DBA Best Practices – A Blog Series: Episode 3 – Use a Wiki for Documentation

Retaking on this blog series after an extended hiatus. I hope you will enjoy today’s topic on documentation.

Boring Work? Nope – An Opportunity

One of the often neglected and yet extremely important tasks of any DBA is to document his/her environment. I can certainly relate to those of you who haven’t written a single page of documentation for your environment – I was there before. And I felt bad.

The good news is that documentation doesn’t have to be painful. My friends at Brent Ozar Unlimited recently posted a video on documentation – you can find it in this link – and they touch on that very same subject: There ARE ways to document your environment that will leave you greatly satisfied with the results, and some of you might even enjoy the process. Your manager will love you for it – and you won’t feel bad for the new guy who replaces you when it’s time to move on.

How About Word Documents and Excel Sheets in SharePoint?

Not perfect. Let’s face it. Writing pages and pages of documentation for your database environment (or ANY IT environment) in Word is tiresome. Excel sheets can have tons of information and might be easy to peruse. But no matter how good your formatting is, how many pictures and Visio diagrams you throw at it, you’ll always get the sense that the document you spent days working on will just end up in the SharePoint site and collect dust there. SharePoint can handle changes and versioning for you, if you use it correctly – so that’s a plus. But think about ease of access to the documents – ease of editing. Discussions around it. Even automated updates! Is a SharePoint folder the way to go for that? (Or a UNC path, for those of you without SharePoint?)

An Old Friend Can Work Marvels

You’ve been to WikiPedia. More than once. You know how useful it is, and how, thanks for the built-in search function and Search Engines, easy it is to find information on it.

How about using a wiki engine for your documentation? Can’t picture that in your head? Hear me out: wikis are VERY easy to create, edit and collaborate on – you just click on Edit and away you go. They have built-in version control, discussion pages, categories, lists, and pretty much everything you need to have a versatile documentation site.

Picture this: a wiki page for every environment, listing all the servers that belong to it – and linking to individual wiki pages with tons of information about those servers, including former incident highlights, detailed information about the server (CPUs, RAM, OS Version, SQL Instances, patches, team(s) who own the server, escalation paths for incidents, and much more.

The best part: these pages that have lots of information can be updated via an automated process. WHAT? AUTOMATED DOCUMENTATION YOU SAY? Yes. Think scripts. Scripts that will go over your environments on a regular basis and update information on them in the wiki. Does that sound cool or what? All you need is to understand the capabilities of your wiki engine (think API), and pair it up with your favorite scripting language. For me, it’s a slam-dunk: I’ll use PowerShell to automate the information gathering process, and a wiki engine that runs on SQL Server – I’ll show you a few options in a bit.

Now imagine that you give access to your NOC/Helpdesk to this wiki site: you don’t want them to change anything on it, so you set permissions for read-only access to the site. The benefits would be great: now the NOC has easy access to information on a given server that just alerted, and if you saved notes for that type of alert for that server, instructing Operators to collect certain information before they call you, that can save precious time and help you troubleshoot the issue. You might even let the NOC track incidents on a particular section of the wiki page for that server, so you can figure out if there is a pattern that you need to address.

YMMV on your organization’s needs – but this can be a very valuable tool to keep your business running efficiently. I have worked for teams that relied heavily on Wikis for documentation  – and saw first hand how this greatly improves access to information for our team. How you use it in your environment and how you adapt it to your requirements is entirely up to you – I only wanted to give you a few ideas on how you might put this to your advantage.

Which Wiki Engine Should I Use?

There are TONS of wiki engines out there: WikiPedia has a page (not frequently updated, alas) that lists some of them. Being the SQL Server guy that I am, I’m naturally inclined to use something powered by SQL in the backend. The most widely used wiki engine, developed by the Wikimedia Foundation, is a typical LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) application. If you have experience with Apache, PHP and MySQL, you should use that. It’s updated very frequently, and it’s got a large community behind it.

Now, if you have SharePoint, you may or may not know that it comes with a wiki engine as well – and that’s detailed here.

Recently I used FlexWiki , which uses SQL Server as a backend. Being a SQL database on the backend, you back it up and keep it safe as the rest of your backups – just don’t use the same servers you’re trying to document to host the wiki engine’s database. If you lose that server, you lost access to the documentation about it.

Unfortunately, FlexWiki isn’t being actively maintained. But look at the list of Wiki software – you’re bound to find something that fits your needs.

No More Excuses – Get To It!

If you have no documentation/poor documentation. Go take care of it, now. Go create and/or reuse scripts that gather information about your environment. Be proactive about it – make sure those scripts get updated. Show your work to your peers and your boss. Feel confident that you have control of your environment, and rock on!

What Are Your Thoughts?

I’d love to hear what you’re doing in your environment as far as documentation goes. Will you leave some comments below? Also, if you feel like giving some feedback on the DBA Best Practices series, I’d appreciate it.

Until next time,

-Argenis

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