If you’re looking for help in documenting your network with Microsoft Visio, take a look at what Altima Technologies NetZoom can do. This Visio add-in includes more than 50,000 equipment shapes and offers a number of advanced features that make it easier to create accurate network diagrams.

NetZoom includes many images of equipment from vendors such as Dell, Gateway, Cisco, and 3Com, and Altima can even create custom equipment images for you to use in your stencils. NetZoom works with more than a dozen applications besides Visio, such as PowerPoint, LanFlow, and AutoCAD.

Not a stand-alone app
Unlike other network documentation tools you may have used, NetZoom isn’t a stand-alone product. You have to purchase a version of the program designed to work with a specific application.

There are actually three NetZoom products:

  • NetZoom Symbols
  • NetZoom Stencils for Visio
  • NetZoom program plug-ins

The NetZoom program line works with Visio, PowerPoint, iGrafx, and Actrix. NetZoom Symbols works with many diagramming programs, including SmartDraw, AutoCAD, LanFlow, CorelDraw, TurboCAD, and NetViz. The Stencils line offers thousands of downloadable stencils you can add to Visio. The difference between the NetZoom plug-in for Visio and the NetZoom Stencils is that the plug-in has a great deal more diagramming functionality; the stencils are simply shapes added to Visio.

NetZoom for Visio adds a button to the Visio toolbar (Figure A) and a stencils-style interface for accessing the diagram database. It’s not the smoothest integration in the world—the NetZoom sidebar interface overlays that of Visio, so a secondary window opens to display the NetZoom options—but it works.

Figure A
The NetZoom toolbar button

Clicking the NetZoom toolbar button opens a secondary window in what looks like a standard Visio stencils sidebar. You probably won’t know the difference until you minimize Visio and see that the NetZoom interface remains open.

To begin creating a diagram with NetZoom, you first select the type of diagram you want to create from the Solution drop-down list (Figure B).

Figure B
NetZoom diagram creation options

NetZoom’s object search is SQL-based, but the interface lets you progressively narrow the focus so that you view just the types of shapes you’re looking for. After selecting the type of solution you need, you can select other options to begin weeding out what doesn’t apply. You end up with a set of choices that determine the types of network shapes from which you can choose to produce the diagram, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
Content options

You can narrow your search in a variety of ways, including by equipment category, basic network solutions, or wireless. You can also begin to narrow your selections by manufacturer to drill down to a specific set of devices.

Even though you still end up with a lengthy list of objects to choose from for general network drawings, this system effectively reduces your options so you’re not lost. NetZoom also includes a search feature, which will help if you’re looking for a specific item or vendor.

The one issue I found with this functionality is that it’s possible to select a particular category of items and end up with a set of shapes that omits some devices you ought to see. For example, when I selected Wireless Solutions | Wireless Routers, I was left with only one choice: the Lucent Central Outdoor Router. But I could drill down by specific manufacturer and view many other wireless routers.

So it seems that the search system is more effective if you’re working with equipment from a specific vendor. You can quickly drill down to one manufacturer’s products, effectively eliminating items that are irrelevant to your search, but if you look at general categories, you may miss some items.

Additional features
NetZoom functions in much the same way that Visio does. To create a diagram, all you have to do is drag the images you want from the stencil to the drawing space and place them as needed. One of the great things about NetZoom is that because it integrates with existing programs, you don’t have to learn an entirely new application to gain a set of powerful network documentation features.

NetZoom also adds the following functionality, which you don’t get with Visio alone:

  • NetZoom can tell you which card or module fits in a particular chassis.
  • NetZoom is aware of different ports and automatically assigns connection points.
  • Tooltips provide details about port connections.
  • NetZoom can validate port connections.
  • Shape properties include manufacturer details.

Advanced properties for shapes include information on slots, electrical requirements, connectors, cables, memory, and CPU speed, and shapes have different views that allow you to show the front, back, side, etc. You can customize equipment, label, and port properties as necessary.

NetZoom makes Visio a more intelligent network documentation tool. It’s aware of technical details by default—which can save you a lot of documentation time—and it offers information and drawing features that make it easier for you to create accurate diagrams.

Keep the shapes coming
Another benefit of NetZoom is that the purchase price for a single license ($299) includes a one-year subscription for updated customized equipment shapes. During that one-year period, you can download any new shapes Altima creates, including customer-requested shapes. That’s right—if a particular shape you need isn’t included with NetZoom, you can fill out a form on the Altima Web site to request it. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual subscription to download shapes for any of the NetZoom products for $199 and then renew the subscription annually.

Final word
NetZoom offers an effective way to take network documentation to a higher level. It’s easy to use and offers powerful features. And as a bonus, Altima continually updates its database of shapes for customers to download and even allows customers to request new shapes.