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Data Visualization Software Maps Networks, Business Processes and Transportation Routes

May 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

Embedded information makes diagrammed pictures worth a thousand words.

Many of the complex and often tediously precise tasks for computer and telecommunications planners and administrators can now be delegated to automation software designed to graphically represent architectures. The software eliminates many of the network maintenance frustrations by presenting information in a basic diagram with embedded data accessible in multiple levels beneath the illustrations.

Mapping out these complex networks to facilitate targeting problems when they arise is a laborious task for many organizations. Similar difficulties emerge when upgrading systems as technology improves. The enormity of the challenge can be measured by the size and quantity of the loose-leaf notebooks that many organizations use to record streams of information about their networks. The data often are unintelligible and too complex to provide a common understanding for system users.

The military is no stranger to this problem. Prior to automating its systems architecture management process, the U.S. Marine Corps was burdened with 3-inch-thick binders containing information about its networks.

Tasked with making sure the most accurate, up-to-date information was available to Marines around the world—and after losing funding to reproduce the notebooks—the Corps decided to use existing commercial technology to put network information on-line. This would make it accessible to Marines worldwide.

The Marine Corps Combat Development Command, headquartered in Quantico, Virginia, now uses a diagramming tool that allows network administrators to visually create and retrieve information on demand about their systems. The latest version of this software, released earlier this year, has enhanced information access capabilities designed specifically to make data about networks easy to recover and understand.

The software, known as netViz, offers a tool to create a visual database, according to Vo Tran, netViz Corporation’s founder and president. The first version of the product was developed by the Rockville, Maryland-based company in 1993, and today the data visualization product is in its fourth release.

While many netViz users employ the product to map telecommunications or computer networks, the software is also used to illustrate workflow and business processes. Additionally, the product can be used to diagram transportation networks to reveal major hubs and various travel routes. The airline industry could use the product to note its transportation paths, for example.

The software offers a drag-and-drop mapping interface where customers can select from a palette of icons that depict items in a network. Users can drag objects into a diagram to populate a window, creating a visual representation of a network at all levels. A programmer does not have to define every action needed to create and link diagrams or databases. Whether zooming in from a map of the world showing company sites or depicting a region or a specific office, the software allows network administrators to view multiple levels of a company’s computing architecture. Network administrators can navigate the visual hierarchy that defines, even down to the exact product type, all information about the system.

The company’s latest catalog includes about 4,500 product-specific designs. Users can scan in their own imagery, such as building floor plans, or they can use a logical representation offered in netViz. But netViz Corporation Chief Operating Officer Daniel J. Blum stresses that the product is designed with the data in mind, not the drawings. “The graphics are secondary. How well you allow people to deal with lots of information is the key,” Blum says. “There’s a real limitation to just drawings.”

To circumvent those limitations, the product allows users to drill down to obtain embedded data that describes a network, a communications line or even a specific user. Information such as the links or transmission routes in a network, the size of a line, and the point of contact for the user of each workstation can be stored beneath the graphical representation.

While diagrams can be created from scratch and include network product and user information, much of the information contained in a netViz network illustration can be gleaned from existing databases through the software’s open database connectivity driver. By dragging and dropping fields from the database into the netViz structure, graphical representations can be created from currently held information. These diagrams make it easier for company employees and managers at all levels of expertise to easily understand network setup and business processes.

One advantage of this network management approach is that if the information is changed in one place—the database or the diagram—it is changed in every place that it is depicted by the software. This eliminates the need to find each reference and change it.

Many network managers still use maps and yarn to capture what netViz can describe in seconds, Blum offers. Because the product was built to deal with massive amounts of information, netViz easily sifts through reams of data previously buried in notebooks and obscured in complex wall charts. “We have spent a lot of time optimizing the ease of use,” Tran says. “This is about the integration of graphics and data in a seamless fashion.”

The latest version of the product offers the enhanced data-driven graphics capability that changes all representations of a value when the value itself changes. Graphic representations can reveal the size of a line by color or thickness and can even blink to give a viewer further information from the diagram alone.

These diagrams can also be placed on the World Wide Web with view-only access capability. Alternatively, businesses can update information and replace diagrams on-line. This allows 24-hour worldwide access to the data and eliminates dissemination of information piecemeal. Through the web, an administrator can control the flow of information and simplify maintenance to ensure that everyone within an organization has the most accurate, up-to-date information.

Maj. Ted Kline, USMC, architecture integration section head for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, works with the netViz software. He explains that the product is being used by the Marine Corps to map its entire command, control, communications, computers and intelligence architecture to support combat operations. The service opted for the diagramming software to catalog networks because its traditional method of recordkeeping in notebooks was hard to distribute and expensive to produce.

The Marine Corps has used the software for about one year. According to Kline, the product is making the process a lot easier by providing increased reliability and flexibility in the management of information about network architecture. The Marine Corps has received all positive feedback, Maj. Kline says.

Transitioning the network diagrams with the software has provided a simple view of the Corps’ complex requirements and architecture. This information can now be easily understood by warfighters as well as engineers. Field unit personnel no longer have to sift through volumes of descriptions and cross-reference binders to learn about a system’s design. When integrating new and legacy systems, the tasks of the administrators are also simplified. And finally, policy-level decision makers have the necessary information at their fingertips to make technology acquisition decisions.

The Marine Corps houses its information on the World Wide Web to ensure that every level of user, regardless of location, has access—from Marines in the field to engineers. To date, there have been more than 20,000 hits to the web site from 1,339 Marine Corps user accounts authorized to access the service’s diagrams. “It creates a common perspective,” Maj. Kline summarizes about the software. The product gives every marine the same level of understanding about the architecture, he adds.

Overall, a team of approximately six people transferred more than 2,000 diagrams into the netViz software throughout the course of a seven- to eight-month period. This transition eliminated the binders, last printed in 1997, that housed the information. Now, less than 10 people work to maintain and update the Corps’ netViz diagrams.

The service plans to add diagrams for its architecture that will support operational maneuvers from the sea. This information will also be available on the web. All diagrams on the web are password protected for security. “The goal is to try to get the most information possible in the most user-friendly way,” Blum says. With the data embedded beneath the diagrams in netViz, developers have ensured a basic understanding of a network by eliminating confusing clutter and have made more detail readily available.