Using OneNote in IT

 

It’s hard to believe that as an IT administrator, one of my favorite applications I use is one of the least technical.  Microsoft created an absolutely stellar application when they created OneNote.  If you haven’t used it, you should.

Most IT Administrators have high expectations of themselves.  Somehow we expect to remember pretty much everything.  Deployment planning, research, application specific installation steps and issues.  Information gathering for troubleshooting, and documenting as-built installations.  You might have information that you work with every day, and think “how could I ever forget that?” (you will), along with that obscure, required setting on your old phone system that hasn’t been looked at in years.

The problem is that nobody can remember everything. 

After years of using my share of spiral binders, backs of print outs, and Post-It notes to gather and manage systems and technologies, I’ve realized a few things.  1.)  I can’t read my own writing.  2.)  I never wrote enough down for the information to be valuable.  3.)  What I can’t fit on one physical page, I squeeze in on another page that makes no sense at all.  4.)  The more I have to do, the more I tried (and failed) to figure out a way to file it.  5.)  These notes eventually became meaningless, even though I knew I kept them for a reason.  I just couldn’t remember why.

Do you want to make a huge change in how you work?   Read on.

OneNote was first adopted by our Sales team several years ago, and while I knew what it was, I never bothered to use it for real IT projects until late in 2007, when a colleague of mine (thanks Glenn if you are reading) suggested that it was working well for him and his IT needs.  Ever since then, I wonder how I ever worked without it.

If you aren’t familiar with OneNote, there isn’t too much to understand.  It’s an electronic Notebook. 

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It’s arranged just as you’d expect a real notebook.  The left side represents notebooks, the top area of tabs represent sections or earmarks, and the right side represents the pages in a notebook.  It’s that easy.   Just like it’s physical counterpart, it’s free-form formatting allows you to place object anywhere on a page (goodbye MS Word).

What has transpired since my experiment to use OneNote is how well it tackles every single need I have in information gathering and mining of that data after the fact.  Here are some examples.

Long term projects and Research

What better time to try out a new way of working on one of the biggest projects I’ve had to tackle in years, right?  Virtualizing my infrastructure was a huge undertaking, and I had what seemed like an infinite amount of information to learn in a very short period of time, under all different types of subject matters.  In a Notebook called “Virtualization” I had sections that narrowed subject matters down to things like ESX, SAN array, Blades, switchgear, UPS, etc.  Each one of those sections had pages (at least a few dozen for the ESX section, as there was a lot to tackle) that were specific subject matters of information I needed to gather to learn about, or to keep for reference.  Links, screen captures, etc.  I dumped everything in there, including my deployment steps before, during, and after.

 

Procedures

Our Linux code compiling machines have very specific package installations and settings that need to be set before deployment.  OneNote works great for this.  The no-brainer checkboxes offer nice clarity.

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If you maintain different flavors of Unix or various distributions of Linux, you know how much the syntax can vary.  OneNote helps keep your sanity.  With so many Windows products going the way of Powershell, you’d better have your command line syntax down for that too.

This has also worked well with backend installations.  My Installations of VMware, SharePoint, Exchange, etc. have all been documented this way.  It takes just a bit longer, but is invaluable later on.  Below is a capture of part of my cutover plan from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007.

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Migrations and Post migration outstanding issues

After big migrations, you have to be on your toes to address issues that are difficult to predict.  OneNote has allowed me to use a simple ISSUE/FIX approach.  So, in an “Apps” notebook, under an “E2007 Migration” section, I might have a page called “Postfix” and it might look something like this.

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You can label these pages “Outstanding issues” or as I did for my ESX 3.5 to vSphere migration, “Postfix” pages.

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As-builts

Those in the Engineering/Architectural world are quite familiar with As-built drawings.  Those are drawings that reflect how things were really built.  Many times in IT, deployment plans and documentation never go further than the day you deploy it.  OneNote allows for an easy way to turn that deployment plan into a living copy, or as-built configuration of the product you just deployed.  Configurations are as dynamic as the technologies that power them.  Its best to know what sort of monster you created, and how to recreate it if you need to.

 

Daily issues (fire fighting)

Emergencies, impediments, fires, or whatever you’d like to call them, come up all the time.  I’ve found OneNote to be most helpful in two specific areas on this type of task.  I use it as a quick way to gather data on an issue that I can look at later (copying and pasting screenshot and URLs into OneNote), and for comparing the current state of a system against past configurations.  Both ways help me solve the problems more quickly.

Searching text in bitmapped screen captures

One of the really interesting things about OneNote is that you can paste a screen capture of say, a dialog box in the notebook, then when searching later for a keyword, it will include those bitmaps in the search results!!!!  Below is one of the search results OneNote pulled up when I searched for “KDC”  This was a screen capture sitting in OneNote.  Neat.

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Goodbye Browser Bookmarks

How many times have you spent trying to organize your web browser bookmarks or favorites, only to never look at them again, or try to figure out why you bookmarked it?  Its an exercise in futility.  No more!  Toss them all away.  Paste those links into the various locations in OneNote (where the subject matter is applicable, and enter a brief little description on top of it, and you can always find it later when searching for it.

 

Summary

I won’t ever go without using OneNote for projects large or small again.  It is right next to my email as my most used application.  OneNote users tend to be a loyal bunch, and after a few years of using it, I can see why.  At about $80 retail, you can’t go wrong.  And, lucky for you, it will be included in all versions of Office 2010.

Additional Links

New features coming in OneNote 2010
http://blogs.msdn.com/descapa/archive/2009/07/15/overview-of-onenote-2010-what-s-new-for-you.aspx

Using OneNote with SharePoint
http://blogs.msdn.com/mcsnoiwb/archive/2008/12/03/onenote-and-sharepoint-the-basics.aspx 

Interesting tips and tricks with OneNote
http://blogs.msdn.com/onenotetips/

7 Responses to Using OneNote in IT

  1. mellerbeck says:

    Got my interest peaked! What would you do for collaboration? I have messed around with a internally hosted ‘wikipedia’ although impossible to get anyone else to start using it…. bummer.

    • ITforMe says:

      In it’s simplest form, you can create a shared notebook (via a “Share” pulldown menu) that either is served up on a network share, or a sharepoint document library. There is no real revision control, but this is how our Sales Team, (and more recently, some of our Dev/planning team) is collaborating. You can also do some “live sharing sessiions” but I haven’t messed around with that.

  2. Tohak says:

    Any chance you’d want to post a scrubbed (no content in pages, but retaining your organization of notebooks, tabs and page hierarchy? Would make a very good IT template for people that would like to dig right in but start with some basic organization.

  3. Pingback: Vroom! Scaling up Virtual Machines in vSphere to meet performance requirements–Part 2 | A glimpse into the life of IT

  4. rthieszen says:

    So after living with OneNote for three years do you still love it? We are considering moving to it from a pile of different documents that have just been dumped into Sharepoint. Onenote seems to be an answer to our needs but i would be interested in how it has played out for you.

    • vmPete says:

      Hey thanks for reading. With regards to OneNote, it’s an emphatic “yes!” I’m more invested in it than ever before, and it plays a critical role in collaboration with other IT staff, design docs, troubleshooting, deployment processes, research etc. I’ve also used it quite a bit for my professional growth, studying, etc. With the free “OneCal” addin for OneNote (from Onetastic) it gives you a great calendar view of changed documents. The biggest challenge you might have is that because it is so free-form, that you really need to decide and stick to some standards on the formatting, page, section, and notebook nomenclature so that as it scales up, you don’t have a mess on your hands. However, even with that, the search function is so darned good that it will make up for a lot of organization mistakes. If you wish, you can DM me, and I can share with you some of my tricks.

      The other challenge one might have is a lack of discipline from team members on documenting. You get out of it what you put into it. Those who don’t get it have never had to pick up the pieces after someone else, or never had to try and remember some critical syntax to a fix that someone else did. But eventually, if you demonstrate the value, people get on board pretty quickly.

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