I love Visio! I hate Visio!

I love Visio.  It produces so many great diagrams with great detail and clarity.  You can’t build, manage, operate, or support a data center without Visio.

There are a few things I really hate about using Visio with MIS organizations (especially MIS management.)

The main thing my clients hate about Visio is the same thing my previous employer hated:  the licensing cost combined with the closed file format.  The more good VSDX files you have circulating in an MIS organization, the more people are clamoring for a licensed software copy so that they can even see the danged diagrams.  Microsoft has shrewdly used some of their traditional product packaging techniques to make it so that your typical end-user can’t see the contents without thinking he or she needs the full Visio software package.  (Yes, there are a couple of solutions for your more experienced user.)  Circulate an updated diagram of the data center floor plan and suddenly everybody in the MIS organization and in the data center building will be clamoring for Visio on their laptop or desktop (or both.)

The most amusingly annoying thing I hate about using Visio is “architect elitism.”  Due to the licensing cost, many organizations choose to distribute Visio licenses only to the few people actually expected to be producing VSDX diagrams.  The assumption is that the producers will distribute PDF copies to the diagram viewers.  At IBM, licenses were only distributed to a short list of IT architects.  This quickly established a concept of elitism connected to who had or did not have the software.  I attended many design meetings where the “peons” would complain about not being able to see the design and the favored few responded “You must not be an architect.  Only architects use Visio, and architects only use Visio.”  I truly believe that if software was still distributed in boxes, some of these guys and gals would have carried around the empty Visio product box so that everybody could tell they were one of The Chosen™.

One quick way to embarrass yourself in front of clients is to distribute VSDX files at an Executive-level design review.  Executives don’t tolerate the attitude that they would be able to appreciate the brilliance of your design if only they had the foresight to load Visio on their laptop.  Executives have long loved Powerpoint.  Naturally, this leads to large populations of Partners, Managers, and IT Sellers wanting to see everything in Powerpoint.

After spending enough tedious hours stuffing Visio diagrams into Powerpoint presentations, I concluded that most diagrams should start out as, and remain Powerpoint diagrams.  Visio is really indispensible when you need “everything on one chart,” such as a data center floor plan, a rack elevation diagram, or some network diagrams.  However, many presentations and discussions either take a semi-abstract view of the big picture, or only need to show the details about one small aspect of the big picture.  For drawing IT diagrams, Powerpoint has the features that Visio designers use 80% of the time, and about 60% of Visio drawing tasks are essentially the same as in Powerpoint.  Frankly, the best rack elevation diagrams that I’ve seen were built in spreadsheets.  (Which would you rather revise 5 times per day during a deployment project: a cabling spreadsheet or a cabling diagram?)

I believe that there are really only a few situations when you really need Viso:

  • If the diagram will be physically plotted on giant paper and posted on the wall for everybody to review,
  • If the client demands detailed network, cabling, or elevation diagrams that must be simultaneously complete at the large scale and the small scale.
  • If the client demands detailed diagrams that much be dimensionally accurate (such as floor plans and some rack elevations.)
  • If you are preparing high resolution detailed diagrams for publication.

In my dad’s day, quality detailed diagrams were the work of skilled draftsmen and graphics artists, but that is a topic for another day.  May all your diagrams be true and clear, and may your graphic arts skills ever increase!

(Historical image courtesy of NASA.)