How well-documented is your network?
Network diagrams and inventories are among the least "sexy" aspects of running a network, but in modern businesses, they're extremely useful tools. If you have more than a handful of computers or network appliances in your office, you'll want to be keeping track of their details.
So, what can a network diagram and inventory do for you?
Why You Want A Well-Documented Network Diagram
While these matters go hand-in-hand, they serve two different purposes.
A network diagram is somewhat akin to a structure's architectural plans. It's generally in a flowchart-like format that describes inputs and outputs, showing the routes data will take while moving around between access points.
These can range from extremely simple diagrams, documenting a local area network, to highly complex structures that illustrate data flow from the initial backbone, all the way to various distributed Cloud computing servers.
Since a network has no visible "topography" for users, such a diagram is vital when planning for changes. It's the only good way to keep track of the actual physical relationships between your Internet appliances, which is something that can easily be forgotten with a distributed network.
II. Network Inventories
As you might expect, a network inventory is simply a detailed list of all the access points, computers, printers, servers, and any other physical piece of hardware attached to the network.
These are most often useful for accounting and inventory tracking, but they also come in handy when you're looking at network upgrades. Since many reputable network hardware dealers will purchase pre-owned hardware for their trade-in value, it also becomes a catalog of sorts that might help you lower the costs on your upgrades.
A network inventory can take virtually any form, but spreadsheets are common due to their ease of use. These should list, at the minimum:
- Make and Model.
- Date manufactured (if custom-built) and date purchased.
- Original purchase price.
- Warranty period and whether it's expired.
- Support contact emails or phone numbers.
- Physical location in your building(s).
As a side note, don't discount the importance of that last item. There are cases on record of institutions literally losing track of their computers, including an amusing incident about a decade ago where the University of North Carolina discovered one of their servers had actually been sealed inside a wall for four years.
Performing Your Own Network Diagrams And Inventorying
If you don't have either of these, now is a fine time to make some. This is one of those processes that can be a pain at first, depending on the size of your operations, but once done it's easy to stay updated.
The good news is that there are plenty of free and inexpensive services that can do most or all of your work for you, spidering your network and building up a diagram for you.
If you're mostly running a Windows shop or lack on-site network experts, Spiceworks makes a nice user-friendly diagramming system that's free for business use. If you have a larger *Nix-based network, and the on-site staff to manage it, OpenAudit is a more powerful (and more difficult-to-use) network inventory tool aimed at command-line use.
Of course, it's also possible to generate such inventories and diagrams manually, but we wouldn't recommend it unless your interns are really bored.
Either way, once you have your initial inventory and diagram in place, be sure to update it promptly when you make any physical changes to your network, whether it's buying new hardware or simply moving devices around the office.
Documentation Makes The Difference!
Don't treat your network as a "fire and forget" system. Staying on top of your network's physical documentation will make upgrades easier, improve your inventory tracking, and potentially help you realize further value on your purchases.
And, if it's time to upgrade, please don't hesitate to contact us for any advice you might need!