What is a Runbook?

by Jackie Smith, on 06/04/20 16:40

"We're undergoing routine maintenance, please try again later.'

How many times have you run into this error message when trying to access bank accounts, government websites, online apps or other personal, sensitive information? And what does it actually mean? Living in a technological society, we understand that the systems we use do need routine maintenance every now and again - just like a car, or the furnace system in your home - but when those systems are down for longer than anticipated, consumers - and stockholders - get nervous. 

Avoiding this message is a primary goal for most IT departments. They want to minimize downtime, while ensuring that all systems are secure, functioning and updated frequently. To do this, they'll rehearse, plan and implement a cutover - a migration of data from one system to another. And to do a cutover effectively, given the complexity and variety of systems at play, requires a runbook. 

 

What is a Runbook? 

A runbook is a play-by-play guide of all procedures and operations that needs to be considered or addressed when implementing a cutover.

A runbook includes the necessary documentation each member of the cutover team will need to perform their tasks, as well as timelines and specific instructions so that everyone can coordinate their actions effectively and efficiently. 

Understandably, the larger and more complex your business' existing systems are, the more detailed your deployment runbook will need to be to ensure that there are no errors during the cutover process. Most IT networks today span multiple systems, and incorporate 3rd party softwares, so these should all be accounted for in the runbook to eliminate or decrease downtime. 

 

When do you need a runbook? 

You need to create a runbook whenever you're preparing and implementing a cutover. The more detailed your runbook is, the more likely that you'll be able to implement a cutover successfully. That said, while it may be tempting to start creating your runbook as early as possible, the reality is that for most businesses today, technology systems change so quickly that if you plan too early, you may leave crucial aspects out of your runbook.

Runbooks don't exist in a vacuum, so even if you already have runbooks created for specific events, it's still important to revisit and rehearse them before every cutover event to ensure that each task and detail is still relevant and positioned at the correct time in the process. 

 

How to create a runbook

Build your team 

First, decide on who should be involved in creating the runbook. They each need to have a seat at the table when planning a cutover event and building the runbook. The larger the company or enterprise, the bigger this team needs to be. (This step is so important that we've written an entire post on cutover organizational requirements.

While the make-up of your team will vary, typically the employees and vendors in these roles will always be included: system administrators (or sysadmins), 3rd Party Service Providers, Project Specialists, DevOps, and members of the senior executive team. 

 

Choose Your Runbook Method 

There are two methods used by the vast majority of cutover teams - spreadsheet templates or release orchestration software. (And sometimes teams use a combination of the two.)  

Runbook Spreadsheet Templates 

If you're managing a small tech stack, or your cutover event is very limited in scope, you may choose to use a spreadsheet runbook to manage your event. There are numerous runbook templates online, but before choosing this route, there are a few things to keep in mind. While this is a very cost-effective method, typically spreadsheet runbooks will have one owner who is responsible for managing and updating the cutover in progress. Too many editors is the tech equivalent of 'too many cooks in the kitchen' and it's easy for fields to be accidentally erased, or infrequently updated in the midst of the cutover. 

spreadsheet runbook template example

Even with something as simple as migrating from one cloud service platform to another, unexpected issues can occur that may not be represented on the spreadsheet. For example, a recent hosting migration run by a small business inadvertently changed their .com domain to an old .io iteration. This small oversight significantly impacted their organic traffic and risked putting their entire digital marketing strategy in jeopardy - all for something that would have required one spreadsheet row. 

 

Deployment Runbook Software 

Runbook software, or release orchestration software, is a modern way to manage large-scale tech cutovers and ensure that every detail is considered and addressed. The more complex your technology assets, the more important it is to use a collaborative platform that gives everyone on your cutover team real-time visibility into the event as it happens. 

No matter how well you plan, issues will arise during a cutover. Having a modern runbook tool that allows you to effectively raise, address and solve issues during the cutover - and in the worst case, allows you to back out of a cutover before downtime occurs - is vital to ensuring a successful process that keeps stakeholders and product users happy. 

 

deployment runbook software screenshot

 

Create or Revise Runbook Documentation 

Prepare to have everything your team needs to run a cutover successfully in one accessible location. This documentation should include process details, screenshots, task walk-throughs and any known issues that will need to be managed during the event. It's a worthwhile practice to revisit these documents during cutover planning to ensure that they are still accurate. 

It's important to consider that while some steps may be obvious to you, they may not be as straightforward to the person who is responsible for completing the task during a cutover. You'll want to make sure that all documentation is clear and understandable, in the event that a task is shifted to a team member or 3rd party who is less familiar with the process. You'll also want to very clearly define who is responsible for which tasks, when those tasks will occur during the cutover, and how much time will be needed. 

runbook software timeline screenshot

 

Rehearse Your Cutover 

Once you've got your team, method and documentation in place, you need to run a full cutover rehearsal with 'all hands on deck'. 

Cutover rehearsals are important to: 

  • bubble up any tasks, issues or dependencies that weren't considered while building the runbook so they can be added before the real cutover event 
  • ensure that all team members have the information, system access permissions and documentation they need to complete their tasks 
  • verify whether initial time estimates for each task are accurate
  • provide a to-the-minute view on how long the cutover will take from start to finish
Do not skip rehearsing your runbook, no matter how confident you are in its quality. This is your best opportunity to find potential issues before they become events that would require you to stop and roll back an entire cutover. It’s also worth noting that runbook rehearsals aren’t just for fairly routine procedures like planned change, but should also be run to prepare your team to quickly address and resolve critical incidents. 

 

Using & Improving Your Runbook 

After a rehearsal or cutover, revisit your runbook and update or shift tasks as required. Technology will change between one cutover and the next, but doing a post-mortem after each event, and updating the runbook where necessary will save time in planning and implementing future cutovers - and they can be used to get new team members up to speed quickly. 

In following these steps to create a runbook, your cutover team will be able to avoid the operational problems that so many IT professionals have encountered in previous cutovers while reducing errors and inefficiencies. 

For guidance in creating new runbooks, ICEFLO experts are available to help your team with custom runbooks  and guidance in using ICEFLO's award-winning cutover software. 

 

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