You may be bored enough to read the cereal box some morning when you’re eating breakfast, but it’s not particularly exciting literature. Neither is network documentation. But like the cereal ingredients’ description on the box, good documentation will tell you exactly what’s in your network. And there are plenty of reasons you want your documentation to be good — whether it’s interesting or not. The problem is that many organizations may not have bought into the tremendous importance of writing everything down. It’s a mistake that could cost your business in many ways.
At HDTech, all of our clients are documented in our ITGlue system, this system allows the smart IT outsource company to instantly put their hands on all aspects of a client’s tech, and allows the creation of a runbook-a collection of all the tech information-for disaster recovery purposes.
Apparently, Socrates said many wise and profound things, but we would never know them if his faithful student Plato hadn’t written them down. You may have the best, most talented IT technicians and engineers in the industry, but all that institutional knowledge walks right out the door with them if you haven’t properly documented you network. That’s why many companies are smart enough to create a knowledge base to house the technical acumen and regale the troubleshooting feats of their IT team. This could be in the form of a wiki, a procedural handbook, or good notes in a trouble ticketing system. That’s on top of the many other network documentation types that we will discuss below.
Providing orientation for new employees or external contractors is the flipside of the previous section. The first thing that any good network engineer will want to do when he begins the job is to get his hands on the network diagrams. It makes no sense to jump in to try to solve a particular problem without becoming familiar with the network as a whole. And if his predecessors and current colleagues have done their jobs well, the newbie will save considerable time in the long run by carefully reading technical information relevant to his responsibilities. It’s important to know the full scope of the network topology and the potential impact to customers if they experience loss of service with regard to its various components.
Just don’t expect your bright support staff to commit all this to memory. The specifications required to troubleshoot network infrastructure go beyond a vague understanding of where things are and how they work. There should be no guessing as to what’s on the other side of a cable, or the brand and model of an ailing switch or router. Good documentation will tell you all those things, along with ports, protocols, software version, cable type, equipment components, and users supported. Isolating issues may be an art that some people are better at than others, but without documentation it can be like working blind.
Unlike the construction of a building, you can’t just say “set it and forget it” when it comes to the ever-changing world of information technology. There are always network elements that need changing, from equipment refreshes to software upgrades. Moves and changes in a live network are not something that you want to leave to chance. There are too many things that could go wrong. Best practices tell us that network changes should pass through a thorough approval process before they are enacted. And that should include a robust Method of Procedure (MOP) that will detail the actions to be taken, those affected, and a sound rollback method in case of failure. Service-affecting changes are best done using maintenance windows that may take place through the night or on the weekends. Existing network documents along with Methods of Procedure will help ensure a successful network change.
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are data points related to the functioning of the network. These days the concept has been taken over by analytics, which are largely automated and computer-generated. Measuring the network in this fashion makes it easier to find ways to improve it. It helps to first create a baseline of current network performance. Next, you will want to set some reasonable targets for optimizing the network over a given period of time. Organizations that make network improvements in this way will have the competitive edge in the marketplace.
When KPIs are well-kept, IT departments can feed this information to executives that control the financial actions of a company. Excellent technical documentation can give a supervisor or manager a bird’s eye view of what’s happening with the network, and it can even highlight those technicians who have been the most productive. Every manager wants to know how well things are going at any time.
The central office is not the only one that needs to know about your network. For many organizations — especially financial institutions — the government always seems to be looking over their shoulders. Not only that, investors and other stakeholders want to know that the network meets the highest standards. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is only one of many governing bodies that recognize companies for the high standards they have met. The ISO 9000 family of standards, in particular, is focused on quality management for organizations large and small. Many of the associated certifications require a complete and detailed collection of network documentation.
HDTech specializes in the NIST CSF protocol, allowing our clients the knowledge that their system and security stands up to the most stringent security and privacy audit protocols.
What to Include?
The technical documents describing your network should always be considered a work in progress. With every network change, there should be an immediate update of any relevant documentation. Procedures should be reviewed every year to ensure that they are fresh and helpful. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some types of documentation that every organization should consider:
- Network topology (usually a Visio Drawing, HDTech has one for each client)
- Asset list (both hardware and software) (this is automatically generated through our monitoring systems)
- Server rack diagram (we have pictures of everything!)
- Change control procedures
- Cable diagram
- IP address allocation
- Cloud architecture diagram
- Technical knowledge base
And of course, we should mention here some of the network elements that you may need to document. These include:
- Servers and network devices
- VoIP phones
- Open firewall Ports
- Software instances
- LAN/WAN circuits
- Wi-Fi routers
- Patch panels
As far as network documentation goes, the greatest sin is that of neglect. Well-meaning and capable IT personnel are not sufficient, and lack of documentation could cost a pretty penny in the end. For the reasons listed above, and for the sake of your business, make sure you’ve documented your network well. Network documentation is one of the best things you can do to make sure the train runs on time — or to prevent the train wreck that is inevitable without it.