Mapping a Network Diagram: A Step-by-Step Guide

Image source: Getty Images

Network diagrams document critical information about your corporate network hardware, security, and configuration. Learn how to create network diagrams and understand their benefits.

When you started your small business, things were simple. Maybe you had only one storefront. Perhaps you were typing on a computer keyboard in response to customer questions and filling orders with the help of a few employees.

One day you look around and see that everything has changed. Your business has an information technology (IT) department that manages multiple applications that enable every order, sale, and customer service request. You have a huge network of desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and other digital devices.

And, to paraphrase The Talking Heads, you may ask yourself, “How did I get here? My God ! What did I do ?

One way to not lose sight of the forest of trees with your business network is to use network diagrams. We’ll go over their basics and the steps to create them, so your small business can enjoy multiple bottom line benefits.

Overview: What is a Network Diagram?

Network diagrams visually document communication networks: components, connections and their configuration.

An example is a company’s computer network, consisting of servers, routers, terminals and software applications. These diagrams can document the physical location of hardware and connectors, like a floor plan, or illustrate their conceptual organization and communication principles.

An example of a computer network diagram contains several elements.

This simple network diagram uses standard symbols and connectors. Image source: author

Other examples include a network switch diagram and a home network diagram.

A project network diagram is used for process management to identify and organize tasks to achieve a desired result.

A network diagram shows the stages of incident response.

This network diagram organizes the incident response process. Image source: author

A key distinction between computer network and process management diagrams is that the former documents ongoing two-way communication processes while the latter has a defined end point.

What is network topology?

A network topology diagram is a subset of network diagrams that documents the organization of data flows. Each type of topology has its own advantages and disadvantages and contributes to configuration management: installation costs, communication dependencies and impact on component failures.

Icons and connectors illustrate seven logical networks.

Network topology diagrams facilitate the computer network design process. Image source: author

ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) processes, a collection of best practices for IT departments, provide detailed guidance on network topologies and creating network diagrams.

What are network diagrams used for?

Network diagrams have multiple uses, ranging from aiding the design process to ongoing regulatory compliance. These boil down to one key performance indicator (KPI): cost reduction.

1. Network design

The design of a computer network has two elements: physical and logical. Using a physical network diagram helps optimize your floor plan to reduce cabling costs, provide maximum Wi-Fi connectivity, and ensure hardware security. Understanding the different logical network diagrams allows you to choose a network topology that provides the best communication structure for your network while anticipating future expansion.

2. Incident Response

It is essential to document your network architecture before a critical event that requires incident management occurs. The last thing you want during an outage or service degradation is a debate within your IT department about what is connected, where and with what configurations. Network process diagrams also help help desk agents with more common service requests and ensure that approved processes are used when managing changes.

3. Regulatory Compliance

Your corporate computer network does not exist in a vacuum. Although network diagrams promote system stability, if your business has an e-commerce component, diagrams are a requirement under the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) . Network diagrams also help ensure data security compliance with other regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

How to make a network diagram

Creating or maintaining an accurate network diagram uses the same steps: initial research, diagram creation, external review, distribution, and periodic updates.

1. Identify network elements

Opening a blank graph file to stare at it with blank eyes is hardly a productive first step to creating a network diagram. Instead, do some upfront research and collect the necessary data to avoid researching it as you go.

Items to identify include:

  • Components: List software and hardware such as firewalls, hubs, mainframes, routers, servers, and workstations.
  • Connections: Group your components and define how they communicate with each other.
  • Pitches: Identify the physical location of the hardware.

For existing networks, the best IT management software can run reports to show connected hardware to help you get started. If you are designing a new network, this information can inform your budgeting and installation processes.

2. Choose a diagramming app

Before drawing your diagram, select diagramming software. Sure, you could use a generic drawing app, but you’re just doing more work for yourself. Save time and avoid frustration by using desktop apps like Microsoft’s Visio or web-based options like Lucidchart.

Benefits of specialized network diagramming software include:

  • Models: Most apps have preformatted templates for basic network topologies and home, LAN, WAN, and other network types.
  • Symbols: Use standardized hardware and software symbols for easy reading. Some apps also provide manufacturer-specific icons.

A robust network topology mapping application can automatically perform updates and report device issues in real time.

3. Ask for feedback

Although one person is likely responsible for producing a network diagram, don’t rely solely on their efforts to create the final version. Instead, once an initial draft is produced, share it with IT staff and other stakeholders for feedback.

Use printouts of your diagram for feedback, so you can gather multiple comments, suggested changes, and other notes before updating the working network diagram file. If these changes require an increasingly detailed view of your network, consider creating separate diagrams to illustrate different levels or areas of information.

4. Distribute the diagram

Once you have finalized your network diagram, distribute it throughout the company. Network diagrams serve multiple purposes – infrastructure planning and budgeting, regulatory compliance, incident management, and inventory control – if accessible.

Instead of using printouts like you did during the review process, provide diagrams electronically to prevent anyone from using an outdated version. It’s also more accessible than residing in a three-ring binder on the top shelf of a locked storage closet when quick access is essential.

5. Update regularly

Your IT department is constantly updating, adding, moving and replacing equipment and applications on your network. Your network diagrams are as useful as they are accurate, so keeping them up to date is essential.

Ideally, your network diagrams are updated whenever your network changes. In reality, this may not happen. Again, IT management software helps here: run periodic reports checking the current network configuration against existing network diagrams to make any necessary changes.

Put network diagrams to work for you

Any IT professional will tell you that drawing network diagrams isn’t very exciting. Again, that’s why it’s called “work” and not “recreation.” However, creating these diagrams will pay off when designing, installing, expanding, and responding to network incidents.

Kevin M. Risinger