So a quick bit of backstory...

I am 18 years old, in high school and am a sysadmin for said school. When I got here the networks were a mess and undocumented, crashing about once a day if not more. I have now brought the place up to snuff with Linux routers (Smoothwall), all Mac environment, two Mac mini's running Leopard Server and mostly new networking equipment (switches, routers, Airport Extremes etc. etc).

I am graduating at the end of this year. I have the challenge of documenting the entire network so it all doesn't come crashing down next year when I won't be around. I know the basics of using Visio and writing on wikis and such but I don't think it will be enough to get my replacement through a crisis. I have been trying to sit down with her and running through systems but there hasn't been much time or interest. She is competent with basics, upto a client level (i.e. updates, install software, etc) but doesn't understand much about the servers, the networking gear and what to do in a emergency.

So, the question is,

What is the BEST way to document a network and all critical services (network, servers, clients), well enough that my replacement can fully understand it and I won't be getting calls or emails next year.

(hoping this question won't be closed for subjectiveness because I don't know what else to do at this point :/)

  • Sounds like an employment opportunity. :)
    – Kyle Smith
    Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 19:45
  • you mean employment for you or for me? Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 20:02

6 Answers 6


I think you may be trying to do the impossible.

The scope of what you seem to want to do, document everything to a point that someone who doesn't understand system administration can replace you, is not really possible. Realistically you would have to basically re-write tons of books and documentation that already exists.

If what you want to do was possible, I am sure someone else would have done it a long time ago and they would no longer be paying people to be system administrators.

The fact is that networks can get very complex and the only way you can solve many complex problems is understanding the system as a whole. Usually a person only gains this level of understanding by being interested enough in the topic to do lots of reading and research.

If the person you are training is not interested in putting in the effort to learn, then I don't think you will be able to help them they way you want to. A simple cheat sheet and trouble shooting guide cannot replace learning and understanding how things work.

Personally, I think you need to help the school find a good person in the area they can go to when they need help with networking issues. Look around for local network consultants. If you are interested you can offer to work for them.

Update to address comments

The network is stable as-is. I just need to make sure she knows how to do very basics like troubleshooting and restarts and stuff like that.

Please do not reinvent the wheel, or in your case try to re-write the manuals for everything on your network. Instead point at resource where someone can go learn. Including links to sites like serverfault.com.

Good documentation should not repeat things that is in the manuals or standard reference material for a product. For example, do not tell someone how to set an ACL on the filesystem. Simply describe why the ACLs are set a specific way in your environment.

Our budget is already so tight that evening bringing up the idea of another person would cause outrage.

I understand that budgets in K12 are very tight, but it is not your responsibility to provide them support for free for your entire life. It is also not your responsibility to completely train a person who does not have the interests or aptitude to fill your shoes. Since budget is an issue, you may want to check out any local tech/linux user groups. I know several members of the local LUG up here volunteer support time to charities/schools/non-profits.

  • 2
    Agreed. Your time would be much better spent helping the school find a proper replacement, instead of trying to train someone from the ground up. That's not the type of person that should be put in charge of an infrastructure.
    – kingfish
    Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 19:57
  • Wow thanks for the answer so quick! A few points I hope you might be able to expand on... 1. The network is stable as-is. I just need to make sure she knows how to do very basics like troubleshooting and restarts and stuff like that. 2. They are interested but theres just no time at the moment and I am worried about running out of time in the school year 3. Our budget is already so tight that evening bringing up the idea of another person would cause outrage. Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 19:59

I disagree with this being an impossible task.

The first place I would start? A Visio (or alternative) of your network. Diagramming something as basic as what's connect to what, will go a long way to helping your replacement understand the fundamentals. I would start here..because everything else that you might have time for, will build off of this. If you don't have time left after the diagram, then you'll be handing her the most important ONE piece of information that you could be handing her.

Once the diagram is complete, move into creating a really basic desk manual. Perhaps start with a page for each server and bullet-pointing things like IP address, name, function, warranty info, phone numbers, os version, etc. and do this for each server. If you have time to complete the basics for each server, then move into network devices, etc. Once the basics are covered for each 'appliance', then delve into more in-depth information for each appliance (why it's named what it is, plans for that server, etc.)

If time allows for anything after this, drive to your Secretary of State, create an LLC for yourself, get business cards, determine your hourly or per job rate, and staple your business card to the bottom of the visio diagram and desk manual.

  • thanks for the advice! I already have a basic "desk manual" (1000+ pages) built but she never uses it. and, nice last paragraph there :D Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 20:20
  • Well then I may have to strike out my first sentence...you cannot help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. Your best bet is really to form a consulting business and go back on a per hour charge.
    – GregD
    Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 20:24
  • 3
    If you have 1000+ pages of documentation already and you are still not confident in this person's abilities, you really need to get someone else. I'm not saying hire an Additional person, I'm saying hire a different person.
    – kingfish
    Commented Nov 5, 2009 at 20:59
  • I was tempted to downvote this initially, but I think you've come around to the same conclusion as everyone else. Documenting the network so another SA can figure it out it easy (time consuming, but easy). Documenting it so a disinterested user could do administration is borderline impossible.
    – Chris S
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 22:25

General guideline for non-tech savvy replacement. Lots of Pictures, lots of troubleshooting steps, don't bother with technical explanations because when they see them all they'll read is "call the old guy".

Keep it simple, and make sure they know how to back up someone's data and re-image/install their PC.

  • And don't forget to label everything. It should look just a little like the Batcave in the old Batman TV series, just on the off chance you've ever seen an episode. Commented Nov 6, 2009 at 7:01
  • Pictures work very well with less tech-savvy types. Telling them to power cycle the switch is scary, telling them to find the blue box in the picture and shut it off for 30 seconds works great. Commented Nov 6, 2009 at 12:26

This is a case where training your replacement isn't really your job; you'll do plenty of that later in the real world. But good for you for wanting to do a good job. From now on, any problem that comes up, give it to your replacement to handle. Help her as needed, explaining why you do such and such to fix or research the problem. That's called on the job training. Walk her through doing backups (you do backups, right?), complete system shutdown and startup, admin screens for the routers, etc. You've only got two servers, it's not NASA. It's learnable and more importantly for you, teachable. Teaching is your role now. Also, get a label maker and label every piece of networked hardware.


I would spend some time finding a competent contractor who could handle anything your replacement cannot, and ensure your replacement knows how to contact them. Then spend a bit of time with the contractor to ensure they know how you've set things up. Set up some documentation specifically for them (or another knowledgeable party)

Then I would proceed to document all the basic stuff, so that your replacement can handle the day-to-day issues, and knows when it's time to call in the "big-guns", and who they are.


How about put your replacement in the 'hot seat' from now, let faults come through and see how she goes about trying to fix the problem? You will still be around for any major major emergencies.

People often get into gear when thrown in the deep end. If your replacement fails without making any (learning) progress, it will tell them too that they should maybe not take on the role.

Your replacement can then take notes as they need to and ask you questions about what they need to know.

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