Monday, March 31, 2008

Documentation and Maintenance Keeping Things Up-to-Date

Documentation is an ongoing process. Networks rarely stay the same for a long time. It has been my experience that the larger the network, the faster the rate of change, as users or departments are relocated and new equipment replaces older equipment. So when you consider what means you'll use to create network documentation, be sure to take into consideration that it will need to be updated and you'll need some way for keeping track of changes in an orderly fashion.

Some of the tools you can use to create network documentation include these:

Word Processors and Spreadsheets

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These two tools can be useful for creating documentation. You can use either one to gather information about the network and organize it to locate information quickly and easily. Word processing and spreadsheet applications are easy to update, and for instances in which printed documentation is necessary, most of these programs provide excellent formatting and printing capabilities. For example, you can use tables in Microsoft Office's Word program, or possibly a spreadsheet, to create a list of all the network devices and computers that have an IP address assigned to them. If you want to locate a particular item of data, Word enables you to search a document, and spreadsheets allow you to create multiple indices so that important identifiers are sorted to make it easy to locate information.

For a typical LAN today, it's likely that you'll have only a few important devices or servers that have static IP addressing information assigned. It's easier to use DHCP servers to allocate IP configuration information to computers automatically when they boot. To keep track of dynamically assigned IP configuration information, you can consult the DHCP server application to determine what listing or reporting features are available. For computers or devices you configure with static IP information, you can use a spreadsheet to keep track of this information. Then, when it becomes necessary to replace a router or similar device, you can consult the documentation to get the required configuration information to use on the replacement.

Other important things you may want to consider keeping track of for individual computers include the particulars of the hardware that make up the system, any customizations made on the system that aren't part of a standard, and the user(s) of the system. If the computer is a server on your network, it's a good idea to keep track of contact phone numbers for client representatives so that you can keep them informed during any troubleshooting efforts or downtime.

Online and Paper Documentation

The paperless office that was forecast during the early days of the PC revolution in the 1980s has yet to come about. No matter how small PDAs and laptops become, it's generally easier to sit down with a printed manual. Having to stare at a screen for hours at a time can be a lot more cumbersome. Although word processors and other programs are great at making it easy to find information quickly, sometimes the best option is to print things for easier handling.

Today it is not uncommon to find paper documentation being replaced by hyperlinked text files on a Web site. Instead of looking in the index of a book to find the information you need, you can utilize the Web. A Web site can be useful for several reasons. First, for common problems, a simple FAQ document can help end users solve problems themselves so that your help desk doesn't get a call. Second, for those who do sit at a help desk, clicking through a set of links to find information can be faster than having to juggle one or more manuals and talk to the end user on the phone at the same time.

User Feedback Can Improve Documentation

You can easily judge how well your documentation assists end users by soliciting feedback. If you create the greatest looking documents that can possibly be created, that won't matter if the end user can't make sense of the content. After you've created any kind of documentation, be sure to provide a mechanism that can enable users to provide you with questions or comments on the documentation. Take these suggestions into consideration when it comes time to make updates.

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