Configuration Management and Competitive Advantage

Dan Oehmke, Director, IT Service Excellence, MN.IT Services
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Dan Oehmke, Director, IT Service Excellence, MN.IT Services

While many IT organizations are forging ahead with configuration management and “CMDB,” others remain unclear about its value or where it fits within their overall service management strategy.

"Whether using auto-discovery or not, configuration management provides a model of the IT service infrastructure"

To understand the value, consider ITIL and ISO 20000 which speak to two control processes for the delivery of IT Services: 1) change management and 2) service asset and configuration management. While change management reviews, authorizes and controls changes to service infrastructure and various assets, service asset and configuration management provides an authoritative, controlled and holistic inventory of assets, details about each asset, and how they come together in the form of IT systems and services.

Often, “configuration management” is simply short-hand for service asset and configuration management. Although, in a larger, more complex environment, one team may focus on asset inventory, while another is responsible for configuration management. In any event, configuration management provides a holistic knowledge of assets and all the relationships between two or more assets. Each relationship represents an integration and potential failure point both between hardware (physical and virtual) and software components, as well as their supporting technicians.

A configuration management database, commonly known as “CMDB,” contains the inventory of assets and their corresponding details. In a more complex IT operation, a Configuration Management System (CMS) may evolve over time, federating multiple CMDBs pulling in details from other primary sources support staff, building/floor location, vendor, contracts, etc. Asset details and relationships stored in the CMDB or CMS are presented through the modules of an IT service management application. This information benefits service management disciplines that work across the various technologies and IT teams.

Service desk agents use configuration information during an incident. With these details, agents are able to more rapidly determine customer impact and priority for responding to a system degradation or service outage. Rather than rely on their own knowledge or that of others, a service desk agent can simply consult the information made available by the CMDB and presented through the IT service management application. In so doing, they are able to trace the relationships between circuits, network devices, firewalls, servers, databases, and applications to services, customers and users. If higher level technical expertise is needed, the same path of relationships provides a very quick view of which technical teams should be called to assist investigation, diagnosis and resolution.

Similarly, change management can determine who should review a change request to ensure adequate planning, coordination and probability of success, as well as an assessment of corresponding impact, risks and back-out plans. Without configuration management details, change management is essentially flying blind and left dependent on who happens to be in the room and who may happen to know any relevant details.

Monitoring and event management would also be able to prioritize, plan and implement monitoring of the most critical services and technical assets, based on the same knowledge of assets and relationships. Similarly, configuration management enables coordinated demand forecasting, identification of bottlenecks and capacity management throughout an IT system’s web of asset relationships.

In creating a usable model of the service environment, configuration management must first know the inventory of the assets that comprise various IT systems and services. Configuration management staff can work with various technical teams to manually gather, rationalize and integrate their asset information into the CMDB. The larger and more complex the IT operation, the greater the risk asset details are dated, incomplete or not accurate. And the most elusive information is the web of relationships between assets. Given the volume of assets and relationships, it can be difficult to impossible to keep up without automating the gathering and validation of data through auto-discovery.

The more robust auto-discovery tools can identify anything connected to the network, along with details such as make, model, version, IP address—and one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-one relationships between assets. Synchronization of auto-discovered data with the CMDB presents asset details through various modules in the IT service management suite for use by incident management, change management and other functions.

Building on auto-discovered data in the CMDB, configuration management can add non-discoverable details, for example, asset owner, assigned support technician, etc. Also, configuration management can model services in the CMDB, by simply adding an asset record to represent the intangible service and relating it to the relevant software application(s). Coupled with auto-discovered relationships from applications to servers on down through the technology stack, configuration management and other teams would then be able to call up a spider diagram or spreadsheet of all the physical and virtual assets comprising that service. This holistic information dramatically reduces the guess work for planning and evaluating changes to a particular asset vs. which other assets, services or customers should be considered.

Auto-discovery can also aid configuration management in easing data entry requirements for newly created (virtual) or purchased assets, auditing and refreshing asset details in the CMDB, and identifying instances of poor asset administration or unauthorized changes.

Whether using auto-discovery or not, configuration management provides a model of the IT service infrastructure. With this model’s authoritative detail about individual assets and their integration and coordination points, change management, incident management and other service management functions can perform their respective roles exponentially better. Though the real beneficiaries of effective configuration management are the customers who increasingly depend on effective IT services for competitive advantage.

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