Network documentation and inventory made easy with free tools.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the words “network documentation” are like kryptonite for IT people. I’ve seen hardened SysAdmins cringe in fear at the mere mention of network documentation, and it always makes me shake my head and wonder why.

Network documentation is your friend. Unlike tech support for your backup software vendor (who universally seem to only be available 8-5 Monday to Friday), network documentation will be there to hold your hand at 3am after you’ve been trying to restore a downed server for 10 hours, and your $10,000 tape library has just gone up in flames like it was a Dell laptop battery (taking all of your current backup tapes with it).

Everyone seems to have this misconception that network documentation is this incredibly long and difficult process. I would put forth that it is neither. Let me show you just how easy some simple network documentation can be. All of the tools mentioned here are FREE (some may be ad supported, but as is the case with Spiceworks, for a small annual fee the ads can be disabled).

First we start with the Servers. These are likely the most valuable asset in your network, and should be treated as such. The first tool we will look at is the SYDI project.

SYDI is essentially a set of scripts (extensively for Windows, some Linux as well), which will gather TONS of information about the machine they are run on, and optionally create a nice Word document from that information (you must have Microsoft Word installed on the machine you run SYDI from for this feature to work).

SYDI was created by Patrick Ogenstad, and I have found it to be incredibly useful. I currently use SYDI to generate basic documentation for all of the servers on my network (currently all of my Linux servers are Gentoo, and I was able to get the Linux script for SYDI working on them with minimal effort). I have these scripts set to run on the first day of every month, and output the resulting files to a network share.

There is going to be some information (which you will definitely want) that SYDI does not gather. I’ve found that there are a great many tools that can help you get this data automatically, and rather than attempt to cover everything available, I am going to focus on the tools that I use.

I am a big fan of finding ways to do things with the Least Amount Of Administrative Effort (or LAOAE, often pronounced “lay-away”), so when available I like to use tools that can fit multiple needs. The next tool I am going to cover is Spiceworks Desktop, and it fills several of my needs.

Spiceworks is agentless, can be installed on either a server or a desktop machine, and can be accessed from any computer on the network using a web browser (don’t worry, it has extensive security capabilities, including Active Directory integration). One caveat for spiceworks is that you should not try to install it on a machine who’s name contains any “illegal” characters (-,!,?, etc. – this causes weird issues with device discovery). Spiceworks does many things, but the one we are really interested in here is inventory.

The inventory feature of Spiceworks will discover and attempt to identify every device on your network. Once discovery is complete you can view and categorize the devices it finds. The really useful feature for me is the ability to attach notes and files to the devices it finds. Also at this point you can fill in the information that SYDI omitted in your Server Documentation.

Among other things, I use Spiceworks as a repository for my network documentation and as an archive for system event logs. This provides a way for me to keep everyone in the IT department on the same page, and makes it really easy to keep a running changelog for every machine on our network.

No, how do we get those event logs? If you are running Windows machines, I have a script that I’ve written that I use to gather the event logs from my servers to a network share. The code for logArchive.vbs can be found here.

Now then, see how easy it is to generate basic network documentation?

Of course you will also want to eventually create a network map, an IT Service catalog, and… well let’s just say that you can follow this particular rabbit hole as far down as you’d like to go.



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