Runbooks Guide: Steps and Strategies to Document Solutions

Runbooks are contextual documents that help IT teams be more consistent and efficient. They provide a step-by-step guide for novice and seasoned IT experts. Let's get you started.


It's impossible to overestimate just how complicated the information technology environment is. I mean — just that sentence alone was complicated.

To that end, IT professionals create runbooks with to provide all team members with the information and instructions required to tackle any problem. In addition, the runbook automation tool will automate these tasks.

Running a runbook is an actionable procedure used to give operators precise instructions for swiftly and successfully addressing a solution, no matter how new or experienced you are on the team.

In this article, we'll learn what runbooks are, their benefits and how to create a runbook template for your company. 

What is a runbook?

A runbook is a step-by-step "how-to" guide for accomplishing a frequently performed job or procedure in an organization's IT operations. Everyone on the team, new or old, may use runbooks to quickly and precisely tackle a particular issue. Running a server or renewing a website's SSL certificate are examples of typical operations chores that you might include in a runbook.

When should you use a runbook?

Runbooks are a lifesaver in the midst of an emergency response effort. Runbooks for individual situations allow Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to pool their collective knowledge and experience, which would otherwise remain confined to their own minds. As a result of precise runbooks, there is less need for escalation, and fewer on-call IT staff can operate more effectively.

Runbooks might also automate system and application upkeep. The creation of database backups and the modification of access rights are two examples of routine actions you might document in a runbook.

Alternatively, a runbook might be either:

Manual: Operators follow step-by-step directions.

Semi-Automated: A mix of manual and automated processes.

Fully Automated: All of the stages are automated and do not need an operator.

Make ongoing updates to the runbook to ensure that it's the most effective option. When it comes to a company's operations, runbooks should always be up to date and reflect any changes that have occurred.

A runbook that is continually changing with product and process documentation changes, as well as flexible to new rollouts, is the best and most successful one.

What is the difference between runbooks and playbooks?

There are major distinctions between playbooks and runbooks, despite the fact that the names are sometimes used interchangeably.

Playbooks typically deal with more comprehensive solutions to more serious problems, whereas runbooks tend to concentrate on workflows for a specific task. A playbook is more comprehensive than a runbook and may, in fact, comprise more than one runbook.

What elements are included in an effective runbook?

Here are the five characteristics that make a great runbook.

  • Actionable. It serves as a record of what has to be done in the event of a crisis.
  • Accessible. Members of the group are aware of its whereabouts.
  • Accurate. It contains accurate and up-to-date data.
  • Authoritative. Each IT procedure has its own runbook.
  • Adaptable. Modifying it to eliminate future duplication is a snap.

Let's examine each of these in turn.

Actionable: a runbook detailing specific tasks

Each runbook's goal should be very clear. The aim should be the driving force behind all of the tasks. At its heart, a runbook is a collection of actions. Separate and complete tasks are essential. Detailed descriptions of how a system works should not be included in the list of tasks. Tasks don't have to influence the system in order to be actionable. This is an important distinction.

The runbook's actions should build toward the end objective. Remove things that don't help that goal. Runbooks should be written in a way the end-user can follow along with. Bear in mind that the runbook for a beginner to your system will differ from the runbook for a senior SRE who knows your system well.

Use bullet points or lines for each activity. The runbook can benefit from some background information on occasion. We've all done it: perform a delete statement on a production table or restart a database and then double-check everything.

Include a link to a URL or reference document as an excellent method to provide the reader with more context to consult if necessary.

In certain cases, runbooks are used for routine processes — like removing sensitive data from a production database and putting it in an isolated development environment. Another type of runbook would support debugging a service outage or problem. In this case, close the loop and make sure everyone learns from their mistakes. The software development roadmap and operational processes, including runbooks, should include things that need to be remedied.

Accessible: locating the proper runbook

You won't get much benefit out of a runbook if your end-user can't find it. Make your supply easy to access. This is particularly valuable when the runbook helps manage or investigate an outage. In practice, a runbook should support each alert.  Even when the runbook only contains generic instructions, it can be built upon as a project progresses.

Add searchability to your runbooks to increase their usability and accessibility. Regardless of where they are stored, both the content and metadata should be accessible. When deciding how to make your data searchable, consider whether the end-user will be using the command line or a chat system (such as Slack or Microsoft Teams).

The amount and type of runbooks you have available to employees depend on your company's size and maturity. Even though you shouldn't save credentials in a runbook, the data they offer your systems might be useful to an attacker. As a result, the individual looking for a runbook may need to be linked to an organization's directory. This way people can access the information they need, instantly.

Accurate: Runbooks containing the correct information

You can easily steer users in the wrong direction with improper instructions, which will lead to confusion and distrust in the system. Runbooks must be accurate.

Step one is crucial. A simple statement or press release, for example, may be sufficient. The size and maturity of your company, as well as the specific system to which the runbook is linked, will determine whether or not you require a policy for runbook reviews.

Runbook updates should be as straightforward as possible. The goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes to make changes to a runbook while maintaining its accuracy. This will vary from doc to doc: changes to a runbook that explains how to set up a development environment should be evaluated more thoroughly than changes made to a runbook that reports a difference in your production database.

Cutting and pasting rather than re-typing commands is a good way to improve your typing accuracy. That way assignments are guaranteed to be correct. The first time you write a runbook, do the activities at least two or three times.

Keep in mind a runbook's latest update date, as well as the date it was the last run. Track this via links to event notifications or Slack chats. A runbook can additionally include a final instruction to update the "last run" column.

A conventional document-based runbook doesn't have a means to automatically update its "last run" information. This runbook's end-users would appreciate knowing when it was last updated and when it was last used.

Editing a runbook can cause it to overflow. Don't lose sight of the big picture. Adding references after splitting runbooks is not anything to be concerned about.

Authoritative: A runbook containing reliable information

The single runbook for each process should be the one and only. Link to other runbooks if you need to, or use any other supported method. But if more than one runbook exists for a particular scenario, you should consolidate them into a single document and archive the others.

Imagine following a set of instructions only to discover that they're out of date or inaccurate and that the proper runbook was actually the second search result. It's not only irritating, it's terribly nonproductive. Depending on the size of your business, you may want to create a feedback mechanism that allows anybody who comes across an outdated or redundant runbook to notify the owners of the problem.

Adaptable: Runbooks should be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Technical debt is inevitable as soon as a runbook is written down, even if it's only a list of activities. Keeping your runbooks up to date as your system evolves is one way to combat this problem. Almost all software systems stay in a state of flux and evolution. If your runbooks don't follow suit, they won't be reliable enough to make a difference.

There are several ways to foster adaptation, like having a clear runbook owner and having them be the same person who owns the system itself. It's important to divide the runbook into sections for each squad. Socialize these updates by:

  • Allowing anybody to make changes to a runbook as long as accuracy, security and regulatory compliance are not compromised.
  • Dealing with a broken runbook in the same manner as a broken test.
  • Pruning runbooks and deleting stale data is a normal part of software development.
  • Creating a feedback loop. You should include updating runbooks as part of your software release and incident management post-mortem.
  • Rejoicing when your runbook is successful! Make sure to highlight the benefits of a well-executed runbook. It'll save you a lot of time.
  • Using automation where it makes sense. This might include tools for improving system visibility, making changes or condensing whole runbooks into a few commands.
  • Your runbooks will stay current if you encourage your employees to be flexible.

When should I use runbooks?

For a few hours' worths of system maintenance, an incident management runbook should be sufficient. What's the goal? To allow for more thorough diagnostics, root cause analysis (RCA) and resolution by a system's owner. Creating a test environment or running a monthly report are both instances of business processes that may benefit from a runbook.

When possible, automate key chores. However, edge cases, complexity or a high rate of change mean that automating the process may not be worthwhile. Compliance or other issues outside the system may need to rely on human judgment or approval. If there aren't enough developers to properly automate the process, then it might have to be done manually. To be able to go back to any of these examples, it would be helpful to have runbooks on hand.

Creating a runbook template for your company

A thorough runbook often contains all of the information necessary to ensure the smooth operation of computer systems. Here's an example of a runbook template.

  • Overview. Give a brief description of the recorded procedure or service.
  • Authorization. Determine who has access to the runbook and in what capacities.
  • Steps in the procedure. Enter information about the installation and deployment of all necessary protocols.
  • Monitoring system data. Step-by-step instructions for activating all available monitoring system alarms are provided.
  • Prepare for disaster recovery with these strategies. Assemble all the service-level agreement documentation as well as the escalation methods and incident response documentation that are needed.
  • Technical manuals. Any configuration, analytics, or other crucial system information can be referenced or included.

Step 1: Planning a new runbook

There are two things to keep in mind while creating a new runbook.

  • What are the most prevalent issues or tasks that your team encounters on a regular basis?
  • In the past, what have been the most successful methods of dealing with those problems?

Looking at thorough event reports and post-mortems might reveal where a runbook can be most useful. Adding a runbook to a job or issue that occurs frequently can not only help your operations run more quickly but will also ensure that they're accurate and efficient.

Having a runbook for a particular activity, like renewing an SSL certificate on a regular basis, will help your team's operators do the work accurately and quickly. You can even automate a runbook to eliminate the need for an operator entirely.

You must locate and document the best solution once you've identified a job that can use a runbook. In order to determine the most efficient and accurate method, review previous incident reports and post-mortems that dealt with this issue. In many cases, an SME may be a valuable source of knowledge because of their previous expertise in dealing with a particular problem.

Step 2: Write Your runbook

Once you've decided on the technique for your runbook, you may begin writing it in full. To get started, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Stick to the point - don't go into too much detail.
  • Use language in your documentation that is simple to comprehend and follow.
  • Customize it to reflect your specific business procedures.
  • When it comes to your systems and apps, the runbook needs to be adaptable.
  • Additionally, your runbooks should be uniform across all platforms. Provide the operator with all he or she needs to know about each one.

The last step before submitting your runbook for review and approval is to put it to the test in the real world.

Step 3: Test, update & improve your runbooks

After a runbook has been developed, it cannot simply be "set it and forget it." Runbooks need to be checked and updated on a regular basis to guarantee that they continue to work at optimal levels, regardless of whether your systems or applications have changed. The most effective characteristics of a runbook are flexibility and ease of adaptation to the dynamic nature of the IT operations environment.

In conclusion

It's important to remember that optimization is a continual process that is affected by both internal and external factors, such as the introduction of new products and methodologies. The most often occurring issues should be the focus of your early runbook production efforts so that you can better monitor the impact of your runbooks. Once you've got the basics down, you may go on to more complex tasks in your runbook.

Runbooks, even when automated, provide a permanent record of a process or operation. Your runbooks must be actionable, accessible, accurate, authoritative and adaptive in order to be used in real-world situations.

Scribe can transform virtually any digital workflow into an easy-to-follow guide. Just click "record" and go about your business. Scribe will auto-generate your step-by-step guide, complete with text and screenshots.

You can do the following with Scribe:

  • Respond as quickly as possible to your teammates' questions.
  • Give your coworkers the opportunity to learn a procedure.
  • Fill in any blanks that may exist in existing official training programs.

Sign up for Scribe today (it’s free!) to smoothly create runbooks for the frequent operations at your company.