Why Runbook Templates Don't Work (And What to Do About It)

by Jackie Smith, on 05/05/20 15:49

"One ring to rule them all."

To borrow (shamelessly) from Tolkien, "one runbook template to rule them all."

Isn't that what every sysadmin is looking for? But truthfully, what works in Middle Earth doesn't work in the highly complex world of cutover activities.

So why do we keep running cutovers from a spreadsheet runbook template?

The simple, but wrong, answer? "It's easy." The honest answer is, "it's what we've always done." Just because it's what we've always done, doesn't mean we should keep doing it that way. In fact, I'd argue that continuing to do it this way is costing us.

What worked for sysadmins a decade ago doesn't work well anymore. Today's operations teams are responsible for tech stacks of almost dizzying complexity - and that's a business reality that's hard to manage with a static document.

Spreadsheet Runbooks Need to be Updated (all the time)

One of the biggest challenges with spreadsheet runbooks is ownership - who is the Master Owner? Who has editing privileges? Who will be responsible for keeping the runbooks up to date as systems or vendors change and new hardware and software is added, upgraded or removed? And - gulp - who will be updating it during the stressful time crunch of a cutover event?

Using a static spreadsheet template to run a cutover adds unnecessary complexity, and requires the attention and focus of at least one of your team members to keep the runbook spreadsheet updated in the midst of a significant change event.

No Centralized Runbook Documentation Database

For every task that needs to be performed during a cutover, a runbook should include documentation with all the details necessary to perform it. For long-time team members, these tasks will be a known quantity - they know how to do their jobs already. But for new team members, or 3rd party vendors that need to take part in the cutover, they may not be familiar with the nuances and complexity of your technology.

Having a centralized database of necessary documentation is helpful not during the cutover event, but also for future events. Developing documentation takes time, so having a database of documentation used for successful cutover events can help the entire team manage their tasks and perform them effectively in the limited time available. To maintain consistency between cutovers, runbook documentation should be easily appended to every cutover event.

Typically, a spreadsheet will have a list of hyperlinks to the documentation - with the actual documents living on a separate drive. While these links can be copy and pasted into a new runbook template, this approach won't account for new team members or 3rd party vendors being added to the cutover team, so permissions will likely need to be updated - and this permissions change shouldn't happen in the midst of a cutover. It's also important to consider what happens to that documentation if the owner leaves the team, or is unavailable. All of these potential trouble points need to be accounted before - while there is still time and headspace to address them.

No Real-Time Visibility on Cutover Event

This is one of the greatest challenges with spreadsheet templates - a lack of real-time visibility. The more critical a cutover event, the more likely that stakeholders will demand up-to-the-minute oversight of task status. Dedicating a member of your team to manage and update a spreadsheet - as tasks are completed and issues arise - means one less team member to help address any unforeseen issues.

There's also the challenge of communications. Modern cutover activities typically require the input and expertise of team members in different locations - potentially even vendor teams in different countries and/or time zones. For a cutover to be performed successfully with a large, geographically-separated team, emails and text messages become the di rigeur approach to communicating task start and end times, status updates and potential issues. The spreadsheet owner will need to manage all of these communications, and update the spreadsheet accordingly at each step of the cutover.

Using a runbook software that provides real-time visibility, and can provide mobile alerts, gives everyone involved or overseeing the cutover event immediate visibility on how the cutover is progressing.

Lack of Runbook Customization

Running a search query for runbook templates will bubble up plenty of basic spreadsheet templates - but none of them are written for your specific tech stack. It's a starting point, but the amount of customization you'll need to do will vary depending on the activity. This becomes increasingly important if you are involved in a large-scale technology change that will require multiple cutovers - sometimes spanning months or years. To best manage that level of complexity and necessary tasks, a customized cutover tool that accounts for every piece of the puzzle is absolutely essential.

For the majority of planned change cutover events, being able to orchestrate the task and team in a reliable, efficient manner makes the difference between success and failure. While IT departments have managed change - even large scale change - using runbook templates in the past, that doesn't mean it's the best approach to move forward with. ICEFLO provides users with a collaborative platform to manage the most complex cutover activities - removing the need to customize and update spreadsheets as your technology needs evolve.

If you're ready to try a new approach to managing cutovers without spreadsheets - get in touch. Our team of runbook experts are available to help you get up to speed fast, so your next cutover activity will be a breeze. 


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