The more your business’s IT system grows, the more you need an up-to-date network diagram. You or your IT services provider may need it in an urgent troubleshooting situation. And that’s only one of the five reasons to have a network diagram — especially if you’re not an IT expert.
A network diagram is the graphic representation of a computer network. You can see at a glance your key IT devices, and how they’re connected and protected.
A standard network diagram will include connections between some or all of these basic components:
Don’t worry if you don’t know what all that stuff is, exactly. In fact, the less you know about how your computer system works, the more important it is to have a diagram made for you. Here’s why:
5 Reasons to Have an IT Network Diagram
Ellen Jennings, CEO of BEI, says that when her support team has to start from scratch to find things like IP addresses, physical locations, and dependencies among various IT components, fixes naturally take longer and cost more.
Ellen wants any of BEI’s tech support specialists to be able to help any customer who calls in with a critical issue. A network diagram helps make that happen quickly, she says.
I’ve worked with clients who avoided serious issues because their network diagram exposed a potential problem with their network. By not waiting for an emergency, we could address the problems carefully and manage the budget.
Also, with these diagrams in hand, system upgrades and installations can be done efficiently, with minimal downtime.
As Ellen puts it, “A diagram helps people looking at your network from different points of view speak a common language.”
Let’s look at a typical network diagram (if you haven’t worked with these, please don’t let this scare you off — the learning curve isn’t as high as you might think) and then talk about what one typical IT vendor might gain from looking at it:
Look at this from the viewpoint of a new backup system provider. The provider’s tech would notice something important in the box in the lower left labeled “Office.”
Three items within that box are labeled “server,” meaning the office contains three physical servers. But your backup vendor will see that two of the servers are partitioned into multiple “virtual servers.” The server named Hyper2016-CPM, for example, contains five virtual servers.
A network diagram provides many such clues that will help new IT staffers or vendors be effective and accurate right from the get-go.
“There is little to no documentation or reporting available”
According to itSynergy, lack of documentation hurts both parties, especially if you’ve got an internal IT staff who doesn’t want to part with documentation (or doesn’t have the right kind).
As an example, the post cites an itSynergy client that wanted to outsource its technology management, but had almost no infrastructure documentation from its internal staff member.
“They were experiencing issues with performance but found themselves scared to even address these issues for fear of losing years of data or network intelligence.” A terrible position to find yourself in indeed.
I’ve walked through similar diagrams with clients for years, often after updating it following an installation or other significant change. Over time, even those who aren’t IT savvy will grasp the basics of their IT infrastructure.
This level of knowledge helps you weigh risks, make budgeting decisions, and overall manage your IT resources better.
Steps to Take Now:
Here are some steps you — along with your in-house or third-party IT staff — can take now, some of which are adapted from the BEI post, with Ellen’s input:
On the other hand, your business might have a complex system that requires a more complete diagram. For clients like this, I sometimes help them produce simple diagrams that are easy for non-IT people to follow, plus more complex diagrams that IT pros might need.
Here’s a sample diagram that has a bit more detail than the one above:
You can see this diagram has a few “callout boxes” with details that help guide IT staff and vendors. Note that the diagram includes more than just servers. All the key components are included, right down to the devices used by remote customers (see upper right).
Some network diagrams also include sensitive information that wouldn’t be appropriate for some outside parties, such as specific:
It’s okay to have a diagram that includes all of this information, just be very careful who has access to it.
If your network is very simple, and/or if you have enough IT experience, you might want to take a crack at it yourself (at least for a preliminary effort). If you have Microsoft 365 or
Check out these resources for DIYers:
Once You Have an IT Network Diagram -- Make it Work for You!
When your IT network undergoes a significant change, you need to update your network diagram. If you’re outsourcing this function, you should walk through your network diagram about once a year to see what’s changed.
This periodic review is an excellent way to help plan for infrastructure upgrades. If you’re opening new physical locations, use the diagram as a guide for setting up and labeling the physical IT components.
Over time, you’ll find this tool can do more than bail you out of tight situations. It can expand your knowledge, making you a better day-to-day manager and a better long-term strategist.