2024 Gartner® report: Tips to bolster your disaster recovery program
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March 12, 2024

Runbooks vs playbooks: A comprehensive overview

Ongoing organizational success is aided by two key interconnected components: Clear processes and the ability to adjust said processes in response to evolving challenges. Both runbooks and playbooks serve those purposes, contributing to the overall efficiency and resilience of an organization — particularly when dealing with unforeseen events. 

While they’re similar, runbooks and playbooks serve distinct purposes. Here, we’re going to look into runbooks vs playbooks, how to create a runbook and playbook, and the role each plays in increasing operational efficiency and risk mitigation. We’ll also provide an overview of a runbook template and a disaster recovery runbook example.

What is a runbook?

We reviewed in detail what a runbook is in this extensive guide, but essentially a runbook is a detailed guide that provides step-by-step instructions and dependencies for managing technological systems and responding to various events in data centers or cloud environments.

Runbooks can be thought of in three categories: manual, fully automated, and collaborative.

Manual runbooks: These runbooks are detailed sets of documented procedures — generally digitally stored — that outline the steps to be taken when aiming to perform any given task. Like an instruction manual of sorts, manual runbooks rely on human operation to fulfill the related task. Manual runbooks are generally created to capture institutional knowledge and provide a codified, standardized approach to handling a task or process. 

Automated runbooks: These runbooks are fully automated, requiring very little to no human intervention to execute predefined tasks. While the tasks for which automated runbooks are created are generally of a repetitive, low-risk nature (and addressing them saves the organization valuable resources), they are also used for more critical, complex tasks. 

Collaborative automated runbooks: These runbooks bridge the gap between manual and fully automated processes, and are generally preferable compared to their manual and fully automated counterparts. They are optimal in streamlining tasks by incorporating automation where possible while still requiring manual intervention for necessary decision making. They are created and executed in runbook automation software.

What is a playbook?

While runbooks pertain to specific, step-by-step processes and/or the automation thereof, playbooks take a more holistic approach — addressing process matters on a wider strategic level. Playbooks, unlike runbooks, aren’t so forthrightly subcategorized, but rather are classified based on their intended use, such as the following:

Incident response playbook: These playbooks may outline the overarching strategy and procedures staff members should adhere to when dealing with and mitigating various types of unforeseen incidents, whether related to cybersecurity, a natural disaster, public relations, or others. Its provisions may include high-level guidance on team coordination efforts, stakeholder communications and incident regulation measures more generally. 

Disaster recovery playbook: These playbooks outline the high-level procedures associated with recovering and restoring systems, operations, and data in the wake of an adverse event. They will likely also contain information on where people should go and the steps they should take in the event of a natural disaster. 

Runbooks vs playbooks: The key differences 

As mentioned above, a runbook pertains to the operation and maintenance of specific tasks, whereas playbooks outline high-level strategies. Here are some other differences between runbooks and playbooks: 

  • Automation: While runbooks can be manual or automated, playbooks generally don’t involve any form of automation. However, playbooks should contain runbook automation as a part of their overall strategy. 
  • Applicability: Runbooks are primarily adopted by IT departments, whereas playbooks are commonly used across the full spectrum of an enterprise. Furthermore, cross-department collaboration is generally required to create playbooks.
  • Frequency of updates: Runbooks may require frequent updates to stay up-to-date with technological and procedural developments. Playbooks, in contrast, typically tend to be more stable across time as they’re predicated on high-level, more solidified strategies. 

In general, runbooks vs playbooks have their distinct purposes. They also share commonalities, namely, both serve as a resource for increasing organizational efficiency and reducing errors, contributing to the overall success of an organization and its teams.

Runbooks vs playbooks: When to use them

We’ve already touched on a handful of specific uses for both runbooks and playbooks: Let’s look into these a little further — specifically, how both help facilitate IT disaster recovery, cloud disaster recovery and cyber recovery. 

Runbooks vs playbooks for IT and cloud disaster recovery

Runbooks act as the technical backbone of the recovery process. They provide step-by-step guides for IT personnel to follow during unforeseen crisis, generally encompassing everything from server restoration and database recovery to network reconfiguration and application troubleshooting. Runbooks also commonly include comprehensive tasks necessary to restore the infrastructure to its pre-disaster state. 

Playbooks, however, fulfill a broader role in the recovery process, serving as a strategic guide for all relevant organizational parties during a disaster. Playbooks may define roles, responsibilities and communication protocols — also outlining escalation and decision-making frameworks.

Furthermore, runbooks for cloud disaster recovery are naturally tailored to the cloud environment, wherein they provide detailed instructions for recovering cloud-based data, applications, and services. While runbooks may serve any one of a plethora of cloud recovery functions, they generally operate — through pinpointed, bespoke instructions — to ensure business continuity and data resilience in the cloud. 

Playbooks, in this context, commonly extend beyond IT stakeholders to involve legal, compliance, public relations, and customer support, alongside other relevant departments. They define how each department ought to respond to cloud disasters and their individual role in recovery. 

Playbook vs runbook in cyber recovery

In the context of cyber recovery, playbooks typically outline cyber incident scenarios, responsibilities of key stakeholders, and communication methods. Cyber recovery runbooks, however, provide detailed procedures and guidelines for responding to cyber attacks. They often include steps for isolating affected systems, data restoration, and analyzing the nature/scope of the attack, among other relevant factors.  

How to create runbooks and playbooks

Beyond the way runbooks and playbooks differ in their creation process, the type of either runbook or playbook that you intend to formulate depends on a handful of considerations: task complexity, resource availability, brand identity, collaboration capacity, and so on. 

Read below for the general process on creating both runbooks and playbooks.

The runbook creation process

The runbook creation process may differ slightly depending on the task at hand. Yet, in the context of IT disaster recovery, here is the general runbook creation process: 

Step one: Keep track of the criticality of your IT infrastructure. This entails defining the tiers that your networks and applications fall into based on their criticality and assigning objectives accordingly. 

Step two: Build your service-oriented recovery plans, describing how to recover the functions you are responsible for and the steps required to bring each function back online. This includes both the associated technical and business steps. 

Step three: Structure your runbooks for efficiency and visibility. As a best practice, consider having a parent runbook which is overseen by the event organizer, who then can oversee the progress of linked child runbooks in case of an incident arising. To ensure optimal visibility, consider leaning on runbook software to seamlessly analyze the recovery’s progress as a whole, as well as the minute details of individual child runbooks. 

Step four: Enhance with automation and integrations. Doing so is easy with Cutover, as you can integrate data that is mastered elsewhere into your runbook. 

Step five: Measure recovery time actuals (RTAs) against recovery time objectives (RTOs). As you define the critical recovery tiers and associated RTOs for the various functions in your network, consider also how you would separate out those activities to calculate RTAs. 

Step six: Review your plans each time you make a change to your IT service. This ensures that you’re not on the backfoot when it comes time to do a test. 

Step seven: Prepare for every eventuality. In structuring the contents of your recovery plans, consider multiple scenarios and how your recovery would differ based on different challenges. 

Step eight: Consider regulatory requirements. Think about what regulators will need to see and structure your plans accordingly. 

Step nine: Review and improve periodically. Assessing both your successes and failures will help you pinpoint potential hurdles for future events, as well as enable you to better understand realistic recovery timelines. 

Step ten: Adopt an automated recovery platform. This will provide you with a centralized system of execution to accurately monitor and manage all events. 

Cutover runbooks streamline and simplify processes, optimizing efficiency and collaboration. By assigning tasks, setting dependencies and facilitating real-time communication within the platform, teams are able to stay on track and stay informed. Furthermore, Cutover provides real-time dashboards for clear visibility and an audit log to ensure accurate documentation and reporting.

The playbook creation process

Although processes will differ depending on individual organizational needs, here are ten common steps for creating a playbook.

Step one: Define the playbook’s objective, highlighting the specific goals and outcomes it aims to achieve. 

Step two: When writing the playbook, consider the following factors:

  • Break down the process into a series of steps and decision-making frameworks
  • Document procedural best practices
  • Include escalation, communications, and — if necessary — cross-department guidelines

Step three: Validate the playbook. Similar to runbooks, have a third party — or multiple third parties — look through the playbook and address any concerns, ambiguities or potential knowledge gaps, and adjust the runbook accordingly. 

Step four: Publish, distribute and train. Also in the same vein as runbooks, consider running workshops to familiarize the relevant teams or stakeholders with the playbook’s contents. 

Step five: Regularly review the playbook, adjusting in light of any technological advances or changes in organizational needs. 

Templates for runbooks and playbooks

We already covered the key differences between runbooks and playbooks, however when we think of templates - the benefits are similar across both. Templates are predefined, ideally tested, and ready-to-use documentation that provide a structured framework for the process or procedure. 

Templates can be used as a starting point to provide inspiration on how to address a problem. Or, more likely, they are used to set guardrails for a specific process, like IT disaster recovery. This includes an approval process to ensure that the playbook or runbook templates are the latest version with all required updates. 

Cutover’s automated runbooks

Cutover’s automated runbook platform brings technology and teams together to increase efficiency and reduce risk.

Our cloud-based SaaS platform allows you to seamlessly integrate with other relevant applications to create a unified and streamlined workflow for your operations. To see our runbook platform in action, schedule a demo today!.

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