A Network Map is a visualization of devices on a network, their inter-relationships, and the transport layers providing network services. Practically, a Network Map is one tool to provide network users, managers and administrators, and IT personnel with a better understanding of network performance, especially concerning data bottlenecks and associated root cause analysis.
Three techniques for producing a Network Map include: SNMP-based approaches, active probing; and route analytics.
- SNMP-Based Maps: These obtain data from routers and switch MIBs (management information bases), which are hierarchical virtual databases of a network (or other entity)
- Active Probing: These maps are created with data from a series of “traceroute-like probe packets," i.e. special data packets or frames, which report IP router and switch forwarding paths to the destination address. By compiling this data describing the actual forwarding paths taken by data through networks, Network Maps are created and used to find “peering links" between ISPs (Internet Service Providers); these are links (physical lines or channels) connecting distinct networks comprising the Internet which allow ISPs to exchange customers' traffic for mutual benefits.
- Route Analytics: This approach uses routing protocol data for creating a Network Map through passively listening to layer 3 protocol exchanges between routers. This data facilitates network discovery, real-time network monitoring, and routing diagnostics as well as network mapping.
There are three levels of maps to consider—physical, logical, and functional.
- A physical network map diagrams all the actual components of your network, including cords, plugs, racks, ports, servers, cables, and more. A physical network map gives you a visual representation of all the material elements of your network and the connections between them.
- A logical map is more abstract than the physical network map. It shows the type of network topology (bus, ring, etc.), and how the data flows between the physical objects in your network. This includes IP addresses, firewalls, routers, subnets and subnet masks, traffic flow, voice gateways, and other segments of the network.
To note: Since logical and physical network maps depict the same network environment from two different perspectives, it’s best to use both types to get a more comprehensive look at your network.
- A functional network map shows you how application traffic flows through the network physically. These types of network maps are only as useful as they are accurate, which means you need an appropriate and high-quality tool.
Creating a Network Map
Below are five steps to help create an accurate and useful network map that features all the necessary elements and can be shared with your team. Using a network topology mapper tool can simplify and centralize this process, increasing your team’s productivity.
- Identify which areas of your network need to be mapped: The first step in creating a network map is identifying which network elements need to be mapped. For example, do you want visibility of your complete distributed network, an individual subnet, or simply an IP address range? While some organizations will employ complex network maps that reflect their extensive requirements, others may find that simple network maps with just a handful of elements are capable of meeting their needs. Once you have determined what your network map needs to feature, you can move onto the next step. Remember that every network map, no matter your organization’s size or requirements, should show connections between devices. These may include servers, printers, customers, routers, switches, and more.
- Pick a method to utilize: Now that you know what you want your network map to include, you need to decide which platform or method you want to use to create your map. Some organizations may choose to draw their maps by hand, which will take a lot of manual effort but can be suitable for a simple network. Using network mapping software is a highly recommended alternative, which can save you a significant amount of time and potential headache. With a good network topology mapper, network mapping can take minutes rather than days, updates are automatic, and any device issues are flagged in real time.
- Optimize your network map: A network map should be visually optimized to make interpreting it quick and easy. At this stage, you should take time to adjust the colors, layout, and icons so the network map’s design is intuitive and easy for all viewers to understand. Keep in mind that this map is likely to be viewed by stakeholders, who may not have a technical background, so the design should reflect this.
- Distribute the network map: Once you have finished optimizing the design of your network map, it is time to share it with all relevant parties. Avoid printing or sharing your map as an individual document, because this could lead to outdated versions being accidentally utilized in the future. Instead, consider uploading your map to a location that can be accessed securely from anywhere, like a shared cloud storage platform.
- Keep your network map updated: If you decide to use a manual method of creating your network map, the process of keeping your map up-to-date may be more difficult and time-consuming. You will need to update your network map each time you add or remove a device. Or, you will have to analyze your network periodically and redistribute updated network maps. In the meantime, technicians may not have the most current view or competing versions of the network map. A network mapping tool can add all devices for you automatically, ensuring everyone has the same view and the most current information.
The Imortance of Network Maps
There are three key areas where network maps can help you improve your network performance.
- Network visualizations: It can be difficult to picture the entire scope of your network. Plotting out every connected device requires the ability to interpret it abstractly. You also need to be able to map your network in real-time to account for new devices. If there are devices connecting and disconnecting all the time, this can be impossible. Having a network map allows you to visualize your network and everything associated with it. Through a network map, every device currently connected to your network is visually represented. Most network mapping tools automatically generate maps based on periodic scans, keeping your network visualization regularly up-to-date. Some programs even allow you to customize how your map looks, giving you control over how you want your map to look. Though most network maps are created through automation, there are also static network maps are created by IT teams manually. These, however, have their disadvantages. While you can visualize your network any way you want, you won’t be able to adapt to any changes that occur without manually inputting them. Depending on the scale of your network, this cuts significantly into time that could be spent addressing network problems.
- Device monitoring: Many network mapping tools not only visualize your network, but can also show you where problems originate if they occur. Network maps interpret data gathered by NPMs and change their visualizations to reflect network and device statuses. For example, devices that are running optimally will be shown in a different color than devices that are causing problems. Most mapping software, especially those incorporated in NPMs, allow you to examine each device from the map. You can view details of every device by simply clicking on its image on the map. Thus, you can conveniently see the particulars of any device that you want to monitor closely. You can see not only the IP address and serial number of devices, but also bandwidth usage. This can help you determine whether or not a device is worth examining further if it appears to be a problem.
- Network issue diagnosis: Depending on the tool, network maps can alert you when problems like excess traffic or networks going down occur. By checking your map, you can instantly see what devices are having problems, which will help you quickly figure out where the issue is coming from. Some mapping tools have automation features to instantly address detected problems. Seeing the condition of connected devices visually is also useful for determining areas of your network that need strengthening. You may discover potential bottlenecks or places for chokepoints by visually analyzing your network and its devices.
Network maps can be one of the most important tools in an IT team’s arsenal. They’re handy in helping you visually recognize every aspect of your network. Seeing devices on your network in real-time allows you to see any problems as they develop. With network mapping, IT professionals don’t have to imagine where the issues might be happening. They can observe firsthand where the problem is coming from, allowing them to deal with it quickly and efficiently.