What is documentation and why is it important? We hear about “documenting” a network, but we don’t often listen. It seems like too much work for too little or no payback. But that way of thinking is wrong.

People are starting to talk about it more and more because there is so much critical equipment now being put into networks that companies depend on, and a company can be very cost conscious and want to manage their inventory (asset management). The computer room used to be the place where the mainframe was kept for access to company databases; now it’s probably a data center through which a good bit of a company’s main business is conducted.

This ability to better manage a company’s assets can start at the early design stage, be continued throughout installation, and wrapped up when the network is in operation. Who better to know what parts (cabling, hubs, routers, servers, storage devices) there are to a network than those designing and installing it?

How can this documentation be approached so it’s practical to undertake? First, attend to the physical layer: Cabling and patch panels and devices on the network.

See guidance as provided by the ANSI/TIA-606-A standard that was published in 2002. This updated version is friendlier to the reader and takes into consideration that a company (maybe your customer) can be small with only one floor and one telecomm closet, or it can be a global enterprise that requires documentation of all locations. The goal is to account for all the connection locations that allow the user to maintain the infrastructure.

Next, there are the services brought in: satellite, cable, T-1, T-3, DSL, etc.

Sometimes the service provider may provide information on these lines brought in, but the contractor should make sure the hard connections are identified and on record. Then, the network has to be documented.

Since this takes a good amount of billable time, how do you justify it to the customer? Well, it is simple when a business’ survival may depend on the equipment in that very network:

1. It can be used if equipment goes down to quickly troubleshoot the problem.

2. It can be used to train new personnel.

3. It can help outside contractors and/or consultants by enabling them to work faster and more efficiently. All three save the company time and money.

This can be referred to as IT (information technology) documentation and it also plays a critical role in disaster recovery. What if a company’s entire network goes off line and business stops? Troubleshooting has to be done to find the problem. Locating the hardware and knowing what connects to what is found in the documentation.

Initially, who can do what?

• The contractor can label cabling.

• The contractor can label the hardware or that can be done by an IT person.

• The contractor can also label the server with IT support for the additional information required to manage them—name, functions, IP (Internet Protocol) address, disk configuration, data and place of purchase, warranty information, etc.

• The contractor can also label the router with IT support for the LAN or WAN configurations, etc.

• The contractor can also note the service label information (from the service providers) because he or she connects the inside cabling to these outside services.

Additional features or services that need to be documented must be clearly identified so they can be detailed as they are put into service:

• Network Services—These services can be DNS (domain name service), TNS (transaction network services), RAS (remote access server), etc., that need to be described to save time if they have to be restructured. The IT person can fulfill this requirement.

• Critical Applications—IT can document what these are and how they work.

• Policies and Procedures—This can take what is considered valuable time, but it is important work within the IT domain. Here is where one will find any restrictions defined for the network users; how things are done, and who has the right to do what.

Granted, all of this is a time-consuming process the first time, but it can be maintained each time change work is done. It’s a matter of communicating to people that collecting this information is required, and then making time for inputting the data. A paper trail is necessary today. Downtime is expensive and nobody can afford it.

There are specialty software programs to handle this kind of documentation. Sometimes a spreadsheet approach can work as well. The least desired method, but better than nothing, is to collect the information in a loose-leaf notebook.

If your customer wants their system/network documented, be sure to know what they want and convey to them what you need to do, how you’ll get it done, and how it can be reported and maintained. This can be a team effort between telecomm and IT, because today, both groups have the critical information. EC

MICHELSON, president of Jackson, Calif.-based Business Communication Services and publisher of the BCS Reports, is an expert in TIA/EIA performance standards. Contact her at www.bcsreports.com or randm@volcano.net.