Runbook vs. Playbook: Meaning, Differences, and Uses

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Eduardo Messuti

Founder and CTO

October 03, 2023

Runbook vs. Playbook: Meaning, Differences, and Uses

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It’s exhausting, right? Having to repeat instructions or answer the same questions whenever your incident response teams experience a problem.

At first, it may have been exciting — it was fulfilling to answer these questions and help your teams solve minor security alerts. You were the hero! You went ahead and documented all this information.

But as your company grew and your attention was needed in other areas, these questions and issues started to lengthen incident response time. You thought, “What if I could document all the information my team requires in a single source of truth?”

Now, if this sounds like you, you probably have been using the terms runbook vs. playbook to refer to this source of information. However, while runbooks and playbooks are valuable resources for streamlining incident lifecycle processes within an organization, they are not interchangeable terms.

In these articles, we'll dive deeper into the meaning, differences, and common uses of runbooks vs. playbooks, and include some practical examples. This guide is the first installment in our series of articles exploring runbooks vs. playbooks.

Read on to learn more about runbooks and playbooks.

What Are Runbooks?

Runbooks are detailed guides or documentation containing step-by-step instructions to complete complex tasks. They are commonly used in IT companies and departments to ensure the efficient and error-free execution of routine tasks or critical operations processes, such as security breaches. They help security teams carry out tasks consistently and effectively.

If you have a reference or document in your organization outlining procedures and best practices for handling incidences, you should refer to it as a runbook, not a playbook.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the differences between a runbook vs. a playbook, it’s worth noting some of the key features and characteristics runbooks exhibit:

  • They follow a structured format with clear headings, sections, and a logical flow.
  • Runbooks’ instructions may be in the form of screenshots, examples, or code snippets to guide users through the process steps.
  • They allow multiple users to collaborate, share their expertise, and refine standard operating procedures that meet business requirements.
  • Runbooks document both routines and responses to various scenarios, including troubleshooting steps and incident management.

What Are Playbooks?

Playbooks are general or broader documents that outline the workflows and policies of your organization. If runbooks are the specific how-to manuals for incidents or common tasks, then playbooks are the comprehensive rulebooks that govern the what, why, and how of your organization's operations. In essence, runbooks are parts or sections contained within playbooks.

Here are some key characteristics of playbooks:

  • Playbooks consider the immediate operational tasks and the broader implications and consequences of actions taken within the organization.
  • Many playbooks incorporate communication strategies that outline how the organization should interact with stakeholders during various operations processes.
  • They are valuable training materials. They help new employees quickly learn how to perform complex tasks in alignment with organizational standards.
  • They define the roles and responsibilities of individuals or teams.
  • Playbooks often include key performance indicators and metrics to measure the success and effectiveness of processes.

Key Differences Between Runbooks and Playbooks

It’s pretty clear that a runbook and a playbook are two different things. Let’s take an in-depth look at the differences in how they are used.

Uses of Runbooks

Incident Response and Mitigation

In incident management and response, runbooks provide a structured and systematic approach for handling and resolving incidents. These incidents include technical issues, outages, security breaches, and other disruptions of normal operations.

Runbooks include detailed instructions, step-by-step procedures, checklists, and decision trees that guide responders through the incident resolution process. They may also contain relevant contact information, escalation paths, and communication templates to keep stakeholders informed.

Here is a simple illustration of how your incident response plans might look like using runbooks:

  1. When an incident occurs, the first step is to identify and classify it. Runbooks often include criteria and checklists to help responders determine the nature and severity of the incident. This initial assessment guides subsequent actions.
  2. Depending on the severity and complexity of the incident, runbooks outline escalation procedures. They specify the incident managers at various levels of the organization. They also specify how and when to communicate with stakeholders, such as internal teams, customers, regulatory authorities, and the public.
  3. Next comes containment. Runbooks provide guidance on responding to the incident to prevent it from spreading or causing further damage. For example, in a cybersecurity incident, the runbook might include instructions for isolating compromised systems or deactivating compromised user accounts.
  4. Once you’ve contained the incident, you must investigate its root cause and scope. Runbooks detail the steps to collect relevant data, analyze logs, and conduct forensic investigations.
  5. After identifying the cause, you must ensure that such an incident never happens again. Runbooks provide mitigation measures, such as patching vulnerabilities, removing malware, or restoring backups.

Troubleshooting and Remediation

Instead of waiting for incidents to occur, runbooks provide proactive ways to identify and resolve them before they spiral. Initially, runbooks aid in issue identification and classification by offering diagnostic criteria. They guide you through initial triage and isolation steps.

Once you’ve identified and isolated the problem, runbooks help you find out what caused it. They provide a structured, step-by-step process. This often involves a series of if-then scenarios or decision trees to help you eliminate potential causes. Runbooks may also specify which logs to review, metrics to monitor, or tests to run. When you find the root cause, the runbook can help you remediate the issue by providing procedures to follow.

Routine Maintenance and Tasks

Many operational tasks in IT, manufacturing, and other sectors require periodic maintenance. Runbooks provide structured instructions for routine maintenance activities, such as software updates, equipment inspections, or facility checks.

Runbooks often start with planning and scheduling information. They outline when and how to perform routine tasks. This ensures you conduct essential activities at appropriate intervals to prevent system failures and reduce downtime. They also contain step-by-step instructions for executing routine maintenance tasks. This is crucial for equipment inspections, software updates, or backups that require operational excellence.

Uses of Playbooks

Automation and Orchestration

Playbooks are used to automate complex, repetitive workflows. They define the sequence of actions your incident response plan should execute and orchestrate them. Imagine you have a magical wand (your playbook) that you wave and computers start doing things on their own. It's like having a wizard's spellbook, but instead of turning frogs into princes, you're turning manual tasks into automated wonders. Need to create a bunch of virtual machines? Your playbook knows the right spells to make it happen.

Now, imagine you're not just casting one spell but a whole bunch of them. That's where orchestration comes in. Your playbook isn't just a single spell; it's a whole spellbook filled with enchantments! When you need to do many things simultaneously, like setting up servers, installing software, and configuring security, your playbook orchestrates the whole performance.

Security Incident Handling

It’s easy to get confused over how to use a runbook vs. a playbook when it comes to security handling. However, the one thing that stands out between these two documents is playbooks cover big-picture security incident response plans, and runbooks provide detailed step-by-step instructions for specific tasks. A playbook will be the overall strategy, and a runbook will be the specific tactics used during security incident handling.

Playbooks consider different types of security incidents, like a hacker trying to break in, a virus spreading, or data being stolen. Each type of incident has its section in the playbook. They also tell people in your organization their roles during a security incident. After you resolve the incident, the playbook helps you learn from it and develop a consistent response plan.

Best Practices and Standardization

A playbook is like a rulebook for your organization. This rulebook contains all the best ways to do things, such as how your customer service teams should handle inquiries, how to develop products, or how to manage projects. Inside the playbook, you outline the winning moves or the best practices. These are the steps and methods that have proven to work well in the past. The playbook also ensures that everyone on the team plays by the same rules. This consistency is important because it means that no matter who does a task, they will do it in the best way.

Integrate Runbooks and Playbooks Into Incident Communication

Remember the distinctions between a runbook vs. a playbook. Runbooks are step-by-step guides for specific tasks, while playbooks are the big-picture plans for how your organization does things.

But here's the great news: whether you're using runbooks or playbooks, you can integrate them into your incident communication smoothly.

That's where StatusPal comes in. StatusPal offers powerful yet simpler tools for businesses to ensure everyone knows what to do when there's a problem. So whether it's a runbook for step-by-step instructions or a playbook for the overall strategy, combining them with StatusPal can make incident communication easier and help keep your organization running smoothly.

Try StatusPal today for free!

Gravatar for

Eduardo Messuti

Founder and CTO

October 03, 2023

Eduardo is a software engineer and entrepreneur with a passion for building digital products. He has been working in the tech industry for over 10 years and has experience in a wide range of technologies and industries.
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