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A review of top software architecture visualization tools

Developers need access to up-to-date software diagrams and documentation. Here are seven tools, from Visio to Mermaid, that provide visual models of code and design patterns.

Software architecture visualization tools are essential to successful application development. Through graphical code rendering, visualization gives developers a common blueprint to build from: a clearly defined breakdown of modules and documentation of software functionality.

Too often, code and documentation are managed through multiple, varied tooling sets. Without a single tool for both code and documentation management, software teams risk wasting time and resources trying to coordinate aspects of the project. They also could create unreliable, inflexible and hard-to-debug code.

When development teams use a single software architecture visualization tool to design and document projects, they gain predictability and assurance. Visualization tools create a coherent overview, and help identify and quickly resolve code issues and development challenges. Moreover, they prevent duplicating development efforts. Architecture visualization can enhance programming skills on the development team, and promote cross-learning between individual programmers and other roles, such as DevOps teams.

The following software architecture visualization tools -- in no particular order -- reflect a range of options, including both paid subscription and open source tooling. They include Enterprise Architect, Microsoft Visio, Lucidchart, Visual Paradigm, Draw.io, Graphviz and Mermaid. Here are the key features of each, as well as pros and cons that software teams should consider.

Enterprise Architect

Enterprise Architect provides a centralized, single source of truth for architectural specifications, code-based details and meta information. It offers features specific to the development process, such as modeling, reverse engineering, model transformations, code generation and documentation.

Developers can extend Enterprise Architect's features through a model-driven approach and Unified Modeling Language (UML) profiles. It also offers a platform for modeling, visualization, and design based on UML. This tool is suitable for large-scale enterprise environments, but it's also useful for individual or private projects.

Microsoft Visio

Paired with Office 365 or accessible via the web platform, Visio enables developers to easily create flow charts, diagrams, organizational charts and more. The tool is adept at charting process flows and creating system diagrams, which users can share with fellow programmers and engineers, and it generates accurate data flow documentation.

Lucidchart

Lucidchart provides a web-based interface and a wide range of templates to create development flow charts and diagrams. Users can collaborate in real time online to create architectural designs, and it provides great support for creating process flow charts.

Part of Lucidchart's appeal rests in its ease-of-use and intuitive functionality. Programmers who work in complex software environments will like the fact that Lucidchart connects with a diverse set of platforms and tooling, such as Atlassian, Salesforce and AWS.

Visual Paradigm

Visual Paradigm enables DevOps teams and individual programmers to efficiently model the overall development process. It provides code engineering features and supports current modeling languages and standards, including Service-oriented architecture Modeling Language and Business Process Modeling Language. Developers can use the template designer to create system documentation or to design class diagrams.

Visual Paradigm automatically ensures that all project versions remain in sync when any classes in the architecture are updated. It also offers support for process analysis and database design. And while the architecture visualization tool works for diverse projects, it offers effective resources for building large-scale systems.

Draw.io

Draw.io is a free, web-accessible tool with a responsive interface and a workspace for creating diagrams and architectural layouts. It provides collaboration tools via Google, enabling multiple developers to work simultaneously.

Draw.io's diagramming features are easy to use. However, the free version lacks the robustness of other software architecture visualization tools. While good for individual developers, it may not be the best choice for enterprise use.

Graphviz

Graphviz is an open source and well-established visualization tool that uses a command-line utility and the DOT graph description language. Architects and developers can export graphs and access different layouts, including hierarchical, radial and multiscale.

This tool enables developers to enter large amounts of code that can be instantly transformed, organized and used by other developers. Users can highlight connections between various nodes and generate graphics that illustrate those connections. For example, a developer could assign particular attributes to nodes, identify related attributes, and then diagram those relationships for the team to review.

Mermaid.js

Mermaid.js, simply called Mermaid, is based on Javascript, making it similar to other open source modeling tools (like Graphviz). With Mermaid, software teams can simplify documentation and create models that follow Markdown and ASCII-style documentation formats. The tool creates diagrams and supports different output styles while emphasizing version control for its users.

The Mermaid Live Editor at the Mermaid.js project site generates diagrams and shows the tool's functions and command syntax, before installing. Developers can download and share final creations as image files that have been sketched quickly and efficiently. Keep in mind, however, that even though you can write Mermaid diagrams in a basic text editor, it's much more prudent to use an editor with plugins specifically designed to review output.

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