SOP Friday: Labeling Equipment (etc.)

By Karl_Palachuk
In Channel
November 23, 2012
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karlp / Karl Palachuk

If there’s one thing a nerd loves, it’s a good label maker!

Of course you can you can get carried away. But you can also do too little. The purpose of labeling is to make your life easier. To the extent that it makes your life easier, you should do it. Here are a few guidelines we use.

Labeling Equipment

As a rule, there are only a few labels we like to see on equipment. After all, you have to admit that labels are not very attractive. The basic guideline is easy: If you are standing in front of a piece of equipment and just need some little bit of information, it should be on a label.

There are two kinds of labels you will use. Some labels are intended for your clients. Others are intended for you and your team. A perfect example of this is with printers. You need to know the IP address and the client needs to know which way to put in letterhead (see below).

I always get a question or two about security, so let me address that up front. For most small and medium businesses, there is very little concern that someone will break into the network from the inside, reconfigure printers, etc. You need to be prudent, but don’t get carried away.

At the same time, small and medium businesses have a never-ending problem of poor documentation. So very often you don’t have the most basic information you need in a handy little binder next to the server. How many times have you taken on a new client who has no login credentials for their router? Or (for whatever reason) there is a password on the printer’s configuration web server. Sometimes you can “fix” this by resetting the equipment to factory specs, but that often means you don’t have the configuration information you need.

For example, I firmly believe that the login username and password should be labeled on the bottom of firewalls and routers. That scares some people because it is such a critically important piece of the network’s security. This is not a security issue for one simple reason: No one from the Internet can see the bottom of the firewall! This is a matter of physical (access) security, not network security.

But on the day you need to get into that router, it’s very handy to know that you can turn it over and get the information you need! I’ve come across dozens of routers and firewalls with no documentation. In twenty years, I was able to figure out (guess) the password on exactly one router.

Now let’s look at specific equipment.

Firewalls and Routers:
1) Place a label on the front/top of the router that simply says “Router” in very large type. Place a label on the front/top of the firewall that simply says “Firewall” in very large type. This is very handy when you’re on the phone with the client and you are walking them through some troubleshooting, such as power cycling the right piece of equipment or reporting which lights are on.

2) Place a label on the back/bottom of routers and firewalls with the login username and password. As long as you’re printing out this label, make an extra copy to put on the configuration page for your Network Documentation Binder. You might also label the LAN and WAN IP addresses, although that information is very easy to discover by other means if you need it.

3) More than any other equipment, it is critical that you update the label with new login information when it changes! The only thing worse than having no login info is having the wrong info!

Switches:
Unless you have managed switches, you probably don’t need to label switches. If you think you might need to talk the client through some troubleshooting by phone, you might put a label on the front that just says “Switch.”

For managed switches, you should use the same labeling procedure as you have for firewalls and routers.

Network Printers and Scanners:
1) Each network printer should have a label with its name clearly visible on the front. This is handy for you and the client.

2) Each network printer should have a label with its IP address (and each printer should have a static IP). This can go on the back or maybe inside a panel that opens.

3) If a printer is ever used for printing checks, envelopes, or letterhead, it is VERY handy to have a label that gives the user a clue about how to place specialty paper for printing. For example, “Face Up; Top Out.” Yes, I know there’s probably one of those little icons with the front or back indicator, but many clients don’t see those icons, or don’t understand them. Why not make their life a little easier?

Servers:
1) You might have a label on the server that says “Server” or has the server name. But unless you have two servers and the client needs to know which is which, this is completely optional.

2) Instructive labels on the back side of the server are frequently very handy. For example, if you have an ILO (integrated lights out) port, a good clear label for that is useful. This is particularly true if you un-plug the cable from the ILO port for whatever reason.

Sometimes it is helpful to place a “Do not use” label across an unused NIC port so that no one plugs a cable in there and causes havoc with the network. And with some clients it’s useful to put a “Do not use” label across a modem port so no one plugs anything into that.

3) Inside the computer, you should label each hard drive. This is true whether they are hot-swappable or not. All you need to put on the drive is Drive 0, Drive 1, Drive 3, etc. You may choose to label drives with Drive C, Drive D, etc. if that’s useful. But the main goal of labeling drives is so you can use the labels for troubleshooting in the future.

This may be the most important set of labels you use. When you are troubleshooting RAID controllers or hard drives for any reason, you may find it useful to swap out drives. Knowing the exact configuration before you start troubleshooting can save you many hours of labor. It is also very helpful when you get an alert about drive errors or imminent failure. You can order a replacement drive, but when you hand it to the technician to install, he needs to know which slot to put it into.

Two maxims for successful troubleshooting come into play here. The first is “Know what you know.” With properly labeled drives you can feel confident about the order the drives were in when you started. You can keep track of the order in which you tried various configurations while troubleshooting. The second maxim is “Slow down, get more done.” While troubleshooting anything, proper labels will allow you to be completely confident about what you’ve tried already so you do not continually try the same thing over and over again.

4) Finally, you might have labels for other things that are helpful to your techs or your client. For example, if you have more than one power supply, you might label them. Again, while troubleshooting by telephone you can instruct the client to remove PS1 or PS2. Another example is with backup systems. On rare occasions a client might have more than one tape drive or more than one external disc system. With swappable backup hard drives, life is much easier if everything is labeled.

Desktop Computers:
1) Every computer should be labeled with its name. Whether you name machines something boring such as “Workstation 1” or more personalized such as rock stars, cities, car parts, etc., all machines should be labeled. This name should be on the front of the machine and easily visible to users and technicians. While you are making these labels, go ahead and print an extra one to put on the Machine Spec Sheet in your Network Documentation Workbook. (See SOP on Naming Your Computers.)

2) If some machines are owned by you as part of a HaaS (hardware as a service) program, they should be clearly labeled with a “Property of …” label. Similarly, you might label machines that need to be identified as part of a leasing program or machines purchased through a specific funding source for non-profits.

Miscellaneous Equipment:
1) Modems, if you still have such a thing, might be labeled with their associated phone number.

2) Print servers should be labeled with their IP address, and possibly other access information.

3) In general, think about what happens if equip is unplugged, thrown into a box, and forgotten for six months. When you dig it out and don’t have any paperwork, what key information do you need? Label the equipment with that information!

Portable Equipment:
If the client has equipment that goes out in the field, goes home, or goes back and forth between offices, it is probably useful to label this equipment for various reasons. Most of these labels are related to what the equipment is and where it lives. Some equipment needs identifying information or labels that tell when it was new or when it was last serviced.

Ownership Labels:
Lots of things need “Property of …” labels. This is particularly true of HaaS equipment. But it is also true of any equipment that is ever intended to leave the office for any reason. Also, if you loan equipment to a client, it should be labeled as yours.

Implementation

Implementing this policy is really just a matter of making everyone on the support team aware. You might write up a brief memo that summarizes your policies. Then you need two things: Label makers and checklists. Every technician should carry a label maker in their scary box. Taking this with them to every client visit is simply part of the job.

This policy is most commonly implemented by including instructions in checklists. When you build a machine, the checklist should include instructions for labeling. When you configure a firewall, the checklist should include instructions for labeling. And so forth.

The other common way that this policy is implemented is with service tickets. So, if you don’t have a checklist to set up a simple printer, for example, the ticket should specifically list labeling the printer as an item in the ticket. This requires that the service manager be mindful and remember to add that action to the ticket. This amounts to habit, habit, habit.

Feedback?

If you have alternative policies, or I missed something here, please add a comment.

Comments welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday – or Standard Operating System Friday – is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete “table of contents” for SOP Friday at SmallBizThoughts.com.

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Next week’s topic: Disaster Recovery – Simple Restores

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