Review: SmartDraw Helps to Tame Wild IoT Networks

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With the rabid adoption of IoT (Internet of Things) devices across the enterprise and the ensuing infrastructure changes, comes unmitigated complexity. Many network managers, let alone their superiors and subordinates, are having difficulty wrapping their heads around the inherent complexity of the modern, IoT-enabled, network.

San Diego based SmartDraw Software has heard the cries of the IoT besieged and has built a tool that brings simplicity to the diagramming process. What’s more, the company has introduced SmartDraw Cloud as a companion product (or alternative) to the company’s desktop based SmartDraw 2016 Business Edition.

Simply put, network diagrams, org charts, office layouts, floorplans, decision matrices and flow charts are the fodder of business and excel at serving as a visual representation of conceptual ideas, which go a long way towards getting buy-in on most any project. The importance of bringing simple understanding to complex infrastructures becomes obvious when you realize that some decision makers need to see it to believe it.

SmartDraw’s goal with SmartDraw Cloud is to empower those that must explain. SmartDraw Cloud brings a new paradigm to the diagramming market, something akin to “diagramming as a service” and, at only $12.95 per month, ithas become a budget friendly alternative to expensive tools such as Microsoft Visio. As a cloud offering, the product brings the full feature set of SmartDraw 2016 Business Edition to more than just the traditional Windows desktop. SmartDraw Cloud runs on OSX, IOS, Android, Linux and pretty much any OS that can launch a modern browser, such as Edge, IE 10+, Safari, Firefox, Chrome or Opera.

Hands on with SmartDraw Cloud:

Beyond the aforementioned IoT and network diagramming capabilities, there are literally thousands of different use cases for SmartDraw. The product offers 70 different categories of drawings, with some 4,500 templates and 34,000 symbols to help users get started. SmartDraw Cloud gives most anyone the ability to draw most anything. That said, the product really shines when it comes to diagramming complex concepts. For those in the world of IT, SmartDraw can become an indispensable companion for building network diagrams, IoT maps, flow charts, and decision trees,  all of which are used extensively by the majority of tech savvy businesses.

Getting Started:

Diving into SmartDraw first takes making a decision, which basically comes down to choosing what iteration of the product to use. However, there is one caveat, if you purchase the $297 Windows version of SmartDraw 2016 Business edition, you will automatically get a full year of the Cloud service as well. With that in mind, it may make the most sense to start out with the cloud-based offering and then decide if a desktop version is warranted. Either way, SmartDraw does offer a 7-day free trial of the product for those investigating its capabilities.

Using the cloud iteration of SmartDraw proves to be a very simple process, it just takes logging into the cloud app at https://cloud.smartdraw.com, and the user is presented with the GUI, which is almost indistinguishable from the desktop version of the product. That means users can switch back and forth from the desktop and cloud version with relative ease. All of the menus, icons, templates and other elements are virtually identical between the cloud and desktop iterations of the product.

Creating a Networking / IoT Diagram:

The GUI makes creating any diagram amazingly simple. For example, creating a network diagram means navigating down to the Network Design document menu and then choosing the type of network diagram desired (Network or Rack). Fifteen example network diagrams are also offered, giving a neophyte user a head start on building a new network diagram.

For this example, I chose the Enterprise Network template, which then launched another browser window with the diagram editing screen and a sample network design, fully populated with symbols and connections. The design GUI offers a variety of tools, making it easy to change any element on the screen, add effects, create text and so forth. A tabbed interface on the left allows users to choose device images from a “SmartPanel” which supports full drag-and-drop capabilities.

Drag and drop is something not normally found in a browser-based application. Thousands of symbols are available, including all different types of PCs, routers, switches, firewalls, servers and so forth. The GUI also includes a handy tool, which allows a user to search for symbols, allowing normally unrelated symbols to be added to a diagram being created, such as a landscape element like a lamppost or a tree being added to a diagram for IoT networking equipment to indicate where a sensor, IP/WiFi security camera or other device is located. Just by using the drag and drop capabilities, along with symbols from the libraries, an informative network diagram can be completed in just minutes.

All symbols contained within the diagram can be linked, grouped, have text added to, resized, and even have hyperlinks to other diagrams associated with them. Line drawing proves very easy, where by selecting the line tool, lines can be connected between symbols.

Once the diagram is ready, it can be shared with others by simply clicking the share icon. The diagram can be shared as a view only element (which does not require the recipients to have SmartDraw) and is fully viewable in any browser. If the diagram is shared with a “View and Edit” status, recipients can modify and re-share the diagram. Sharing is accomplished using an emailed link to the diagram.

Creating a Flowchart:

Flowcharts are often the primary fodder behind any type of business process, especially those that involve IT operations. Here, SmartDraw excels in its ability to quickly create flowcharts that have logical progressions and incorporate the Boolean logic that can drive decisions. The product comes prepopulated with flowchart templates, as well as examples that speed design, allowing those creating the charts to focus on critical logic and not the mechanics of graphical design. That said, users can still create attractive, professional-looking flowcharts that are easy to modify and expand as time goes on or processes change.

For example, starting a flowchart based upon the flowcharting template consists of little more than selecting the appropriate visual objects and then adding instructions or text. The product’s “SmartPanel” provides numerous visual examples, along with relevant descriptions, which are easy to select, use and understand. Flowcharts can be built in a matter of minutes and delivered to those looking to achieve the given result. SmartDraw’s real strength here comes in the forms of ease of use and speed, trumping competing products by allowing users to build a flowchart in a matter of minutes, instead of the hours it normally takes using other tools.

Visualizing Data: 

SmartDraw also includes the ability to quickly create infographics. Here, the product is loaded with templates and charts that can enable a user to build an infographic for most any situation. Population templates, process/cycle infographic templates, World Data Map templates, and dozens of others are readily available, allowing users to simple plug in collected data and create a professional looking graphical representation of that data.

The product also bundles in several charts, which can be inserted in diagrams. Those charts include the basics, such as bar charts, pie charts and so forth, as well as more advance 3D charts, which give a little more life to the pedestrian data that network managers may be reporting on. Most notable for the IT management realm is the “Relative Value Chart”, which makes it much easier to visualize cost comparisons when calculating critical IT budget elements, such as ROI and TCO. Timeline, Spheres, and Venn infographics are well represented by the GUI, making it a simple chore of selecting what graphic a user needs to use and then just populating the data.

Engineering and CAD:

While SmartDraw makes no boisterous claims that the product can replace multi-thousand-dollar design packages, such as AutoCAD, MATLAB and others, the product sure goes a long way towards covering the basics by providing several engineering templates that can be used to create electrical wiring diagrams, industrial automation designs, and even architectural blueprints. Users can quickly layout floor plans, office buildings, circuit panels and several other CAD/CAM type diagrams with relative ease. The included tools and wizards take a lot of the guesswork out of what are normally complex designs and can expand IT’s ability to be part of the design process. What’s more, a short learning curve and ample integrated help makes what may seem at first impossible, an achievable goal for individuals without any prior CAD/CAM experience.

But Wait, There’s More:

At the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial, there is much more to SmartDraw than the above examples. The product includes templates and examples to build cause & effect diagrams, decision trees, emergency & disaster planning diagrams, flyers & certificates, forms, project management charts, mind maps, org charts, process documentation, schedules, strategic plans and much more.

However, the products core strength lies with more than just countless charts, templates and graphical design tools. The real strength comes from the ease of use associated with created those complicated visual representations. A chore that was once only in the realm of professional graphic artists, that could take days or even weeks to deliver attractive visual representations of complex data sets.

One would be remiss if they did not mention SmartDraw’s primary competitor, Visio. SmartDraw offers several advantages over Visio, starting with the availability of SmartDraw Cloud and ending with ease of use. In between those two comparative bookends lies features such as the ability to share diagrams with others (who lack any type of diagramming package) and the automation that SmartDraw offers in the form of intelligently connected objects. For those comparison shopping, SmartDraw offers the Visio Filter, which imports native Visio drawings into SmartDraw, without losing any content, making it easy to play around with SmartDraw’s feature set, without having to recreate Visio drawings from scratch.

Once you add the cloud-based version of SmartDraw to the mix, you wind up with a real winner, at least when it comes to visualizing most anything you can imagine. For a visual tour of SmartDraw’s capabilities, please visit this companion slideshow over at eWeek.

1 Comment

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