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.

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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