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-- by James E. Powell
From simple flowcharts to complex network diagrams, the Visio family of illustration programs creates the everyday business diagrams that paint programs can't handle. The newest addition to the family, Visio Professional 4.5, includes a new programming environment and wizards.
Once again, Visio Corp. is technologically out in front, this time incorporating Visual Basic, Applications Edition, into its drawing engine. If you've used VBA in any of the Office 97 applications, you'll be right at home. Unlike Microsoft's Visual Basic, where you place an object on the screen and immediately manipulate its properties, Visio VBA employs a complex arrangement of documents, pages and shapes. If it sounds tough, it is; trying to refer to a shape is not for the weekend programmer. The documentation attempts to explain the basics, but it is poorly organized and lacks an effective tutorial or simple examples.
Visio's products are distinguished by their large collection of predefined shapes, called SmartShapes because of their ability to maintain dimensions and incorporate data fields. Professional 4.5 includes 1,000 new SmartShapes, including 350 vendor-specific shapes for network equipment from 3Com, Bay Networks, Cabletron and Hewlett-Packard. Also new are IDEF0 and IDEF1X-compliant shapes (for diagramming processes to government standards) and objects for major software development methodologies. You'll find a set of shapes for the Web, including representations of a URL, page jump and newsgroup.
Along with its new Office 97-like toolbars and menus, Visio Professional 4.5 offers a set of powerful wizards for tackling some of the harder jobs.
The Network Diagram Wizard is particularly useful. We created a complex network layout just by answering a few questions. The wizard can also lay out a network diagram from a database or text file. The Network Database Wizard links shapes within a Visio network diagram to fields in an ODBC-compliant database. Changes to the database can be reflected in a Visio diagram and vice versa.
Visio's Hyperlink Wizard creates links from the object to a page in the same diagram, another document or a URL; right-click and a Go To menu option displays the list of links. The Web Site Diagramming Wizard starts at a specified Web page and automatically generates a hierarchical diagram of the site. The shapes for each page contain hyperlinks for navigating through the diagram as though you were surfing the Web. Version 4.5 sports a Save as HTML option, generating a set of HTML pages from your diagram. Each page is exported as a bitmap (including JPEG or GIF, but not transparent GIFs); Visio Professional even generates navigation buttons for moving between pages.
Visio Professional's Auto Lay Out command examines your entire drawing and redraws it to ensure that the diagram is centered on the page and that lines flow logically. It's a great example of how the program helps you concentrate on getting the objects and connections on the page, then handles the tweaking for you.
Plain-vanilla Visio 4.0, on our WinList of recommended products, offers extensive predefined objects for just about any business diagram imaginable. Visio Professional 4.5 extends its power to network and development diagrams. When the documentation improves, it will be a product any developer would love.