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Compare runbooks vs. playbooks for IT process documentation

Despite some contextual differences, runbooks and playbooks serve a similar purpose in the enterprise: to document critical processes.

Established processes enable a business and its IT staff to document and codify steps and behaviors. This facilitates learning, reviews and evaluation, and helps teams complete tasks correctly and consistently. As IT organizations increasingly rely on automation platforms, it is especially important to maintain formal processes.

Enterprises uses two terms -- playbook and runbook -- to refer to documents that define key processes. In general, business professionals use the term playbook, while IT staff use runbook. Each term denotes subtle differences, although the underlying adherence to process remains identical.

What is a runbook?

A runbook is a document that contains relevant background information and practical procedures to accomplish IT or DevOps tasks, or address and resolve incidents.

A runbook follows a standardized format to create uniformity and enable staff to quickly find and follow the associated process or task. For example, a runbook can:

  • identify an issue or task;
  • describe that issue's symptoms or behaviors;
  • walk through the steps to resolve the issue;
  • outline tests to validate issue resolution;
  • specify escalation criteria when staff require more help with a problem; and
  • detail reporting, follow-ups, or other reviews of the issue in post-mortems.

Codifying a process into a runbook brings several benefits. New IT staff can learn and follow complex tasks and handle demanding incidents with less formal training. Existing staff can easily review processes for incidents to maintain proficiency. Documented processes also promote consistent responses, ensuring all staff handle the same tasks or incidents in the same way. This reduces errors and oversights while maintaining IT security. Lastly, an IT runbook can solidify an organization's compliance or business continuance posture.

Types of runbooks

Runbooks can be as general and broad or as specific as a given process demands.

General runbooks focus on routine tasks and daily checks to ensure operations run normally. For example, an organization could maintain a general runbook for the following:

  • Log reviews. This general runbook outlines how to review audit or other logs to look for errors, failures or threats. If incidents are found, IT staff can prioritize and resolve them in accordance with other associated specialized runbooks.
  • Backups. This runbook details how to back up systems, files, applications and other vital parts of the IT environment. It also specifies how to test and validate that a backup completed successfully, and that data is retrievable. Backup runbooks might include data lifecycle processes that detail when to archive -- or even delete -- old and unnecessary data in accordance with established business requirements.
  • System performance. IT relies on varied application and system monitoring tools. A general runbook calls for regular checks of monitoring tool dashboards and reports to examine resource utilization or performance metrics, identify resource shortages or any deviations from normal performance criteria, and prioritize any issues for further examination and remediation. IT teams can use regular system performance checks to inform capacity planning and infrastructure upgrades.

By comparison, more specialized runbooks aim to fix specific issues with servers or applications. Examples include runbooks that:

  • Determine affected systems. This runbook determines the scope of an issue -- how many systems or applications are affected -- which is the initial stage of the IT troubleshooting and remediation process. It helps staff check logs, reference monitoring tools and use other resources to assess the problem.
  • Pinpoint required tools. This runbook identifies the right tools and resources to fix a particular IT issue. By determining the required tools, technicians can gauge whether they have the skills to fix a problem, or whether they should escalate the incident to additional staff.
  • Shape post-incident reviews. Post-mortems enable IT staff to share details about the incident, such as root causes, effects and fixes, as well as suggestions for future process improvements. A specialized runbook can outline how teams share these insights.

What is a playbook?

The differences between the terms are mainly a matter of tradition.

A playbook is a document that contains all of the workflows, standard operating procedures and corporate cultural values necessary to approach and complete business tasks in an acceptable and consistent manner.

In a broader sense, a playbook can offer a detailed guide to the business, including a company overview, mission and value statement. A well-maintained playbook keeps an enterprise running smoothly and provides backup plans when something goes awry.

Types of playbooks

Playbooks can take many forms, depending on company size and type.

For example, a playbook for a smaller business might include an organizational chart that shows the company's current reporting structure, an acceptable use policy for business property and company emails. Larger organizations frequently take a more detailed approach, with playbooks that are specific to departments such as HR, public relations, finance and legal.

Playbooks can be helpful for:

  • Cyber security. Businesses increasingly develop cyber security playbooks to outline clear roles and responsibilities for preventing, and responding to, security incidents.
  • Operating remote teams. Organizations can build a playbook to foster collaboration, build cooperation and maintain communication and engagement between remote workers.
  • Change management. A change management playbook helps a department assess a change's effect on the business, as well as provide guidance on the testing, rollout and refinement of that change.
  • Disaster planning. A disaster planning playbook guides an organization through significant events and crises, such as fires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. The playbook can outline emergency procedures to ensure employees remain safe and productive, and restore normal business operations.
Key features in a crisis management playbook include user communication guidelines, responsibility hierarchy with contact info, internal and vendor contacts, definitions of applications in use, list of mission-critical applications and list of most common issues and suggested solutions.

Runbooks vs. playbooks

Ultimately, there is no clearly defined reason to use the term runbook vs. playbook; business and IT staff frequently use the two interchangeably. And there are other similar terms in the lexicon. For example, the Chef tool for IT automation uses recipes and cookbooks to codify and organize processes.

The differences between the terms are mainly a matter of tradition. The business side tends to use the term playbook because it carries a strong connotation of people and human interactions -- likely reminiscent of the use of plays in sports. By comparison, the term runbook has a strong association with IT, likely traced to the need to run systems and applications in the data center.

In reality, a playbook and runbook are more similar than different. They both require careful thought and planning, and deliver faster and more consistent results that boost the bottom line. They both can exist as Word documents or Wiki pages that require regular updates to reflect business and IT changes. Organizations can implement both runbooks and playbooks within emerging automation platforms to reduce dependence on human interaction.

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