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Gliffy Business review

A cloud-based alternative to Microsoft Visio at a fraction of the price

Colourful image of data
Price
$96 (£61.44) per user, per year
  • Extremely easy to use browser-based interface; Keenly priced
  • Offline Chrome app can’t be linked to Gliffy Business accounts

Diagramming and creating simple vector graphics will almost certainly need to be done at some point by almost every business, from the largest multinationals to one-man-band IT firms. While it might be tempting to just let your staff knock diagrams together using whatever software is most readily at hand, basic tools such as the SmartArt features of Microsoft Word 2013 are limited in terms of both available graphic elements and supported structures.

Gliffy is an online diagramming tool, with a client base that ranges from small and medium-sized businesses to vast multinationals. There are three versions available. A free account gives you just 2MB of storage for a maximum of five diagrams, which cannot be made private. The standard account gives you 200 saved diagrams, 200MB of space, Google Drive integration, support for Microsoft Visio files, and privacy for your saved diagrams. Finally, there’s the Business version, which we’re reviewing here. This gives you unlimited storage and adds Advanced UML (Universal Modelling Language) and standard user interface image sets and templates.

Gliffy Business subscription packages range from one to 1,000 user licences, but volume license purchases at this level are no cheaper than an individual licence, priced at $9.95 (£6.38) per month if you opt for monthly billing, or a 20% discounted $95.88 (£61.44) per year. All users associated with your licence share the same storage space, and simply get a unique log-in, so there’s little chance of losing or misplacing someone’s data just because they are removed from the account.

Gliffy Business: simple is beautiful

Gliffy is built around HTML5 and works directly in your desktop browser – it doesn’t currently work in mobile browsers. When you log in, you’re prompted to create a new diagram using one of Gliffy’s most common shape sets, open a recent diagram, or open one of a range of templates. Available shape sets include standard flowchart icons, Venn diagramming tools, and a wide range of images tailored to specific uses.

As you’d expect, there are plenty of options for developers and designers, with standard UML icons and Amazon Web Services (AWS) sets. Android and iOS shape sets are included, along with forms, tables, buttons, and mobile and web elements so you can prototype UI designs for websites and apps. Network admins also have a fairly comprehensive range of icons available to map the devices on their networks, including a Cisco shape set. Some helpful graphics and templates even make mapping your cabinets easy.

For business management and support, there are shapes and templates for organisation charts, SWOT analysis, timeline charts, and even business process flowcharts, with a complete Business Process Model and Notation shape set. Floor plan shape sets are also available, although the options here are rather basic. Nonetheless, they’re good enough to illustrate your average desk move.

You can import your own images, as long as they’re under 1MB in size. Arranging shapes on screen is a simple click-and-drag affair. Shapes can be rotated and resized easily, and if you start typing while a shape or connector line is selected, you can apply labels. Shapes can be coloured, locked, grouped, copied, and layered, and a helpful range of keyboard shortcuts is available.

Drawing lines between two objects is easy enough - click on the line tool, then the start point, and drag the line to its end point. However, if you’re using the custom arrows, connectors, and lines found in Gliffy’s UML icon sets, you have to first drag the line to the diagram frame, and then connect each end to where you want it to go. It’s not that much effort, but it’s a bit more fiddly than we’d like. Visio users will also miss the Microsoft program’s line jump feature, which makes it easier to see how connectors are routed and where they interact.

The interface is generally smooth, responsive and feature-rich, with the ability to embed links into diagrams or diagram elements as well as share files you’re working on with other Gliffy users. Collaboration doesn’t take place in real time, which is a pity to those of us used to working in a Google Apps environment, but multiple versions of your file are stored and made accessible via the document’s revision history.

Gliffy’s import and export options are more limited than some of its rivals. You can import Visio VDX files, Gliffy’s own .gliffy format, plus JSON and XML files with GON and GXML extensions. To export vector graphics, you can choose between SVG and .gliffy formats. When exporting bitmap PNG and JPG files, you first have to define the size at which you wish to export the image. Although an initially baffling requirement, this does make it easier to import those files into other programs and print them too. You can also print from within Gliffy, although it insists that Chrome users set their margins to none.

Gliffy Business: apps, integrations, and offline modes

An important feature of any SaaS is how well it integrates with the rest of your workflow and software ecosystem. Gliffy has recently stopped supporting its API and Microsoft Word plugin, but plugins to integrate the SaaS with Google Drive, JIRA project management, and Confluence’s collaboration service are available.

Although it’s a primarily online service, there is a free Chrome app available, which works offline and runs from Google’s Chrome App Launcher as though it were a standard desktop app. Unfortunately, it can’t actually be linked to your Gliffy Business account, which makes it less convenient than it might otherwise have been. Gliffy’s official position on this is that “The free Chrome app is completely offline and cannot be linked to a Gliffy Online account. The Chrome app is a limited version of Gliffy Online, therefore it does not have as many features or capabilities.”

The Chrome app can open .gliffy files exported from your web app, which gives you an effective method of viewing and editing files offline if you know you’re going to be without an internet connection, but not all of the diagram sets supported by the full version are available in the free app. It’s also possible to link both your Gliffy Business account and the free Chrome app to the same Google Drive, but again, the process of using Drive to get files from one to the other feels clumsy.

Gliffy Business: conclusions

Gliffy pitches itself as an alternative to Microsoft Visio and its pricing compares well to the eye-watering £370 cost of Visio Professional 2013 – this is equivalent to six years of a Gliffy subscription.

For most purposes, Gliffy’s more than up to the task of replacing Visio, but it lacks some advanced features. If you rely on Visio’s SharePoint integration to create workflows for your team, or if you use Visio’s ability to pull in and illustrate data from Excel or SQL Server, then Gliffy won’t be an adequate replacement.

It’s rare for businesses to use diagramming tools to illustrate personal customer data, but if you do then Gliffy is not suitable, as the company isn’t signed up to the Safe Harbor framework for compliance with EU Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and doesn’t have European servers.

If your business needs a simple and easy to learn tool to create a wide range of charts and diagrams, Gliffy is an excellent choice. Its interface is slicker than rival LucidChart, and although we’d have liked better offline integration, it’s very convenient to have your charts and tools accessible via your browser, no matter where you or your staff are.

Verdict

A capable, cost-effective, and very accessible diagramming and charting tool, although not as feature-rich as Microsoft rival Visio.

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