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Master IT documentation with the right tools and practices

IT documentation cannot be overlooked when it comes to complex environments. As such, be sure to choose the appropriate tools and best practices for your company.

IT documentation was once a set of figures on a spreadsheet. It has since grown into a convoluted monster.

Some advanced environments adopted Visio to create visually pleasing diagrams. While this was certainly a step in the right direction, these diagrams are time-consuming to create and often become outdated as systems change quickly. No matter the method, the challenge with IT documentation is keeping it up to date.

Nothing is more important than good documentation, both in a crisis and in daily operations. Thankfully, as IT environments have become more complex, we're seeing new tools and online services that can scan and record environments for not only IT usage, but also for compliance purposes. Products such as IT Glue and Docusnap are designed to scan, identify and catalog your environments, typically without installing agents.

While these tools can be costly, there can be unexpected benefits. Software licensing and compliance features often come included with these products, and these can drastically reduce your end of year true-up efforts with vendors. They may even save you a few dollars on licensing.

The other big takeaway is the support of compliance efforts. These products can go a long way in helping your business become compliant with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Sarbanes-Oxley Act requirements.

Most of these tools are costly, but not all. One free option is a VMware-specific tool called RVTools. While limited to pulling information from VMware's Virtual Center, it does so in a format that can easily be dropped into a spreadsheet and quickly manipulated.

With IT documentation, always remember that an activity that takes any substantial amount of time or complexity to set up should be documented.

While many of these tools can ease the burdens of IT documentation, they may not be as encompassing as you hope in the event of disaster. With IT documentation, always remember that an activity that takes any substantial amount of time or complexity to set up should be documented.

Take, for example, Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and High Availability rules in VMware. Administrators often have complex rules for the placement of VMs based on application settings. Over time, a large cluster can have hundreds of rules in place, but are any of them recorded anywhere except for in Virtual Center? And in the case of DRS, simply unchecking the feature will uninstall the program and remove all of those rules. This can be prevented with role-based access, but the fact remains that such a thing is possible.

Getting creative with documentation strategies

In the modern data center, documentation will be a priority after an outage or crash. Only then will it get the attention it needs. While some tools exist to mitigate the expense of time and resources, there is no magic solution without effort and commitment from both management and staff.

Since it's unlikely that an IT team will be eager to take on the documentation challenge, some creativity might be in order.

One option is performing an IT documentation audit twice a year on a Friday afternoon. The catch is that, if the systems pass the audit, workers get to leave for the day. It could be pointed out that this is a gimmick -- professionals are paid to do the job and additional incentive shouldn't be needed. Still, when was the last time you turned down a free breakfast pastry or pizza lunch for your company reaching a goal or milestone?

Administrators know how to do the documentation, but knowing how isn't enough. Management needs to provide time and tools, and admins have to make documentation a priority. This requires that both management and admins understand the importance of proper documentation. There are hundreds of things admins can do without even a second thought. These tasks are second nature because they've simply become part of a process.

IT documentation isn't a dirty word or a waste of effort. It requires understanding and agreement by everyone about its true effect on staff, management, customers and the business itself.

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