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Jon Dowland - Information Systems and Services, Newcastle University

Organising sysadmin documentation

Most professional teams will have some form of team documentation used as a reference by existing team members but also as a means of getting new staff up-to-speed. System administrators are no exception, but have their own set of additional requirements: lots of diverse, complex systems mean lots of procedures to recall. It's also no good having procedures for repairing a database server stored in a database table.

I recently undertook a project to migrate Newcastle University UNIX team's internal documentation from a simple filesystem-based scheme to a web-based wiki system using "mediawiki", the software that powers Wikipedia. Once I had achieved this, it became apparent procedures and tools were necessary to help manage the continued review and updating of the documentation. I also became aware of several issues with the approach that impacted us specifically as systems administrators.

Since then I have discovered ikiwiki: a "wiki compiler" written by a notable Free Software hacker which promises to be a great deal more friendly to systems administrators. ikiwiki supports online and offline operation; back-ending to a real version control system; plugins to tweak nearly all facets of the software's behaviour.

My talk will explore the issues uncovered as part of our first migration, including managing the continued review of material; identifying holes in the documentation; identifying different "classes" of staff and what motivates them to participate in team documentation efforts. I will then discuss Mediawiki and Ikiwiki in detail, looking at their feature sets and drawbacks, in particular relating to sysadmin-specific requirements.

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