Document your network

We all put off documenting network changes for another day, yet we all know that documentation today is essential. Micrografx's NetworkCharter Pro is a database and cataloging tool, and the product gives you a picture of every device on every segment of your enterprise network.

NetworkCharter addresses essential documentation needs. Proper documentation brings new employees quickly up to speed. And when you must hire high-priced consultants to fix problems, documentation makes their job easier and saves you time and money.

The product also performs asset-management functions by letting you enter objects and link additional attributes to the objects. For example, you can link media access control (MAC) addresses, OSs, and printer types. You can also probe SMTP-active devices for information. NetworkCharter's secondary features include drawing capabilities and an extensive graphics library that automatically matches network devices to a device icon. The program also has some basic reporting functions and a few import routines for cross-application data sharing.

Snappy Installation
Installing the program is a snap. Insert the installation CD-ROM, select Setup, and click Typical or Custom. After you reboot and run NetworkCharter, the program displays the Create a New Network dialog box, which looks similar to Microsoft PowerPoint's startup dialog box. From the dialog box, you can open an existing project, start a new project, select AutoDiscovery, or use the Network Design Wizard.

You might think AutoDiscovery will crawl into the nooks and crannies of your subnets and hunt down all the devices on the network. But AutoDiscovery detects only devices on the IP subnet or IPX segment on which you run the program. This limitation forces network administrators to physically travel from subnet to subnet, gathering information on a piecemeal basis. The good news is that each time AutoDiscovery finds a new subnet, the application imports all the subnet's data into NetworkCharter. The bad news is that the application lacks the ability to automatically monitor changes on subnets. After you add or remove devices from a subnet, you need to use AutoDiscovery to document the change.

Adventures with AutoDiscovery
I ran AutoDiscovery on my computer and documented my cable-modem service's network segment. AutoDiscovery's output surprised me by discovering more than 50 machines on my local subnet and gathering their IP addresses and DNS host names. AutoDiscovery identified the MAC address on most of the machines but couldn't determine the hardware manufacturer or classify the machines as PCs. (AutoDiscovery labeled the PCs as IP devices.)

AutoDiscovery begins the process of documenting a subnet, but you must participate in the process to get the entire picture. To avoid this inconvenience, NetworkCharter should include an agent running as a Windows NT service that you can install on one machine on each subnet. At a chosen interval, the agent machine should do a ping sweep and send the updated data to a central repository.

Diagramming Environments
The product's Network Design Wizard is an easy-to-use tool that generates detailed drawings of many environments. You specify the number of sites, the number of floors in each site, and how the sites' floors and buildings interconnect, and the wizard gives you an instant network diagram. The wizard also lets users specify which vendor's equipment they prefer for each bridge, hub, router, or other interconnection. For example, if one site favors Cabletron and another favors Bay Networks, the wizard adds that information instantly.

Any organization or person that must estimate job costs will appreciate the Bill of Materials feature, but hardware vendors and consultants will especially love this feature. Using Bill of Materials with the Network Design Wizard, a consultant can generate a diagram of the proposed network structure and specify the cost of each piece of hardware. A client can walk away with an instant Bill of Materials report and a diagram of what the projected installation will look like.

Organizations might best use NetworkCharter to capture a snapshot of their current environment, use the snapshot to optimize their network design, and take another snapshot after cleanup. By following this approach, an organization could save thousands of dollars typically tied up in unnecessary routers and hubs.

NetworkCharter works for both small single-site facilities and large global organizations. If you want to use NetworkCharter to get an overall snapshot of all your network devices, you need to buy multiple copies of the software so that all your network administrators can chart their segments. After administrators collect data from their subnets, they can send the data to one administrator who can combine the data into one diagram. NetworkCharter also exports data to HTML. Local site administrators can put their local diagrams online and have HTML-coded hyperlinks between the sites. Linking segment diagrams creates a virtual online mosaic of your enterprise.

Improvements Needed
NetworkCharter is a useful tool but needs some improvements. For example, the product's graphics database is 200MB, and users must manually import graphics on an as-needed basis. NetworkCharter should search the installation CD-ROM and automatically import graphics as needed for users. Micrografx should also add user-defined attributes to the canned reports. As Screen 1, page 135, shows, you generate reports by selecting Reports and clicking the desired report.

The installation program informs the user that it loads Microsoft Access 97 runtime software to hold the data NetworkCharter collects. Unfortunately, other applications can't tap in to the Access data. NetworkCharter should store the database in a generic ODBC format for Access, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle databases.

By the time this magazine goes to press, Micrografx plans to have shipped NetworkCharter Pro 1.5. Changes in the 1.5 version include faster application and AutoDiscovery performance and the ability for users to conduct user-defined queries and additional graphical views of database objects.

NetworkCharter Pro
Contact: Micrografx * 972-234-1769
Web: http://www.micrografx.com
Price: $995 per software installation; library component subscriptions cost $400 per year
System Requirements: Windows NT 4.0 or later, or Windows 9x, 32MB of RAM, 80MB of hard disk space; 200MB of additional hard disk space for component library, CD-ROM drive