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What is a Runbook?

In a computer system or network, a ‘runbook’ is a routine compilation of procedures and operations that the system administrator or operator carries out. System administrators in IT departments and NOCs use runbooks as a reference. Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook contains procedures to begin, stop, supervise, and debug the system. It may also describe procedures for handling special requests and contingencies.

An effective runbook allows other operators, with prerequisite expertise, to effectively manage and troubleshoot a system. Through runbook automation, these processes can be carried out using software tools in a predetermined manner.

Two Points:

1: It is impossible to create a runbook for every single incident that can happen, let alone predict the next incident. 2: We often hear: “We should be using runbooks but we don’t.”

What’s a Minimum Viable Product?

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In product development, the minimum viable product (MVP) is the product with the highest return on investment versus risk.

The term was coined and defined by Frank Robinson, and popularized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. An MVP is not a minimal product, it is a strategy and process directed toward making and selling a product to customers. It is an iterative process of idea generation, prototyping, presentation, data collection, analysis and learning.

Making a Minimum Viable Runbook

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In IT Process development, the minimum viable runbook (MVR) is the runbook with the highest return on valuable information versus time spent creating it. It is a strategy and process directed toward making and implementing runbooks for your IT team. It is an iterative process of idea generation, prototyping, automation, presentation, information capturing, analysis and learning.

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A Day Late and a Runbook Short

Your teams are busy. There is little value in carving out time to have a dedicated team member build runbooks, design processes and gather information from previous successes when you have 24x7 operations that need their attention.

Incidents are inevitable, outages are unforeseeable, and frustration can quickly become an internal IT cultural norm. Thus, runbooks are important in providing your teams with contextual documents to support their efforts.

How do we help these teams to be successful in this very important, but not urgent, task of creating runbooks? How do we ensure that our teams are prepared for the next incident? How do we ensure consistency in our recovery processes? What actions are we taking to truly lower downtime?

Develop Your Incident Management Strategy - Lean Style

When using the minimum viable approach to building your runbooks, you want to leverage digital automation to capture your team’s activity, collaboration, and actions.

By having a record of what actions and activities have worked, you can then leverage the recorded actions (that fixed the problem) to build your Minimum Viable Runbook. Simply review the conversations, actions or collaborations that were previously captured, and restate them into an “action-plan” as clear steps to resolution.

What Does a Minimum Viable Runbook Look Like?

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Your runbook at a minimum should include:

THE WHAT:The first thing your team member should review in order to confirm the problem (which monitoring tools, status sites, charts). We want to save brain cycles and reduce confusion by focusing on the very first THOUGHT that is needed to start the problem solving.

THE HOW: We now move right into the next step of building the very first ACTION that should be made to remediate the problem (i.e. server resets, QOS policy adjustments, etc.)

THE WHO: (no, not the band) In the case of needing to include additional team members, your runbook should include the specific teams or team members to contact if you need to escalate the incident.

THE WHERE: These are the tools and digital locations of where to record notes, update statuses, post questions, record activities, etc.

Making a Minimum Viable Runbook Work for You

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This is where the rubber meets the road. You now need to have these mini runbooks be front and center, right in your teams’ faces when the incident happens.

This reduces or eliminates the time it takes for your team member to “dig” for your runbooks in a file repository or a wiki link. This also reduces the stress accompanied with solving a complex problem at 4am.

Solution: Implement a “rules engine” using an “if this, then that” approach to your incoming alerts.

Your Runbooks then need to give Call-To-Action instructions, clickable links, viewable graphs (live) and static images of graphs for reference.

This gives the incident team member instant context on not only how to fix the problem, but how to better understand what to look for.

Solution: Have your runbooks or alerting system display contextual actions based on payload information and provide your teams with a URL that can be accessed alongside the alert using your rules engine. The URL should link to a reference document or a detailed runbook. Note: These URLs must point to a single point of reference, thus making it easier for version control and consistent messaging.

Instructions for Creating a Minimum Viable Runbook

Instructions for a minimum viable runbook

1.) Choose a platform that allows you to send all alerts and chats into a single incident timeline. This makes it easier to capture all the information necessary to have a successful postmortem and begin work on the MVR.

2.) Implement Best Practices to ensure that teams are collaborating in the platform so that the actions/knowledge are captured.

3.) After an incident, review the timeline of alerts, chats, etc and begin to decipher what worked.

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4.) Use your findings and build basic action plans with clear steps on how to resolve the issue, who to contact, what to refer to, where to find documentation, etc. and what didn’t.

5.) Append incoming alerts with the MVR. Make that action plan available to the team member, right when they need it most…when the same incident/alert happens again.

6.) Inspect and adapt. Review and improve. Measure and share. (Or insert any other two words that reminds you that we are here to learn and grow…oooh those are good too)

7.) Repeat steps 1-6 for other team, services, tools, etc.

The Goal of a Minimum Viable Runbook

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  • To have the minimum viable runbook available at the fingertips of the IT team member, upon the occurrence of the critical alert or incident.

  • There doesn’t need to be that much information, but enough to help the teams start looking in the right place and thinking about the right actions.

  • Even if you do not have a URL link to a mature runbook, a few sentences with basic instructions beats having nothing at all.

Leveraging Wikis as Your Runbook Medium

The nature of wikis being editable by its users is collaborative in nature. Wikis allow your teams to collaborate on a single document that is sharable and consistent.

The single source of record enables the team to begin exchanging tribal knowledge. Creating URLs to wikis provides better navigation to the correct documentation rather than a folder maze on a shared drive.

Having the URLs to Wikis attached to your alerts will increase visibility to your runbooks, thus making the most of your team’s runbook efforts. Rather than letting the work get lost in the repository. Increased visibility leads to more opportunity to gather more feedback for continuous improvement.

The “rules engine” behind the automated URL attachment to alerts is a powerful feature in the VictorOps platform.

That’s it! Now you have a template for how to create a minimum viable runbook. And remember: DevOps is about people, not tools.

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