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Information Technology Digest:
Stable Computer Environments
by Wolfgang Blauen, CISSP 
7. Documenting IT

The most commonly overlooked aspect of IT is not the technology itself but the documentation that goes along with it. How often have you tried to re-establish functionality in a particular application after installing it on a new computer?  Or simply run into an issue that you didn’t remember how to resolve? Usually this happens at the most critical times and when the issue to be resolved is a critical success factor for the task at hand. Many times the configuration documents for hardware or software components are not current or, even worse, don’t even exist. This leaves many companies at risk that the knowledge about their production computer environment is concentrated in one person’s memory, the Systems Administrator’s. Needless to say that this can create major obstacles when personnel changes or vendors or service providers need to be replaced.

But, it can be pretty frustrating to flip through pages and pages of documentation without finding what you’re looking for as well. Not to mention the cost associated with the creation of the documentation and the inability of the average business owner to assess whether the stack of paper produced was worth the money.

Regardless of whether you produce the documentation yourself, have someone in your company prepare it or the service provider generates it, you should know the following: The key to good IT documentation is in knowing what should be documented, for what purpose and in what form.

The form is really the key to finding what you need when you need it and to transfer the knowledge from one individual to another. Think about the documentation for your computer environment in the same way you document the processes and procedures in your shop. You want to have a high level table of contents that expresses, in understandable terms, the scope of a particular subject. Make sure the information is structured in general terms rather than technical mumbo jumbo. Use terms like “Workstation Email Software Configuration Procedure” instead of “POP3 Client Setup”. This will greatly improve your ability to find what you need because the documentation package can get rather substantial even if you just stick to the basics.  The table of contents should include sections organized by topic. You want, for example, a subject that is labeled “Email Delivery System” and focus areas underneath this subject that talk to the different components like “Workstation Email Software Configuration”, “Mail Server Configuration”, “Firewall Specifics for Email”, “Email SPAM Filtering” and others. Of course how you define these subjects and focus areas is up to how you think they will be most usable. Typically you want to keep troubleshooting related information closer together. In the example above, I included firewall configuration specific information because it directly impacts the functionality of your email delivery and you may need to find this information while you troubleshoot it.

(read on ...) 

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