Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why is writing good user doc such a problem...?

... for me, I should add. Today, I ran about a post on the rsyslog mailing list where a user (rightfully!) complains that rsyslog documentation is confusing.

I really don't like the idea that users are having a hard time because they can not get pretty basic things done. Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons for this: one, of course, is lack of time. I am rather busy developing new functionality and besides rsyslog I have also other chores today at Adiscon, like helping with the next and really great release of Adiscon LogAnalyzer, a free and open source solution for searching, analyzing and reporting on network event data and syslog (yeah, and creating buzzwords, of course...). But there is a more subtle issue:

I am doing logging and syslog for over 10 years now (close to 15, if I remember correctly). I have seen so much in the logging world, that I can hardly think of the time when I did not know what PRI or TAG or even MSG was, what are the (disadvantages) or simplex vs. duplex comm modes, and what makes 3195 better (or worse) than 3164 or 5424 ;)

In short: it is pretty hard for me to go back to the roots and envision what somebody new to syslog needs to know AND in what order! I am trying my best, but writing basic-level articles (and documentation) requires considerable effort. A good article, well-thought out (like a 4-page journal article) can easily take 4 to 5 days to create. Even then, I need help from other folks when I need to write for entry level folks (and there is nothing bad with being entry-level: everybody is at some point in time). Here, of course, the time resource problem hits again: I usually can not afford this effort "just" to create doc.

With the rsyslog cookbook I started another approach: there I focus on very specific environments. I don't really like this idea, because it does not tell people what exactly they are doing. But still the past weeks have proven this to be a useful approach. But I also notice that the cookbook is only useful if the configuration matches exactly what the user wants - otherwise users are lost. I guess that's due to not really understanding what happens. The good thing about the cookbook is that it requires relatively little effort. Most samples were created within an hour, which seems to be acceptable for something that can be reused.

The ultimate solution would be that users write content themselves. The rsyslog knowledge base (or forum, as you may call it) is most successful in this regard. But it is hard to navigate and hard to find a solution - you often need to wade through various posts before you get to the (often simple) solution. The rsyslog mailing list is another excellent resource, especially as other folks actively help supporting rsyslog. This is a very important for me and the project, and I appreciate it very much. Unfortunately, the con again is that the mailing list makes it hard for new users to find already existing solutions (that is is being mirrored to various aggregators helps a bit, but only so much...).

The ultimate solution, I thought, was the rsyslog wiki and we see some very nice article inside it. Unfortunately, very few users contribute to the wiki. Just think an how enormous knowledge reservoir this could be if only every 5th user who got help would take a few minutes off his time to craft a quick wiki article describing what he does, why, and how it works. Unfortunately, most users seem to not have this time. I can understand that, I guess they have pressing schedules at well. And these schedules may already be stressed by the extra time they needed to find the solution for an obviously simple thing...

So this is not a good situation, but I can currently not do much more than to keep working on the cookbook and ask everyone to contribute documentation. For the long-term success, I think it is vital for rsyslog to make it power available to all users. Good doc is one necessity, a better config format another one (but I won't elaborate about this in today's post again ;)).

1 comment:

Noah Scales said...

Hi, Rainer.

Your approaches show flexibility and good insight into the troubles of providing for the documentation needs of your users. Hopefully, people will contribute further to your wiki.

Your product itself is quite good, and is something I am just learning about. If I have a chance, I will contribute to your wiki as well.

Introducing new team member

Good news: we have some new folks working on the rsyslog project. In a small mini-series of two blog postings I'd like to introduce the...