Network infrastructure mapping tools that help you maintain up-to-date maps can be the difference between quickly diagnosing a problem or wasting hours of your time. Similarly, network maps can help everyone in your organization better understand and optimize a network you inherit.

In many cases, however, network maps contain stale information or don’t exist at all. Network engineers often end up in a negative feedback loop where changes occur to solve problems, those changes go undocumented, and tech debt mounts.

Here, to help you avoid those problems (or break out of the tech debt cycle), we provide a crash course on network infrastructure mapping and look at the best network mapping tools available today.

What is network infrastructure mapping?

Infrastructure mapping, a.k.a. network infrastructure mapping, network topology mapping, or network mapping, is the process of creating maps that visualize your network layout by creating a network map.

Network infrastructure mapping can be done manually using tools like diagramming software or even pen and paper (although that will complicate storage and sharing!).

Additionally, there are plenty of tools that automate the network infrastructure mapping process. For example, several of the top network monitoring tools provide network mapping functionality. In most cases, manual mapping is useful during the network design stages or for small networks, while automatic network mapping tools help once networks are up and running.

To better understand why mapping network infrastructure is important, let’s take a look at what’s in a network map.

What is a network map?

A network map is a visualization of the devices, physical connections, and logical connections in a network.

Network maps, sometimes called network diagrams, are one of the most important pieces of network documentation you can have. At a high-level, we can group network maps into two categories:

  • Physical network map: A physical network map details the physical devices, cables, connections, and locations on a network. For example, a physical network map might display the Layer 1 connections between devices (e.g., cables and ports) on a network, the devices themselves, and even position in a server rack.
  • Logical network map: A logical network map details the logical connections between devices on a network. For example, a logical network map might visualize the Layer 2 and Layer 3 connections that enable data to flow from a server to a default gateway such as a firewall, and then the internet.

However, in practice, there’s a lot of variance in the level of detail in network maps. In some instances, network infrastructure mapping tools may provide physical and logical mappings on the same map. Network maps can also be static (they don’t change and need to be manually updated) or dynamic ( they’re automatically updated as things change).

While the level of detail in network maps can vary, some of the most important items to include are your network devices, IP addresses, and Layer 1 to 3 connections. With that data visualized, you’ll have a basic overview of your network topology.

Drilling down further, it can be useful to include data on physical location (e.g., building, floor, and rack location), asset management data (e.g., MAC address, serial number, model, device name, and license information), geolocation information, and more granular network information, including SMB shares, network services running, data on STP configuration, VLANs, used/available ports, and performance metrics.

Common protocols used in network mapping

When creating basic network maps or designing your network topology, you generally won’t need to use any specific network protocols. On the other hand, network protocols are used by automatic network infrastructure mapping tools and can come in handy even if you’re doing manual mapping. To help, here are some common protocols used to gather data for network maps:

  • SNMP: The Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) is at the heart of many network mapping tools. Much of the data used to create Layer 2 and Layer 3 maps are captured using SNMP.
  • Pro tip: Whenever possible, use the more secure SNMPv3 protocol instead of cleartext SNMP v1/v2c.

  • ICMP (ping, tracert/traceroute): The Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) is what tools like ping and tracert use to check connectivity and measure hops between devices. As a result, ICMP can be useful for both automatic mapping tools and if you ever need to map a network manually.
  • WMI: Windows Management Instrumentation can be used to capture detailed information on Windows machines.
  • LLDP: The Link Layer Discovery Protocol works at Layer 2 and is a vendor-neutral protocol. It’s used by network devices to send and receive information about their identity and capabilities, such as VLAN names, port names, and link aggregation data.
  • CDP: The Cisco Discovery Protocol is a Cisco-specific protocol that works much like LLDP.
  • FDP: The Foundry Discovery Protocol is another Layer 2 protocol that works like CDP and LLDP.

Why you should map your network infrastructure

With the basic what and how out of the way, let’s take a look at why you should be mapping network infrastructure and the many benefits it provides:

  • Visibility: Network maps provide you with a high-level overview of your entire network topology. Additionally, many network mapping tools enable you to drill down and capture data on individual nodes and connections.
  • Troubleshooting: Have you ever had to troubleshoot a network someone else designed? If you have, this point needs no explanation. If you haven’t: A network map can be the difference between knowing exactly what rack space, device, and connection you need to work on, and hours of guesswork. In larger networks, even if you were the architect, keeping track of everything without documentation is impractical.
  • Maintenance: As with troubleshooting, detailed network maps can make planning for outages and updates a lot simpler.
  • Planning & design: When you’re initially designing a network, creating a static map can be a useful conceptual model. When you’re planning upgrades and optimizations for an existing network, a dynamic map with up-to-date metrics can help you make better decisions.
  • Compliance: In some cases, regulations require up-to-date network topology maps. For example, section 1.1.2 of the current version of PCI DSS (v3.2.1) calls for a “current network diagram” that can identify all connections within the relevant networks. Similarly, section 1.1.3 requires a diagram that shows relevant network and system data flows.

Networking mapping best practices

  • Include the right data: “Right” will be somewhat subjective, but Layer 1 to 3 connections, IP addresses, network device types, and the ability for you to drill down and capture more data if needed is a good starting point. The takeaway here is simple: Make sure you’re mapping what you’ll need when it comes time for maintenance, troubleshooting, and upgrades.
  • Keep your network maps updated: Network maps with old information can be worse than no map at all. An outdated network map can lead to miscommunication, wasted time, and frustration. While you could keep maps updated manually, in most cases manual mapping processes get abandoned somewhere along the line. Tools that dynamically update your network maps as changes occur can solve this problem. Simply put, dynamic network maps are far superior to static network maps.
  • Take snapshots: Configuration management and being able to validate the state of a network at a given point in time are important. Take and store snapshots of your network maps so you have traceability on the state of your network over time.
  • Make maps accessible to stakeholders: Chances are someone else will need to use your network maps. Make sure the right people can access them when needed.
  • Use standard icons: Since other people will read your maps, it’s important that you use icons that clearly convey the network topology, connections, and devices. With automatic mapping tools, this usually takes care of itself. With manual tools, you’ll need to do it yourself.

Top network infrastructure mapping tools

Our list of the top infrastructure mapping tools includes two different categories of tools:

  • Automatic network infrastructure mapping tools: These tools automatically scan and map your network.
  • Manual network infrastructure mapping tools: These tools allow you to manually create a network map.

Automated network infrastructure mapping tools

Auvik

Auvik Network Map

Source: Auvik Networks

Auvik is a cloud-based network mapping and management solution designed for ease of use. One of the core features of Auvik is its network mapping functionality. With Auvik, detailed network maps can be generated within minutes. In addition to cabled Layer 1 to Layer 3 infrastructure, Auvik maps wireless connections and VPN tunnels as well.

Auvik’s interactive maps are updated in real-time and you can drill down to view granular network performance data directly from the map. With a multi-tenanted architecture, Auvik enables network admins to segment the interactive maps into individual locations, regions, or, in the case of MSPs, into individual client network maps.

Because Auvik is also a feature-rich network management tool, using it to maintain your network maps means you also get detailed reporting, alerting, and management features. For example, Auvik TrafficInsights™ combines flow protocols and machine learning to allow you to detect and address network issues faster and reduce mean time to resolution.

Pros

  • Simple and fast initial configuration
  • Easy to search and drill down in maps
  • Cloud-based secure access from anywhere with internet access
  • Support for over 15,000+ devices
  • Support for a wide variety of integrations (Slack, ServiceNow, etc)

Cons

  • No option for on-premises installation
  • No option to export to Visio

Top features

  • Detailed network mapping that includes Wi-Fi connections and VPN tunnels
  • Dynamic updates
  • Visibility into the connectivity of individual endpoints, beyond the depth of many typical network maps.
  • Multi-factor authentication support and SSO integrations with several popular providers

Intermapper

network-infrastructure-mapping-intermapper

Source:Intermapper

HelpSystems’ Intermapper is a network mapping tool that can be installed on Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X. Internmapper uses a variety of network discovery protocols to probe and map networks.

After discovery, Intermapper allows you to customize maps and view them on Google Earth. Intermapper also dynamically updates your maps when changes occur and can send alerts when there’s a network issue. While Intermapper does offer a free tier, it’s limited to five devices.

Pros

  • Simple and fast initial configuration
  • Integrates with other HelpSystems products like Automate
  • Library of user-contributed probes
  • Free tier for 5 devices

Cons

  • Limited reporting
  • No cloud option

Top features

  • Dynamic updates
  • Export maps to Visio
  • Customizable map layouts
  • View maps on Google Earth

SolarWinds NTM

network-infrastructure-mapping-visio

Source: SolarWinds

SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper (NTM) is a useful tool for creating and maintaining network maps. NTM supports a variety of network monitoring protocols like SNMP, CDP, and WMI for discovery.

Unlike some of the other automatic network infrastructure mapping tools on our list, NTM focuses almost exclusively on network mapping. That narrow focus can make NTM a good choice if you simply want to maintain network maps over time and don’t need additional network monitoring functionality.

Pros

  • Simple network discovery
  • Support for a variety of network monitoring protocols

Cons

  • Limited feature set compared to other options
  • Can only be installed on Windows

Top features

  • Multiple maps from one scan
  • Export maps to Visio
  • Auto-detect network changes

NetBrain

network-infrastructure-mapping-netbrain

Source: NetBrain

NetBrain is network automation and troubleshooting software that includes automatic network infrastructure mapping features. Maps are dynamically updated and include detailed network information.

NetBrain focuses heavily on integrations with other software like IDS (intrusion detection systems) and SIEM (security information event management) tools for enabling troubleshooting and network operations workflows. The software can be installed on-premises on Windows servers. Because of the resources required to run the servers at scale, maintenance can become complex.

Pros

  • Detailed maps
  • Support for hardware from over 150 vendors
  • Support for a wide variety of integrations

Cons

  • Can be complex to set up and manage
  • No cloud option

Top features

  • Dynamic updates
  • SDN support
  • Export to Visio
  • Network automation with “Runbooks” actions

ManageEngine OpManager

network-infrastructure-mapping-manageEngine

Source: ManageEngine

ManageEngine OpManager is a full-featured network monitoring tool that also does automatic network infrastructure mapping. OpManager can be installed on Windows or Linux machines. Windows users have the option to use a POSTGRESQL database (which is included) or a Microsoft SQL database on the backend.

In addition to supporting a variety of scanning protocols and the dynamic updates you’d expect from an automatic network mapping tool, OpManager does a good job with integrating geographic data and drilling down to 3D rack-level visualizations.

ZoHo is the parent company of ManagineEngine, so as you might expect, ZoHo Maps is the default mapping service but Google Maps is supported too. Because there’s no cloud deployment option for ManageEngine, it can become complex to maintain at scale.

Pros

  • Full-featured network monitoring tool with network mapping
  • Extensive library of add-ons and plugins
  • Free tier (limited to 3 devices)
  • Geographic data using ZoHo Maps or Google Maps

Cons

  • No cloud option
  • Can be complex to manage and maintain

Top features

  • 3D visualizations of server racks
  • Export maps to Visio
  • Organize networks geographically
  • Dynamic map updates

Manual mapping software options

Visio

network-infrastructure-mapping-visio

Source: Visio

Microsoft’s Visio software has long been the de facto standard for creating all sorts of diagrams. It has a large library of network-specific templates and stencils that make the manual creation of network maps possible. Additionally, because Visio is so feature-rich, maps are highly customizable. However, Visio can be tough for some beginners to get started with.

In addition to a desktop version for Windows, cloud options allow Linux and macOS users to leverage this manual network infrastructure mapping tool.

Pros

  • Wide variety of templates
  • Cloud and desktop options
  • Integrates with Microsoft Office platform

Cons

  • Learning curve can be steeper than other tools
  • No desktop version for macOS or Linux

Top features

  • Support for network-specific templates
  • Many standard network diagram icons

Lucidchart

network-infrastructure-lucidchart

Source: Lucidchart

Lucidchart offers many of the same benefits as Visio but is often viewed as more beginner-friendly. The web app is fully functional, meaning Windows, Linux, and macOS users all effectively get the same experience. However, Lucidchart lacks an offline or desktop option.

Pros

  • Wide variety of templates
  • More beginner-friendly than Visio
  • Full functionality in the web app

Cons

  • No desktop or offline option

Top features

  • Support for network-specific templates
  • Many standard network diagram icons
  • Integrates with apps like Jira, Confluence, Slack, and GitHub

What to look for in network mapping tools

There’s no single network infrastructure mapping solution that’s right for everyone. To help you narrow down your choices, here are a few key points to look for:

  • Easy-to-understand and accurate maps: Fundamentally, network maps are about visualizing information. Make sure whatever tool you pick provides maps that paint a clear picture.
  • Speed: Will it take minutes, hours, or days to have usable maps? Not only will fast generating maps save you and your team time, they’ll also make it easier—and therefore more likely—for you to keep your maps current.
  • Dynamic updates: We said it before and we’ll say it again: Dynamic network maps are better than static network maps. That’s because automating the process of network mapping reduces the chances of your maps becoming stale. Of course, if you only need to create static maps for planning or design purposes, dynamic updates won’t matter.
  • Granular detail: The more you can drill down, the better. This is where tools that include network mapping as part of a broader network monitoring tool shine as they generally already include real-time performance metrics, flow data, and asset management details. Additionally, tools that can map wireless connections and VPN tunnels in addition to traditional wired connections offer a big advantage.
  • Snapshots: Do you want to export your maps? In what formats? Keep this in mind when evaluating infrastructure mapping tools.
  • Customization: Being able to tweak and modify your maps can help you optimize them to meet your needs.
  • Complementary features: Features like network reporting and alert notifications.

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If you’re not sure where to start, take advantage of Auvik’s 14-day free trial, and have your network mapped and fully monitored before you leave the office today.