If given the choice between installing a brand-new server and
writing a procedural document on performing system backups, the average
system administrator would install the new server every time. While
this is not at all unusual, you must document what
you do. Many system administrators put off doing the necessary
documentation for a variety of reasons:
"I will get around to it later."
Unfortunately, this is usually not true. Even if a system
administrator is not kidding themselves, the nature of the job is
such that everyday tasks are usually too chaotic to "do it later."
Even worse, the longer it is put off, the more that is forgotten,
leading to a much less detailed (and therefore, less useful)
"Why write it up? I will remember it."
Unless you are one of those rare individuals with a
photographic memory, no, you will not remember it. Or worse, you
will remember only half of it, not realizing that you are missing
the whole story. This leads to wasted time either trying to
relearn what you had forgotten or fixing what you had broken due
to your incomplete understanding of the situation.
"If I keep it in my head, they will not fire me — I will have
While this may work for a while, invariably it leads to less
— not more — job security. Think for a moment about
what may happen during an emergency. You may not be available;
your documentation may save the day by letting someone else
resolve the problem in your absence. And never forget that
emergencies tend to be times when upper management pays close
attention. In such cases, it is better to have your documentation
be part of the solution than it is for your absence to be part of
In addition, if you are part of a small but growing
organization, eventually there will be a need for another system
administrator. How can this person learn to back you up if
everything is in your head? Worst yet, not documenting may make
you so indispensable that you might not be able to advance your
career. You could end up working for the very person that was
hired to assist you.
Hopefully you are now sold on the benefits of system documentation.
That brings us to the next question: What should you document? Here is
a partial list:
Policies are written to formalize and clarify the relationship
you have with your user community. They make it clear to your
users how their requests for resources and/or assistance are
handled. The nature, style, and method of disseminating policies
to your a community varies from organization to
Procedures are any step-by-step sequence of actions that must
be taken to accomplish a certain task. Procedures to be
documented can include backup procedures, user account management
procedures, problem reporting procedures, and so on. Like
automation, if a procedure is followed more than once, it is a
good idea to document it.
A large part of a system administrator's career revolves
around making changes — configuring systems for maximum
performance, tweaking scripts, modifying configuration files, and
so on. All of these changes should be documented in some fashion.
Otherwise, you could find yourself being completely confused about
a change you made several months earlier.
Some organizations use more complex methods for keeping track
of changes, but in many cases a simple revision history at the
start of the file being changed is all that is necessary. At a
minimum, each entry in the revision history should contain:
The name or initials of the person making the
The date the change was made
The reason the change was made
This results in concise, yet useful entries:
ECB, 12-June-2002 — Updated entry for new Accounting
printer (to support the replacement printer's ability to print