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Laying the Foundation for a Complete IT Service Lifecycle with a Configuration Management System

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The concept of a configuration management system (CMS) is an idea whose time has come - particularly since the release of IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Version 3, known as V3. ITIL V3 devotes considerable attention to the importance of a CMS. If you’re not already familiar with a CMS and its functions, you may be wondering what’s included in it, and how it differs from a configuration management database, known as a CMDB. So let’s take a look at this vital component of a long-term IT management strategy.

What Is a CMS?

ITIL defines a CMS as “a set of tools and databases that are used to manage an IT service provider’s configuration data. The CMS also includes information about incidents, problems, known errors, changes, and releases; and may contain data about employees, suppliers, locations, business units, customers, and users. The CMS includes tools for collecting, storing, managing, updating, and presenting data about all configuration items and their relationships.” (ITIL Glossary V3, 1.24, 11 May 2007, see Configuration Management System.)

The ITIL V3 guidelines provide a suggested framework for a CMS. As you develop your IT management strategy, however, you will design a CMS that is specific to your needs, deciding precisely which combination of tools and databases you want to use.

The CMS provides a foundation that supports a complete service lifecycle across IT. Like the human brain, it is a central knowledge system that turns raw data (nerve impulses) into information. Through analytics, it makes the information actionable by converting it into knowledge. This knowledge, or actionable information, improves decision-making.

The Configuration Management Database

The CMDB, a primary building block of a CMS, is a repository of information that relates to the entire configuration items associated across the IT environment. A CMDB is like a library catalog, which provides a single place for locating basic information about any item in the library. A library catalog offers users a standard format for understanding information and various ways to search for items - title, author, category, and subject, for example.

Similarly, a CMDB provides a single place for data on IT services, hardware, software, buildings, people, process documentation, service level agreements, and more. The CMDB brings together data from multiple sources, providing a consistent way to represent configurations and, more importantly, serving as a single source of truth about the IT environment.

The CMDB becomes the definitive reference mechanism for all IT decisions by providing business-aware visibility into the dependencies between business processes, users, applications, and underlying IT infrastructure. This raises the awareness level for operators of the status of real-time business services, such as email availability and Web site performance.

An effective CMDB supports a federated approach, meaning that not all configuration data must reside in a single physical database. Primary systems and data repositories remain the authoritative source for information, while the CMDB becomes the card catalog, pointing to where this information lives and how to access it. ITIL V3 recommends that this federated approach be a core part of the structure of a CMS.

A Real-World Example

The main function of a CMS is to help IT organizations address issues and problems from the perspective of the business. By ensuring that all IT management applications have access to properly cataloged IT configuration data, a CMS will provide the insight necessary to make smart decisions that keep the business running smoothly. It will provide that insight by presenting information in a variety of views.

It was this ability to create actionable business data that prompted a large energy company to begin its journey toward implementing a CMS. Frequent mergers and acquisitions pose significant challenges to the 1,000-member IT team, which must assimilate and integrate data systems, tools, and processes, and integrate functions across merged companies.

The IT organization needed deeper insight of which hardware and software it owned, as well as a richer understanding of the relationships among servers and applications. The existing approach relied too heavily on individual knowledge. Auditing was a painful process that involved months of manually gathering asset information from each of the knowledgeable individuals.

With the help of Column Technologies, an information management architect company, the energy company began tacking these challenges by implementing a CMDB. The CMDB implementation is delivering substantial benefits. In particular, the company is now able to consolidate, centralize, and simplify processes to achieve more with less. The IT staff implemented a centralized, federated CMDB, and consolidated incident, problem, change, and asset management processes with a single, shared view of business services. This enabled staff members to manage IT much more effectively and align their efforts more closely with the needs of the business.

Not only is the energy company solving one of its most pressing challenges with this approach, but it has also gained the ability to centrally and comprehensively control assets to facilitate future acquisitions and mergers.

Four Key Layers

When you are ready to design your own CMS, you should ensure that the solutions you implement address four key layers: data and information, information integration, knowledge processing, and presentation.

The data and information layer is the foundation for a consistent view of business services, which enables the staff to make decisions based on business priorities. Solutions at this layer automate the population and maintenance of configuration and relationship data, allowing you to discover information to manage identities, assets, requests, and so on. By standardizing, reconciling, and normalizing configuration changes across data sources, these solutions reduce the chance that changes will disrupt the business. Here you have the various elements of source data that need to be federated for the holistic view of the CI across all IT functions.

The information integration layer eliminates duplication and simplifies integration. At this layer, you get a centralized view of all business services without the cost and risk of moving all data into a single, monolithic repository. Without this layer, you would have multiple records for the same CI, requiring your staff to go to multiple reference points to get a complete picture of that CI. This layer requires a reconciliation engine to normalize data, which involves applying data standards from each source to a single source of reference and standards. Your “library index” resides here in the metadata look-up area.

IT management solutions for the knowledge processing layer use information to help manage IT availability, performance, capacity, and continuity from a business service perspective. Ad hoc analysis and data drilldown across IT functions using consistent configuration data increases IT effectiveness. Knowledge processing helps IT quickly establish the business context and impact of various problems.

The presentation layer gives you the appropriate knowledge at the appropriate time to meet the business objectives. Dashboards link critical IT processes into a graphical presentation with aggregated performance indicators. Presentation is based on roles and responsibilities. A business manager can see and drill down from the business services perspective while an IT service manager works from the perspective of delivering value-added IT services to those business services.

Conclusion

While the concept of a configuration management system is not new, ITIL V3 gives it considerable focus. That’s because in the long term, implementing an effective CMS will be vital to gaining the insight required for making sound IT decisions. Arming your IT staff with actionable data at the right time and in the right format will position them to make informed decisions that improve IT service quality and drive business agility and productivity.


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