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The descent into Spreadsheet Chaos – One worksheet at a time!


By Robert Cowham

This post is the first in a series of lessons learned working with customers and helping them document their infrastructures. Probably the most common tool used for documenting infrastructures is the humble spreadsheet, and of course the majority are in Excel. And for simple needs it usually does a good job.

The advantages

  • Very flexible grid format
  • Easy to get started
  • Great formatting options
  • Flexible printing
  • Easy basic graphs and other outputs
  • Easy to update
  • The whole application is in a single file

If you are just getting started, then a good spreadsheet can be a great advance on nothing. It is also an excellent way of reviewing your data and starting to get a feel for its quality and availability. Effectively your spreadsheet is a “model” of your infrastructure, often with input cells, calculated values and the use of similar spreadsheet functions.

The issues

There are various challenges present right from the start. Others surface as you want to expand the use of your spreadsheet, or to get other people involved in both viewing and more importantly updating the data. These problems include:

  • Is your data accurate and consistent, especially across worksheets?
  • It’s difficult to know what has changed, when it changed, who changed it and why
  • If you’re working on a team, there are further questions:
    • Where is the current master copy of the spreadsheet?
    • Can more than one person update the spreadsheet at a time? If they do, what happens to their updates?
    • Are all your formulae correct?
    • How big is your file with all its sheets, data, formulae and so? How long does it take to update?

We’ve also seen Excel used as a graphics package – for example to draw floorplans, or rack diagrams. And conversely, we’ve even seen Visio used pretty much as a spreadsheet!

The key point is that while Excel is often the start for a documentation exercise, most teams start to hit the problems quite quickly, although in the absence of a better alternative they usually struggle on.

I will talk about some of these issues in more detail in upcoming articles.

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