The top cloud diagramming tools, ranked
If you’re looking for a quick-start diagramming tool that feels like the back of a napkin, this blog is a must read.
Jun 08, 2023 • 8 Minute Read
Try explaining your entire cloud infrastructure aloud in a few sentences to a room full of not-quite-as-technical-as-you team members. There's a lot of terms to keep track of that can all feel a bit like an alphabet soup after a while. And, well, a picture is worth a thousand words anyway—even if those words have at least 5 syllables each.
You’ll probably find, instead, that a room of people watching a presentation (or your shared screen on Zoom) are going to have a much easier time understanding you if you just have a diagram. Flow charts have filled powerpoint slideshows for decades and there’s no reason you should feel allergic to them, even if it’s cloud architecture that you’re trying to explain.
Also, fortunately, there are an enormous number of tools out there to help you diagram your cloud architecture. And many of them are free, or have enough free features, to make your life a whole lot easier. We’ve taken a look at many of these—some more bespoke and others incredibly popular internally. And we wanted to share how we felt about some of these top tools. This list is not exhaustive and has some bias toward tools that are quickly accessible. (It doesn’t include Visio, for example, which we still hear is wonderful.)
As a thought experiment, we challenged ourselves to diagram the same layout in each tool in five minutes or less. Some turned out just as comprehensive as you’d expect to see on a slideshow. Others… well, not so much, but we can see where they excel and why they’re good at what they do. The five-minute experiment did not include the sign-up or download period.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the top cloud diagramming tools, as well as some of their pros and cons—and our less-than-five-minute layout challenge result. Give it a try yourself, too!
Free version: Yes!
Draw.io is a go-to WYSIWYG cloud diagramming tool. You’re asked three quick questions and then taken straight to several template options. It has a search function for common shapes/icons. It also has quick sharing options for Google Drive and OneDrive. Seamless auto-cropping tool on export based on object grouping. It has a lot of seamless export options, including vector graphics format for design editing. You can also export your diagrams to Trello, Github, Dropbox, and Gitlab. Also has a VS Code extension!
The interface at times can be a bit busy with icons that are not particularly well organized. You’ll find images of, well, flow charts in an “advanced” section. The icon library is not as robust as other options, missing some native icons for Google Cloud, Alibaba, and others.
Highly customizable WYSIWYG interface with little friction. Quick start that gets you straight to the tool with little account setup requirements make this a great option for putting together a quick and easy cloud diagram.
Free version: Yes, up to three documents
Quick start based on a short questionnaire. Lucidchart has a good set of templates with recommendations for how to use them and use cases. It has a pretty decent library of icons with a search function. There are also some intuitive shortcuts (like double-click for text) that make it a little easier to use. Good range of export options, including vector graphics format, along with a cropping tool.
Diagramming and directional arrows can be a little finicky when working with small icons. Somewhat slow with lots of interstitials. Some gated features that don’t give you a great feel with the free version. Search function is slow.
An advanced user’s Draw.io. Lucidchart is loaded to the brim with features and offers a bit more guidance to its use cases. However Lucidchart is a bit of a high friction product and has some responsiveness issues as a web product.
Free version: Yes!
CloudCraft is good for rendering three-dimensional layouts. Offers additional context (such as the cost of a number of EC2 instances) for various points of interest on the flowchart. You can also link your AWS infrastructure to generate layouts. Good hotkeyed object search in a diagram. Lots of baked-in layout features, like automatically spacing out objects across an autoscaling group shader. Ability to switch between 2D and 3D layout. Good range of exports, including vector graphics.
Panning/zooming can be a little fickle, with some unintuitive features for first-time users. AWS-specific, though that might not be a bad thing for you. 3D layout can very quickly get a bit busy.
Cloudcraft is a very rich AWS diagram generator, from the visual layout of architecture to reporting and analysis like cost structure. Reporting dash also offers exports to excel and CSV formats. If you’re exclusively using AWS and have time to dig really deep into this it can be a great all-in-one tool.
Free version: Yes! 14-day trial
Omnigraffle is an expert-grade general-purpose vector and object manipulation product. Does a good job on object inheritance such as automatically maintaining text positioning when adjusting sizes. Very layer-centric approach. Good use of hotkeys (given it’s a desktop app) and has a wide range of export options. Massive library of downloadable stencils for diagramming.
No web interface, extremely sparse interface and unintuitive for someone trying to build a diagram for the first time. Not great for beginners!
Omnigraffle is definitely a pro tool with a somewhat sparse layout, and it has a bit of a learning curve. However the blank-canvas approach and large library of stencils make it a very powerful all-in-one diagramming tool that can go beyond cloud diagrams.
Free version: Yes!
Excalidraw is a quick-start, very minimalist WYSIWYG diagramming product that’s a lot more fun to look at than you’d think. It has a “sloppiness” component to make it a bit more whimsical. Layer-centric design with really intuitive linking features. It has intuitive hotkeys for object creation and grouping and supports live collaborative sessions. It also has a lightning-fast exporting tool.
Bare bones tool that, while good for quick sketches, will not be great for more robust or professional diagramming. It has a very limited set of features.
Excalidraw tries to evoke the kind of back-of-a-napkin flowchart drawing, and it definitely succeeds. That might work in an email or a design document somewhere—but it probably won’t in a presentation or for official documentation.
Free Version: Yes!
Cloudskew has a very straightforward, empty-canvas-WYSIWYG interface. It also has a large library of common icons and images you might use in a diagram with a search function. You can streamline your own interface by setting default icon preferences, including: Alibaba, AWS, Azure, GCP, Kubernetes, Elastic, HashiCorp, Oracle, Elastic, and FontAwesome. It’s very snappy and clean.
It (weirdly) requires login with GitHub or LinkedIn. Cloudskew has some issues with object selection and scaling. Internal objects (like text) are not immediately linked to external objects, which might make things a little difficult if your diagram is sprawling out to dozens of nodes. The multi-select is a little finicky and it also has limited export options (no SVG).
Overall a good cloud-focused diagramming tool that has a really fast and crisp search function for icons right front and center. It still lacks a bit of polish that in the overall UX that would elevate it to a top-tier tool.
Free version: Yes!
Gliffy is a quick-start WYSIWYG interface that’s largely bare-bones. It has a really useful “most-used” rail for those regularly making common flowcharts. Gliffy also automatically opens up a text editor for objects, which is super convenient. It has good grouping/layering tools and a wide array of templates for various diagramming purposes.
Requires sign-up for exports, icons are largely bare-bones that you’ll find on other platforms.
Gliffy has a crisp, responsive interface that seems baked around frequent users with repeat needs.
Free version: Yes!
Miro is a general-purpose diagramming tool that’s very smooth and easy to use. The web interface has robust grouping/layering tools. It has a large marketplace of connected apps that make it easier to plug into your workflow. Miro also has a good Google image search tool baked into the board for slapping together a diagram.
Miro is built for a wide variety of use cases, not just cloud. You sacrifice some level of utility for cloud diagramming in favor of a more general-purpose diagramming tool. The Google image search tools also might be great for internal presentations, but be careful not to run into issues when publishing them externally!
Miro is a highly-polished diagramming product that can work across a variety of use cases. The downside is that you sacrifice some of the specific benefits of others in favor of a general-use tool like Miro.
9. Simple Diagrams
Free version: Yes, 7-day trial
More whimsy coming right up! Simple Diagrams has a pretty good standard icon set and also has an enormous library of other icon sets available online, including a few cloud-specific sets. Aside from having to download the app, the quick-start experience is comparable to other web-based diagramming apps.
It’s desktop only and sometimes stutters. It doesn’t come pre-loaded with cloud icons and the process for installing new ones is a bit of a hassle. The interface is mostly intuitive, but somewhat lacking in the usability department.
If you’re looking for a quick-start diagramming tool that feels like the back of a napkin, but is more robust than Excalidraw, Simple Diagrams is a good place to go.