Saturday, May 31, 2008

Managing Onsite Documentation with Remote Support

We get letters . . .

Several people have asked about how to keep onsite documentation consistent with offsite documentation. There are several pieces to this puzzle. For example,

1) More work is being done remotely. Sometimes this is just because you can. Sometimes it's related to managed services (onsite is charged, remote is included). And some people are just finding that gas is too darned expensive.

2) More people are using a PSA systems or other toool to track work and client configurations. These include ConnectWise, Autotask, Zenith, and even Result Software. There are now approximately twenty-seven thousand ways to track this information.

So what's the problem?

Well, the most important documentation (no matter what your first impression or personal bias is) is the printed, onsite documentation. When the server's smoking, you've got the network documentation binder. When you get hit by a bus, the client has the NDB. The client owns the network, the hardware, the software, and the configuration thereof. The client needs an accurate onsite copy of this stuff.

But you also have information in your system. You have configuration pages from ConnectWise, Zenith, etc.

When your technicians make changes, they need to update the net doc book.

So, you need a process to keep these things in sync. One argument I've heard is simply "you know that won't get done."

No. I don't know that. If you make documentation a priority, it will get done. We make documentation a part of every single service request we work on. In fact, the last line of every single time entry on every single service request should be
"-- Documented work."
That tells our service manager that the technician fulfilled this part of his job.

When you make important changes, such as reconfiguring the firewall, you need to make sure that information is updated in your system. Period. Just do it. If you're onsite, you need to update the documentation in the binder. Again, just do it.

But if you do this job remotely, how do you keep the local docs up to spec? There are two pieces to this puzzle.

First, on the root drive of the primary domain controller, there's a directory called c:\!Tech, and within this is a directory for TechNotes. Within that directory you will place tech notes with any information that would go in the first page of the Network Documentation Binder. For example:

    June 1, 2008: Backed up firewall config to C:\!tech. Reconfigured firewall to allow ftp traffic into DMZ for Server3. Backed up new firewall config to C:\!tech. -- karlp

Notes such as this are stored in TXT or RTF, depending on what works best for you. (We like to be able to print them directly from the server and MS word is rarely installed on the server, so we rely on Notepad or Wordpad.)

As a matter of policy, your technicians will print these notes when they're on site. They go to the front of the NDB.

Second, if something is particularly important or you don't expect to have someone onsite in short order, you can ask the client to print out the files and put them in the binder. This might be transmitted by email, fax, or you can simply point them to the UNC (\\server\techshare\filename).

Alternatively to all this, you can print out a configuration from your PSA or service delivery system and put that in the NDB. Or, again, you can fax this to the client. Or print to pdf and email it to the client.

The bottom line is: If you think it's important to keep the network documentation up to spec, you'll find a way to do it. There are dozens of ways to do this. There's only one way to not do it: Don't make it a priority, and it won't get done.


  1. There is always the Karl Palachuk As A Service:

  2. Anonymous7:49 AM

    "Well, the most important documentation (no matter what your first impression or personal bias is) is the printed, onsite documentation"

    I understand with this statement but personally don't an IT professional, we should be the first people to encourage users to move away from paper and do everything via computer. I am always moaning at my clients when they buy cheap printers without telling me and when I see paper on their desks. I see it as my job to do everything I can to ensure a paper-less office - so I see it is a hypercritical to have a paper copy myself...especially "you can print out a configuration from your PSA or service delivery system and put that in the NDB" - personally, I think that is the complete wrong way to go.

    I like to have all my individual installation instructions and timesheets on an offline enabled network drive on the server (but am looking to move to use the built in Sharepoint) - so everything is accessible via the internet. If no internet at the client, then we use 3G in our phones.

    This way, there is only ever one copy and everything is searchable and easily accessible to all.

    I also don't like the client having access to instructions incase they try to do things themselves to cut me out and then make a mess!

    We live in an age now where everyone is prattling on about cloud computing, yet people are moving in the opposite direction with printouts and paper copies...

    Anyway, just my views - altogether great site though!

  3. The paperless office will arrive shortly after the paperless bathroom.

    I believe it is great to put all this stuff online. But when disaster strikes and you and the server are standing in a foot of water, the online version will not be helpful.

    For remote operations, and even most daily operations, an electronic version is fine. But nothing is a faster, random access version than the Network Documentation Binder.

    BTW, I don't feel obligated to push people to paperless. I feel obligated to help them do what's best for their business. Sometimes that means moving to paperless. Sometimes not.

  4. Anonymous2:13 AM

    I don't think a paperless office is a far-reached destination.
    The issue is that most people don't know how to fully utilise their software in order to achieve paperless working. Bar legal/accounting reasons, if a client is printing stuff then I find a method/software to help erradicate the printing, thus lowering TCO on hardware and consumables as well as time spent filing and searching for paper documents.

    As an IT consultant, I find it part of my job to "push" people to go paperless, i.e. always teach new techniques and methods to achieve the same but faster results than what would be achieved by printing so that they learn to only print when they need to.

    I am not sure how I see the difference between having instructions on a piece of paper compared to displayed on a laptop screen? With the digital version, you KNOW that the instructions are up to date. Being in a "foot of water" should have no bearing.

    If you use your inbuilt search feature, then the paper version won't be faster. Once again, I find it a matter of utilising software (even the most basic features!).

    If you know what you are doing, then the instructions should be there purely for the details (IP's, config settings, etc.). I know that if I am going to do a job, I like to know what I am doing beforehand - I find this helps prevent any panic attacks and confusion when going through the job with instructions.

    Personally, so far I am not convinced...BUT I am open to new reasoning!

  5. I agree with much of what you say.

    And I'm not advocating that you don't have online documentation.

    But my point about offline documentation is that it's the only thing you'll be able to use after a flood, fire, hazmat spill, building collapse, etc.

    Stuff happens. Small businesses cannot afford a hot recovery site in another town. The answer they need to disaster recovery much be pretty cheap and pretty low tech.

  6. Anonymous2:46 PM

    But if there is a fire or flood bad enough to take out a server/client network, then wont the physical NDB be in just as much risk?

    This is why the "cloud" version of the NDB is so important, as it is accessible no matter what the situation or circumstance or the machine accessing it (boot Ubuntu off a CD with OpenOffice and Firefox preloaded and you're laughing!)

    I must admit, that when I first started out, I made the effort to keep printed copies of all instructions in a NDB. But as I began to fully utilse software, hardware and remote working, I evolved into a fully paperless system. I have a laptop and a 3G Windows Mobile with a data plan. I have offline access to all my digital NDB - what more do would you need? Ctrl+F finds me what I need.

    I understand circumstances permit per consultant/client/customer etc., but I see the evolution of your article on how to provide 100% access to a digital NDB as a more logical step forward.

    Final thought: Paper is like the CD\DVD, it will still be around for quite a long time to come, but inevitably it will succumb to digitilisation.


Feedback Welcome

Please note, however, that spam will be deleted, as will abusive posts.

Disagreements welcome!