweak this software to suit your needs.
  • You can use Visio for many other purposes besides what I have discussed here. For example, it can create flowcharts, calendars, Web site mappings, maps, project timelines, and charts.

Before you call me a Microsoft loyalist, I would like to state that I am not getting a commission for recommending this product. I honestly believe in this product, as it has helped me in so many ways.

Besides, superhuman PC-persons don’t need any monetary motivation, right? We do it just for the sheer enjoyment of seeing the happiness in our users’ faces. Now I am getting dangerously close to sounding like one of those sales people! YUK! Honestly, I recommend this product to anyone that is watching over or maintaining any kind of network.
Now that you’ve read Matthew’s view of Microsoft’s Visio, we want to know what you think of the product! Feel free to leave a post below or send us a note.

Matthew Mercurio is a system administrator in Louisville, KY. Follow this link to write to Matthew.