IT shops have longed for an end-to-end management solution for monitoring and evolving their IT infrastructure - from network gear, servers and workstations to databases, applications and beyond. The benefits of having a 'single pane of glass' for management are obvious, in terms of both economic and knowledge gains.
But the chances of achieving such a horizontally and vertically integrated management solution have always been slim. Impeded by proprietary application databases with closed schemas and the enormous cost of the custom coding needed to share and manipulate the data, only the very largest of companies could even attempt to create an end-to-end solution.
Even 'framework vendors', most of whom built their frameworks through acquisition, fall short of the task.
However it looks as though this particular holy grail may now be within reach. Enter the Configuration Management Database (CMDB), a construct put forward by the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL®). CMDB is seen by many as the latest, best hope for integrating the disparate management applications needed by today's IT.
The concept is simple: create a logically central place in which all of the management systems can place their data, document the structure and access methods for that data, and serve it to them in a manner appropriate and sufficient for their needs. It doesn't need to be a single database, which is not a truly practical option anyway.
Instead it can be a federated architecture. If all of the various management application vendors supported and adhered to such a concept, then the integration effort would be trivial in comparison to previous possible solutions.
CMDB couldn't have come at a better time, since companies are demanding more efficiency and integration from their IT systems and processes and are, therefore, increasingly realizing the value and importance of the methodologies and best practices of the ITIL®. Its framework helps companies, who are increasingly dependent on technology to meet their business goals, to improve the management of their IT processes and systems.
But whereas ITIL® is largely prescriptive and has been criticized for not supplying the 'how' to the 'what' in best practice, CMDB is much better defined and capable of being implemented. In fact a number of management vendors have embraced it whole-heartedly.
Approaches to IT management have taken a variety of forms over the years. Today's focus on end-to-end IT service management needs a business service orientation and a level of integration not offered by any single management tool. CMDB promises to support that orientation, and has been gaining acceptance as a viable mechanism to achieve the ITIL® goal of a central and trusted data source to support IT service management.
Whether considered as a technology to aggregate management information or as a process enabler for service management, the CMDB gives users the versatility that helps solve many IT issues.
The CMDB offers a mechanism for various management systems to share information and provide a holistic view of the company's IT. It contains information about the different components, or configured items, of the organisation's IT infrastructure and the relationships between them. The CMDB is sufficiently flexible to contain both system- and human-generated information but typically contains details required for acceptable configuration management.
For IT infrastructure assets this includes device description, model number, serial number, location, hardware, firmware and software version numbers, as well as other relevant operating characteristics.
Several advanced automated discovery applications are commercially available to add topological characteristics such as WAN circuit connectivity, switch portto-host connectivity and MAC address discovery.
Combining this level of detailed information enables users not only to assess the current state of their configured items, but aids the diagnosis of how it's performing and allows for thorough capacity planning.
The CMDB is not just a monolithic database from one application. In fact the most effective implementations employ a federated approach to gather salient information details from various applications.
The CMDB collates and organizes data, and enables the user to view it from any perspective, providing a vital stream of information about the performance of the company's IT at any time. For example, it integrates information from disparate systems such as network, configuration or application management tools, to demonstrate the status of each of these systems and how they are running, both individually and in relation to each other.
A further illustration might be the CMDB gathering application performance data with server and network operational statistics to identify bottlenecks and quality of service reports. By combining data from the federated trusted sources, the CMDB offers companies the ability to make better business decisions.
As well as providing an integrated view of the IT systems, CMDB is also a convenient mechanism to combine best-in-class solutions in order to address end-to-end business needs. By viewing the CMDB as a methodology, rather than as a result, a world of possibilities is achievable beyond the traditional aggregation of data.
Through its standards-based approach, the output of one application can be easily configured to drive another application without the need for extensive coding and custom integrations. In this way the CMDB offers organisations the ability to combine already productive individual applications to help solve broader business initiatives including change management, security, IT governance, infrastructure asset management, capacity management, service management and service delivery.
In this case the CMDB provides a standard structure for sharing and integrating the data and events between the applications as necessary. A good example is the integration of a network infrastructure management application with a configuration management application.
The infrastructure management tool provides detailed information about the network assets and their connectivity at any point in time. More advanced management tools will also periodically rediscover network assets and log any changes. This up-tothe-minute information is then passed to the configuration management tool through the CMDB, where the authorization for these changes can be determined and managed.
Any unauthorized changes could be resolved by the configuration management application and passed back. Between the two, the user has a cost-effective solution for the business problem of compliance and process optimization.
With the CMDB as the integration methodology, the standalone applications upon which companies rely can contribute to a broader end-to-end solution for business services management (BSM). These quick-to-deploy solutions each have a depth of functionality beyond that of the larger framework applications, but lack the breadth to solve the wider BSM problem.
Using the standards-based approach of the CMDB, smaller applications would be 'connection ready', and offer dramatically reduced connection times and integration costs. Companies would not only receive the benefit of the more functional individual applications, but also faster time-to-value and less implementation costs of deploying broader solutions. The CMDB provides the connectivity to solve business problems across IT disciplines and deliver IT best practices.
The CMDB could very well be the mechanism that will finally achieve the goal of multiple management systems collectively providing integrated IT service management. Most will agree that the CMDB, although gaining support across the industry, is in its early stages of evolution and even earlier stages of implementation.
Initial implementations of a CMDB have been horizontally focused, usually in the areas of helpdesk, trouble-ticketing and configuration or asset management. These applications are well served by integration, since tasks and, therefore supporting data, flow from one to another. In this scenario, when a user reports a problem to the helpdesk, the IT staff look up the user's laptop configuration and determine that it is invalid.
They then open a ticket to have a valid configuration reinstalled according to system and security policy, and perform the update, after which the change is noted in the asset management system.
Vertical integrations that are driven by a CMDB architecture will allow IT staff to stop the 'finger pointing', and will enable them to drill through the various layers of the proverbial ISO stack to get to the root of a performance or availability problem.
If an application is performing poorly, they will be able to determine whether the issue is the application itself, the CPU, an over-burdened database or the network - all from a single console. Organisations are beginning to understand more about the CMDB and the impact it can have on their day-today operations.
As the different management tools that feed into a CMDB evolve to monitor more parts and more layers of the IT infrastructure in a proactive and ongoing basis, the CMDB will be able to provide more valuable and insightful data to the IT department. After all, it can only be as good as the information it receives and better information means better business decisions.