Product review: NetworkCharter offers impressive diagramming

A well-documented network is a wonderful thing, but it takes a great amount of time and effort to achieve. Both graphic representations and detailed equipment listings are necessary to do it right. NetworkCharter Pro, from Micrografx, offers a consolidation of these capabilities that can feasibly act as a one-stop repository for full network documentation.

Features such as greater detail and a network auto-discovery feature differentiate NetworkCharter Pro from its closest competitor, Visio's Visio Enterprise 5.0. However, I found NetworkCharter Pro's drawing interface to be a bit trickier than Visio's, though I was able to import Visio drawings into NetworkCharter Pro.

The generic nature of NetworkCharter Pro's auto-discovery makes it a rather limited benefit, depending on the level of customisation desired. I ran the auto-discovery on my network segment, and NetworkCharter Pro produced a very basic graphic layout of network devices.

I was disappointed that the tool offers no type of agent that can be placed on remote segments for discoveries -- I had to attach to segments one by one. According to company officials, the addition of this type of agent is under consideration for a future release.

The most exciting feature I found in NetworkCharter Pro was its HTML export. With it I was able to convert network drawings into Web pages with no loss of detail. Clicking devices on the Web page drawings brought up the same properties visible within NetworkCharter Pro.

NetworkCharter Pro includes a database of device objects that can be imported into its device library for use in network drawings. All devices used to create drawings have customisable embedded properties in which a wealth of information can be stored, such as vendor contact information, device capabilities, pricing, hardware and software configuration, and so on.

Though I could import objects to represent devices on my network, I found many of the tool's graphics to be a weak representation of the devices, and some standard features were not included in the device property values.

By double-clicking devices in my drawings, I could view and modify properties. I was impressed that even the lines I drew to represent segments or device links had properties detailing topology, speed, distance, and so on.

Virtually every manufacturer of network devices and software is represented in NetworkCharter Pro's library. To stay up to date with new devices, Micrografx offers a subscription service at an additional cost.

The device library used to create drawings is object-oriented; that is, changes made to the device in the library are automatically propagated throughout any occurrences in a drawing. For example, I could change the graphic for a print-server device and every print server I had previously placed in my drawing would be updated.

I found it helpful that NetworkCharter Pro let me query for devices in my drawings. A listing of devices matching my query was produced; unfortunately, the tool did not provide me with a way to go directly to the devices within the drawing.

As with most other bell-and-whistle-packed applications, NetworkCharter Pro can be slow in executing operations such as auto-discovery, HTML export, or reporting. It took more than 20 minutes to auto-discover a segment of about 180 devices on a 200MHz Pentium PC with 64MB of RAM.

For those looking for a way to create simple network diagrams, NetworkCharter Pro probably represents overkill. But administrators hoping to get a handle on overall network layout and inventory in one package may find it to be just the ticket.

Mike Connell (mconnell@flash.net) is a systems analyst in Austin, Texas.

The bottom line: good

NetworkCharter Pro

This network tool offers a convenient repository for inventory details and graphical layout.

Pros: Auto-discover network devices; HTML export; detailed documentation properties for graphic objects.

Cons: Auto-discovery needs physical attachment to each network segment; some inaccurate or incomplete manufacturer-specific graphics and properties.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0.

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