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Blog
December 5, 2023

Runbook templates: Simplify technology operations and boost productivity

Runbooks serve multiple purposes: They help streamline operations, ensure procedural consistency, and — perhaps most importantly — reduce the risk of human error when completing critical business tasks. Such benefits are facilitated by runbook templates, which provide a structured, yet malleable framework for creating and executing runbooks. 

Here, we’re going to look into all things runbook templates: What they are, how to use them, and the role of automation in enhancing their effectiveness. 

What is a runbook and how do templates fit in?

At their core, runbooks are — generally digitally — documented sets of instructions that guide relevant stakeholders through a specific process or workflow. Runbooks come in three different forms:

Manual runbooks offer step-by-step information to assist users — usually an organization's IT department — in using standard tools to complete described tasks. While manual runbooks are generally a first step in standardizing tasks and operations, they are prone to human error due to their lean toward manual processes.

Automated runbooks are designed to execute predefined tasks or workflows that don’t require human oversight once triggered. These runbooks are typically utilized for a repetitive task that is well-defined and doesn't require manual decision making. Characteristically, automated runbooks are preconfigured with specific actions, conditions and triggers, among other components, to ensure the reliable and consistent delivery of a task. 

Collaborative automated runbooks offer hybrid functionality — combining both automation and manual intervention. These runbooks use a combination of tasks carried out by both people and automated solutions to manage complex operations.

Collaborative automated runbooks are often considered optimal compared to their fully manual and automated counterparts as they walk the line between efficiency and control. Like manual runbooks, collaborative automated runbooks are leveraged to complete a wide range of organizational tasks and allow for greater flexibility, efficiency, and reduced human error. 

The role of runbook templates 

Runbook templates enable faster response and better governance through standardization, efficiency and consistency. Runbook templates are predefined, yet bespoke documentation that provide a structured framework for performing operations. Organizations can tailor runbook templates to suit their unique needs and workflows. 

Creating a template: Runbook basics 

Before we consider the steps of constructing a runbook template — or what to look for in one — here are a handful of the overriding philosophies that guide runbook best practices. 

The six A’s

The ‘six A’s’ are often used to ensure a template is comprehensive — a commonly used framework for both formulation and re-evaluation. Your runbook template should be:

Actionable: Ensure that the runbook’s template facilitates clear and concise action points. Any user  should be able to follow the step-by-step instructions provided to bring about the intended actions. Actionable instructions should be devoid of vague terminology but rather use precise and relevant language. 

Accessible: Runbooks should be readily accessible to all relevant stakeholders. This generally means storing the runbook template in a centralized location with the necessary security measures in place — preferably on a digital platform. 

Accurate: A runbook template should reflect the most up-to-date processes and should be regularly reviewed and updated in light of changes to infrastructure or requirements. A runbook platform that provides comprehensive performance data also facilitates continuous improvement.

Authoritative: Part-and-parcel with the accuracy of a runbook is its authoritativeness. Subject matter experts should be called upon, when necessary, to review and endorse the runbook template, ensuring its credibility and reliability. 

Adaptive: Runbooks templates should be malleable, able to adjust according to changing circumstances. As technology — and its processes and systems — evolves, runbook templates must adapt to such changes. Any stakeholder should be able to leverage and modify a copy of a runbook template to meet their circumstances, such as the specific recovery needs after an outage or cyber attack.

Approval:  Before any runbook template is made available to a wide set of users it needs to be approved and have a set expiration date. You can ensure high quality runbooks by means of review in a timely manner, through a create/review/approve workflow. With approved runbook templates you can ensure success by encouraging users to make use of best-practice templates.

Furthermore, runbooks should be subject to ongoing reviews. As an organization and its systems/infrastructure progress, runbooks need to be updated and reapproved accordingly. 

A template’s contents 

As we’ve touched on, templates may be adjusted according to the individual needs of an organization and evolving best practices. Yet, irrespective of tailored customizations, there are key runbook template elements that are adopted across the board:

  • Task ID: A unique identifier applied to each task, allowing for simple reference and tracking.
  • Task name/title: A clear label for the task, making it simple to identify its purpose. 
  • Description: A high-level overview of the task, providing necessary context. 
  • Task owner: The individual or team responsible for executing the task. 
  • Dependencies/prerequisites: Any task, resource and/or condition that must be fulfilled before the subsequent task can be initiated. 
  • Stakeholders: Those who are involved in the event that the task is part of. 
  • Estimated duration: The approximate time required to complete the task. 

And of course, each runbook will contain the task details — a comprehensive breakdown of the steps, actions, and/or procedures involved to complete the task. A runbook’s contents should pertain to one scenario, rather than covering multiple.

Steps for constructing a runbook template

The creation of a runbook template can be segmented into four stages: Planning, building, testing and approval, and maintenance — here’s a look into each. 

Planning

In the context of an IT disaster recovery runbook, begin by clearly defining the operation and its scope — proper task definition often necessitates gaining a comprehensive understanding of your organization’s IT operations. Hence, look to gain a holistic view of your IT infrastructure, considering the specifics at the application/service level. 

In the same vein, consider incident reports to help identify recurring, common tasks and prevalent concerns to each application. Document those which are of a more critical nature for each application to ensure a more targeted and efficient recovery process, tailored to its specific needs and dependencies.

Upon identifying pain points and gaining a full scope of your IT infrastructure, look for any existing processes and/or past runbooks that aim to resolve the concern you intend to address in this new runbook. Oftentimes, there are established procedures that have been leaned on in the past to resolve the same or similar issues which often take the form of static documents or spreadsheets. Leveraging such resources can expedite the runbook process and better inform its contents. 

Building 

In the building phase of the runbook, there are a handful of factors to consider:

  1. Provide the necessary permissions, allowing each of the relevant stakeholders access to the runbook’s centralized location
  2. Configure notifications to inform parties on both the runbook’s existence, its updates and for when an incident occurs that requires its use
  3. Review the critical path to ensure task dependencies are correct
  4. Integrate existing tools in order for manual and automated steps to be in one centralized place
  5. Set up your dashboards, recovery time objectives and other relevant factors that you intend to measure against

Testing and approval

After you have built the runbook, test it with the relevant teams to ensure that the critical path and task dependencies are optimal. Similarly, gather feedback from users and stakeholders and make adjustments accordingly. Furthermore, conduct a runthrough of the tasks to validate the effectiveness of the runbook and that timings are correct.

Maintenance 

Factor in both regular maintenance checks and ad-hoc updates in relation to technological, procedural, and/or organizational changes. At minimum, your runbook should be updated every time there is a significant change to your application/service and reviewed annually.

Automating runbooks: Enhancing operational efficiency 

As processes become more solidified and the potential for automation becomes apparent, organizations are afforded the opportunity to further streamline operations, saving time and other resources in the process. 

Why and how you automate processes will largely depend on the nature of the task, the available technology, and organizational goals. Generally speaking: Determine automatable processes based on a task’s repetitiveness, propensity to consume time, resource intensity, and tendency to give rise to human error. Additionally, identify and integrate relevant automation tools and platforms that align with your organization’s infrastructure to facilitate a centralized source of execution. This may include IT service management (ITSM) platforms, scripting languages, and other relevant IT tooling. 

Cutover: Dynamic, automated runbooks

Legacy runbook methodologies — generally in spreadsheet form — are prone to human error and various inefficiencies. Cutover’s runbook technology improves technology operations efficiency and reduces risk by providing greater visibility over the planning, testing, and execution of various runbook processes. Specifically, Cutover allows you to strengthen your IT disaster recovery, cyber recovery, cloud migration, release management, and technology implementation. 

With our automated runbook technology, you can:

  • Create standardization across your application operations with a centralized template repository to enable rapid mobilization spanning hundreds or thousands of applications
  • Visualize critical paths and gain real-time visibility and reporting into runbook execution
  • Meet regulatory compliance with the immutable and auto-generated audit log
  • Identify areas for process improvement with post-execution analytics
  • Extend the value of your existing technology by seamlessly integrating with third-party solutions and applications with the REST API

Orchestrating and automating your technology operations with Cutover enables you to reduce planning and execution time by upward of 50%, reduce audit preparation time by 60%, and enhance your organization’s overall agility and resistance in the face of operational challenges. 

Click here to learn more about our automated runbook technology, or book a demo today!

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