Review: SmartDraw Cloud Makes Network Diagramming Easy

Thursday May 12th 2016 by Frank Ohlhorst

Review: SmartDraw brings the functionality, performance, and ease of use of their desktop application to the cloud.

Network diagrams, org charts, office layouts, floorplans, decision matrixes, and flow charts are essential business tools, and the ability to create and share them whenever and wherever they are needed can be critical to getting buy-in on a project. Now San Diego, CA-based SmartDraw enables businesses to do just that. SmartDraw Cloud delivers the full feature set of SmartDraw 2016 Business Edition for just $12.95 per month, bringing SmartDraw's simplicity and advanced diagramming capabilities to OSX, iOS, Android, Linux, and pretty much any other operating system that can launch a popular browser like Edge, IE 10+, Safari, FireFox, Chrome or Opera.

SmartDraw Cloud could prove especially useful to networking professionals tasked with troubleshooting or locate devices while in motion. A virtual representation of the physical layout of the network, building and infrastructure, illustrated on an iPad and edited as needed on the fly, goes a long way towards simplifying the troubleshooting process.

Hands-on with SmartDraw Cloud

The use cases for SmartDraw are practically infinite. After all, the product offers 70 different categories of drawings, with some 4500 templates to modify the drawings and 34,000 symbols to populate the drawings. In other words, the product allows most anyone to draw most anything. With that in mind, here I'll focus on the product's core capabilities for a networked business environment, using some specific use cases for testing, such as a network diagram, IoT map, a flow chart, and a decision tree. All of which are used extensively by the majority of tech-savvy businesses.

Getting started with SmartDraw Cloud

Before diving into SmartDraw, users must choose what iteration of the product to use. The $297 Windows version of SmartDraw 2016 Business edition comes with a full year of the cloud service included. 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. From there, the GUI is almost indistinguishable from the desktop version of the product. All of the menus, icons, templates and other elements are virtually identical between the cloud and desktop iterations of the product.

Creating a network/IoT diagram with SmartDraw Cloud

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). 15 example network diagrams are 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 provides a variety of tools 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 to search for symbols, making it easier to add normally unrelated symbols to a diagram, such as a landscape element like a lamppost or a tree to a diagram for IoT networking equipment to indicate where a sensor, IP/WiFi security camera or other device is located. The drag and drop capabilities and libraries of symbols allow an informative network diagram to 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 using the line tool.

Once the diagram is ready, it can be shared with others as either a view-only element, which does not require the recipients to have SmartDraw, or as an editable file. Sharing is accomplished using an emailed link to the diagram.

Creating a flowchart with SmartDraw Cloud

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 Boolean logic. The product comes prepopulated with flowchart templates and design examples, allowing users to focus on critical logic rather than the mechanics of graphical design. That said, users can still create attractive, professional looking flowcharts that are easy to modify and expand.

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. SmartDraw’s real strengths here are ease of use and speed in comparison to flowchart creation using other tools.

Data visualization with SmartDraw Cloud

SmartDraw can also quickly create infographics for most any situation. Population, process/cycle, World Data Map, and dozens of other infographic templates are readily available, allowing users to quickly 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 into diagrams. Those charts include the basics, such as bar charts, pie charts and so forth, as well as more advanced 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 simplifies visualization of cost comparisons when calculating critical IT budget elements, such as ROI and TCO. Timeline, Spheres, and Venn infographics are also well represented by the GUI.

SmartDraw Cloud Engineering and CAD capabilities

While SmartDraw makes no boisterous claims of replacing multi-thousand-dollar design packages, the product does go 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 lay out 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 normally complex designs and can expand IT’s role in 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.

SmartDraw Cloud vs. Visio

At the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial, there is still 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. But the product's real strength comes from the ease of use associated with created those complicated visual representations. SmartDraw Cloud dramatically simplifies the creation of graphics that once required professional graphic artists, complex and expensive software, and days or even weeks of time.

I would be remiss if I 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 lie features such as the ability to share diagrams 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.

When it comes to visualizing most anything you can imagine, SmartDraw Cloud is a clear winner.

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