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Visualization Tools for Network Engineers

Networking is a visual field

Networking is a visual field.  In fact, we can generalize and say all of IT is.  Come to think of it, is there a technical field that isn’t?  In this post, I’ll cover a handful of visualization tools that have recently helped me think through and communicate difficult Network Engineering stuff.

Graphics Tablet

Earlier this year I acquired Wacom Cintiq Companion Hybrid tablet.  It has an array of features designed for artists that also happen to be quite useful in other applications such as vector graphics drawing tools.  For instance, it has extra buttons on the front panel that can be mapped to functions within your graphics apps.  The pen also has two buttons on it which similarly can be assigned to application functions.  If you are used to a tool like Visio or Inkscape, then these buttons come in very handy for things like multiple selection, grouping, saving, and undoing.  The menus in some of the graphics apps are cumbersome too use while drawing, so being able to assign buttons to certain actions brings the frustration level down when you are first getting used to using the pen.

Graphics tablets (and I include the i7 Surface Pro 3 here) generally have beefier processors, more RAM, and richer displays than your average tablet.  This makes the response time with the pen feel instantaneous.  On lesser tablets, the response time isn’t as great, and it seems like the tablet is trying to keep up with your hand.  The better screen on a graphics tablet causes the perceived depth between the tip of the pen and what you are drawing to be a lot less, and therefore drawing feels more natural.  All that extra hardware has other benefits too:  Video games and movies look and feel great. If you’re a comic book nerd, then I have good news for you.  The larger, richer display gives the comics more life while making them more immersive.

But back to networking.  The point here is that you will end up using a variety of tools loaded with features.  Network diagrams are detailed and large.  A decent graphics tablet with good response, a large clear display, and fine pen controls is a great match for the visual network engineer.  Especially if you make your own stencils or do other kinds of artwork.

The Wacom tablet has another excellent feature:  You can plug it into a Mac or Windows PC and it will “pause” Android and become a second screen!  This is particularly handy when collaborating on Google Hangouts.  You can share your second screen and draw on it with your pen.  When you attach the tablet to your PC, your PC automatically mounts the tablet’s storage.  So any drawings you create can be saved and later edited when you are back in “Android” mode.

Software

Omnigraffle and Visio are standards for network diagramming.  Neither of these is available on Android.  However, there are several options that are just as good.  The two highest quality tools are TouchDraw and Grapholite.  TouchDraw by Elevenworks is a bit ahead of Grapholite in terms of feature development, and their software is available on iPad, Mac, Google Play, Amazon Appstore, and Samsung Apps.  They are constantly adding new features, and overall the tool looks and feels great.  TouchDraw also supports assigning the volume buttons on your device to functions within the app.  The only thing that’s missing, for me, is an isometric grid.

Referential Space

Fig 1: Referential Space

However, there is a well-known tool now available on Android that provides such a grid:  Inkscape! With the better hardware, a decent graphics tablet can run this app with no problems.  I drew the “referential space” diagram with Inkscape.  Plus it comes with GIMP… and a super secret bonus for Android users:  These two apps are actually running inside of a VM on your android, and you have terminal access to this VM.  So you can install other packages on it as well using “apt-get.”

There is also SyncSpace.  This is a great way to blast out a diagram while in a meeting with remote people.  Just open the tool, start a new diagram, and share the URL for it.  Anybody can see you draw live with their browser on a Mac or PC, and folks with their own tablets can actually draw in the same space as you at the same time.

Whiteboard and Markers

There are several whiteboard notebook products out on the marketplace, but one came recommended to me:  Wipebook.  I carry this around with me everywhere I travel now.  What is it?  It’s a notebook with whiteboard pages.  One nice feature of the Wipebook is that you can get the “paper” with a grid on it.  Also, your drawings generally won’t smudge.  When you’re done with a drawing, you can simply erase it.  Although, erasing doesn’t work so good with the erasing end of the Wipebook markers.  I’ve found using a cloth with a little bit of whiteboard cleaner works great.  You can pull the pages out too, in case you want to scan them.  You might be wondering, what is the point?  Well for some reason when you pick up those markers, you go straight into visualizing your thoughts.  I think we’ve just been conditioned over time to associate dry-erase markers with a different mode of thinking.

Finally, if you have a home office, then do yourself a favor and spend the money on a large whiteboard and let it fill one of your walls.  Buy the 10 marker box-set (colors are good).  Sometimes standing and drawing on a large surface just makes everything better.  If you have kids, they’ll love it.  They’ll ruin your markers though because they don’t care about your feelings.  That’s OK.  You can celebrate the tears on their sad faces after you eat an entire pint of ice cream in front of them.

Conclusion

Whether you’re using an Android, iPad, or Windows tablet, a decent graphics tablet is a network engineer’s friend.  There is plenty of great graphics tools available on all varieties of tablets, so finding one that you like and that works on the various platforms you use should not be too difficult.  While technology is great, though, don’t forget how good it feels to draw with dry-erase markers.  Whiteboard notebooks are light and easy to use and for larger spaces, nothing beats a big ol’ whiteboard.

[Fun fact: The number "j" was not considered a planet until they found seeds in it.  Oh, the irony.]

[PS:  Seriously though, the letter "j" was not considered an official part of the alphabet until the 19th century.]

The post Visualization Tools for Network Engineers appeared first on Plexxi.

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Derick Winkworth has been a developer, network engineer, and IT architect in various verticals throughout his career.He is currently a Product Manager at Plexxi, Inc where he focuses on workflow automation and product UX.

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