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How to create a runbook template for uniform documentation

To avoid inconsistencies and disaster, implement a runbook template to strengthen your existing runbooks -- this includes detailed and clear steps for structure and organization.

Completing a task consistently and accurately is the goal of any IT operations team. The challenge of this goal lies in its consistency and accuracy aspects.

Complex processes need a tested and approved procedure, i.e., a runbook. Because every complex process should have a runbook, there's a risk of loss of consistency and content unless the creation of runbooks is also standardized. That's the goal of the runbook template.

Runbook templates should reflect a natural hierarchy of runbooks. Set high-level structures at the operations organizational level. Define lower levels by the types of processes and the team or organization involved. It's nearly impossible to build this structure in abstract, so expect to set high-level template standards from recommendations like those below.

Learn how to create a runbook based on those templates, using the process to structure templates at the lower level, and test the templates by developing new runbooks from them.

What is included in a runbook template?

All runbooks, and therefore all runbook templates, should have a basic structure that includes seven sections:

  1. A thorough explanation of the goal of the process for that particular runbook documentation. For example, a disaster recovery plan or DevOps runbook should describe not just the title of the process, but why the process is in place and what it's expected to accomplish.
  2. Where the process fits in overall operations practices. Identify runbooks that precede the current runbook in question, and any processes and runbooks that follow it. For a nested runbook, such as a DevOps runbook that provides general DevOps process descriptions and then references application-specific runbooks for more detail, note the predecessor and successor relationships.
  3. A version history that documents each revision, the reason for each revision and the differences the current version describes. Include references to all runbook templates used.
  4. A list of the necessary tools and external documents referenced.
  5. A list of the organizations whose activities are described within. Clearly identify the organization responsible for the runbook overall.
  6. The body of the runbook, which describes the necessary processes and how to accomplish them.
  7. A section for problems and exceptions, which describes how to recognize an issue with the runbook description that must be resolved through independent actions.

Rules for runbook structures

The runbook's structure depends on the specific process it targets. However, there are four general rules to follow:

  1. Explain the trigger conditions first. These circumstances indicate when to execute the runbook process. This must outline any confirming steps to take before the processes that follow.
  2. Provide a summary outline of the steps to follow. The goal here is to establish the overall flow of the process before beginning in order to prevent the high-level process view from getting lost in the details of the steps.
  3. Describe each step in the process. Follow that with the setup for the step's tools and actions. Then, include the step itself before ending with how to assess the step's success or failure. Success invokes the next step, while failure would refer to the problems-and-exceptions section of the runbook.
  4. After the final step, reference how to assess the overall success of the runbook's process and whether to reference further runbooks for follow-up or related activities. Use this step to validate the template's use by applying it to an exemplar runbook and validating the outcome.

Expect the primary difference among runbooks and templates to be in the body of the runbook. Nest multiple runbooks that describe a set of related activities involving the same primary organization. This section is often the most difficult to develop in a clear and helpful way.

Include flow charts to describe the process and consider using screenshots or listings to provide detailed examples of what to expect to see and do. However, avoid putting too much detail in a runbook template because it risks a change in a GUI creating confusion for admins.

Test the runbook template

Testing a runbook template is a two-step process. First, test the exemplar runbook used to build the template to ensure it defines the process it documents. Second, use the runbook template to build another runbook and validate the result. Document areas of confusion for operations personnel and correct the template to eliminate the confusion.

The most critical considerations in runbook templates are to avoid confusion and to update the templates when anything changes to keep them aligned with the real world. Some organizations use a repository to store runbooks and templates, and apply version control, just as they would with software. This practice facilitates the application of technical reviews, common in software development, to runbooks and templates.

Runbooks are documentation, applicable to practices and techniques in the same way documentation is applied to source code. Without runbooks, both network and IT operations are at risk to inefficiencies and errors that can compromise an entire business. Templates are the most powerful tool available to ensure runbooks are used properly and maintained to track changes in tools and techniques. Using runbook templates inefficiently risks the value of runbooks overall.

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