Visio 2003 makes the right moves

Microsoft extends venerable Visio, shrinks file sizes, and adds export features

The term Visio hasn’t quite become a verb, akin to Google, but the presence of this tool in daily IT life is significant. Visio has become the de facto standard for standard diagram drawings, especially network layouts and process flowcharting.

Previous file format versions of Visio created simply massive native documents. A quick search of some of my Visio diagrams (535 in all) shows that the average file size is a bit more than 1MB, with some truly behemoth rack detail drawings weighing in at 32MB. Most e-mail servers won’t accept attachments of that size, so collaboration becomes a challenge.

Thankfully, this problem is remedied in Visio 2003 — file sizes are roughly 10 percent of those in Visio 2002. There is a caveat: The Visio 2003 file format is not backward compatible, so users of prior Visio versions cannot view or modify documents saved in Visio 2003 format.

Visio 2003 can save files compatible with prior versions, but there is no reduction in size. This rather painful fact of progress is unfortunately necessary to achieve the significantly smaller file sizes.

There are other significant changes throughout Visio 2003. Connectors now flow better and have enough smarts to identify when another stencil is inserted into a line, splitting the connector and gluing the separated ends to the handles of the inserted stencil. Also useful is a specific rack-diagramming template, simplifying the creation of rack-level diagrams.

On the downside, some autodiscovery tools available in Visio 2002, such as the Active Directory import feature, were removed from Visio 2003. On the upside, Visio 2003 adds the capability of tracking changes in a drawing. When changes are made to a document with change tracking invoked, they are applied to a layer above the original; users may peel back layers to expose the various changes.

The single most intriguing feature of Visio 2003 may be the exportation features. Lacking a free view-only companion a la Adobe’s Acrobat, the only realistic way to view a Visio diagram without Visio is via a JPEG or PNG export or on a printed page. Objects within a Visio drawing can contain metadata located in custom fields describing the object in detail, but on a printed page or when viewed as a JPEG, this data isn’t visible.

In Visio 2003, however, exporting a document in HTML format creates a single HTML file, rendering the image as an SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic). When viewed with Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher, the resulting document is rendered well in the browser, and all object metadata is viewable within a frame.

This is a very handy feature, even if it is limited to IE. By providing a more extensible format for this information, Visio becomes more valuable as a documentation tool.

All this improvement creates a quandary: “What do I do with this data?” In a sense, appropriate use of Visio for diagramming a network or a process turns the document into a database: Every object is directly referenced by its position and form to provide a sense of context, and access to more information on the object should be possible via a simple query.

Visio 2003 attempts to accommodate this need — you can dump all the data from a Visio diagram into a database via the database export function, then set up an ODBC connection to a Visio document to permit searches and data insertion. In other words, it’s possible to view and update Visio metadata in real time from external sources. Very cool.

Implementing this feature is a bit primitive, however: Linking of a document and a DSN is rather obtuse and difficult to implement. Some of the file selection dialog boxes used in the process remind me of Windows 3.1, with a decidedly 16-bit feel.

Many feared that Visio might be the worse off for Microsoft’s involvement, but it seems that the best may be yet to come. The smaller file sizes are definitely welcome, change tracking is very useful, and the nascent database integration is promising. Overall, Visio 2003 is an improvement on an already solid tool.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (20.0%)
Ease of use (30.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Consistency (20.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Visio 2003 Professional 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 9.0 8.0
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