This article shows you how to connect to a database and populate a diagram with its tables, relationships and properties. For this I will use an Access database but it could be any data source where you have its driver installed.

I want to represent a relational database structure on a diagram but I want it to show primary and foreign keys, unique indexes and the relationship structure between tables. I also want it to contain any parameters, constraints or other logic associated with the tables.

I also want to show how to generate a SQL Server database from a Visio diagram but that feature is not available in later versions of the software. Therefore all of the reverse engineering and database generation screenshots come from Microsoft Office Visio for Enterprise Architects. The Enterprise Architects edition came with Visual Studio .NET Enterprise 2003 and 2005. Whilst the reverse engineering featire remained for all editions of Visio Professional or Premium thereafter, the ability to generate a database was removed.

Reverse engineering a database

For the reverse engineering example, I will use the fictional sales database example from Microsoft called Northwind Traders that was created using Microsoft Access. If you want to follow along, you can either open Access and create a new Northwind database using Access (search for Northwind in the template box) or with any database that you can connect to. The screenshots are from Office 2003 but the majority of features remain the same today, just that they might be in different places.

In newer versions of Visio, selecting a new Database Model Diagram will ask you for units of measurement to create the diagram whereas in older versions you select the measurement with the template.

Visio Database Model Diagram
Visio Professional 2019
Visio 2003 Database Model Diagram
Visio 2003 for Enterprise Architects

In the later versions of Visio, the Database Reverse Engineering Wizard launches immediately. It can be cancelled if you want to create your own database diagram. For older versions, you get a blank diagram and have to launch the Wizard manually.

Database Reverse Engineer Selected

The Database Reverse Engineering Wizard is the same as it was in 2003, just that visually it might look slightly different.

You should be able to select the Visio driver appropriate to the database that you want to connect to as well as the Data source. Try ODBC if you don’t have Microsoft Access on your list.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 1

Enter the database connection credentials next. For this Northwind example and in most cases, the user and password will be blank.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 2

Select the database and click OK. You might get a message to say that the default driver has changed if you needed to switch drivers earlier.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 3
Visio Default Driver Changed Message

If you want to see Views and Tables (or even Stroed Procedures if you are using SQL Server) then keep those selected. I’m only interested in Tables for my diagram but I’ll keep Primary keys, Foreign keys, Check clauses and Indexes selected.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 4

Select All for the tables or other objects you have or unselect any that you don’t want to include, like auditing tables that you might not want to show up on your model.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 5

The next step is answered Yes as you want the objects to be drawn on the diagram. You will then get one final look at what will be converted before clicking Finish. You can click the Back button if anything is wrong.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 6
Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 7

The results will display. If there are a lot of tables, you might have to moved them around the page to get a better view. A report showing the step by step actions that Visio went through to draw the diagram and how long it took, is shown at the bottom of the screen.

Visio DB Reverse Engineering Wizard 8

If you select an object, you can select teh properties in the lower pane

Visio DB Reverse Engineered Model

Generating a database from a Diagram

I am going to use the same database model diagram to create a SQL Server database. This could be any database, even Access again, as long as you have a driver for it on your Machine. I believe that the SQL Server driver comes with Visio but it is no good unless you have a SQL Server to connect to. If you have SQL Server Management Studio installed with any version of SQL Server (local or remote) then you can do the following as long as you have Visio for Enterprise Architects also installed. Otherwise, you can just look at the screenshots to see what used to be available.

SQL Server is not as forgiving as Microsoft Access so I need to tidy up the model before we start to prevent an indexing error.

Visio DB Generation Error Example

It is quite simple, for each table the primary key(s) need to be set to Required.

Table Properties: Primary Key Required
Table Properties: Primary Key Set to Required

Remember that each table needs this fix. To start the database generation wizard, select Generate from the Database menu.

Visio Database Generate Wizard Selected

I don’t already have a SQL Server database to put the new tables in so I’m going to select “Generate new database”. Click Next and then select teh “New…” button.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 1
Visio Database Generate Wizard 2

You may get a message to say that the default driver has been changed because it was set to Access previously.

Visio Default Driver Changed to SQL Server

Creating a new data source requires a few more steps. Select User Data Source and then SQL Server.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 1
Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 2

Select the SQL Server and give this data source a name and description.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 3

Before clicking Next, enter the details of how you connect using Windows authentication or other credentials.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 4

Keep the defaults and click Next and Finish.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 5
Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 6

Connection details will show and you can Test it here, click OK when ready to continue.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 2 - New 7

Once you have the Data Source set, add a name for your database and click Next. When prompted for your user credentials, enter those or click OK.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 3
Visio Database Generate Wizard 4

You get one final review before clicking Next to validate. If there are any errors, click back or cancel to fix them. If not, click Finish.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 5
Visio Database Generate Wizard 6

As we will be creating a new database in SQL Server, we can also specify the logical and transaction log file names and paths. Or leave them empty to use SQL Servers default settings. Close, kicks off database generation.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 7

It will automatically create the database but will also generate a script as a record of the sections. you can also use that to re-run the database creation independently, maybe on another server. Click Yes to view the script.

Visio Database Generate Wizard 8
Visio Database Generate Wizard 9

From the code editor, I always “Save As” with a SQL extension as I have SQL files automatically associated and opening with SQL Server Management Studio.

Visio Database Generated Script
Visio Database Generated Script - Save As

The final thing to do is to check that the database has been created on the SQL Server. From Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio I can see that Northwind now exists and can see that the primary key of the tables do not Allow Nulls.

Visio Generated Database in SQL Server

By the way, you don’t have to create a database or even connect to a database to generate the script. You can leave the database field blank for that option.

Final note

My final thought is that I used to love this feature and I wish that Microsoft would bring it back. I shouldn’t have to keep an old copy running on an old machine. If they don’t want to have an Enterprise edition of Visio, then they should include it in Professional.

Reverse engineering and generating databases in Visio

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