Taking the Heebeegeebees Out of CMDB

By Drew Robb

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CMDB is a term in the ITIL vocabulary that stands for Configuration Management Database. But to some in IT, it might as well be some Jamaican voodoo incantation.

“We just didn’t know what a CMDB was or how to make it work,” said Harry Butler, solution center manager at EFW Inc., an electronics supplier. “Everyone has their own interpretation of what a CMDB is. You can’t get five experts in ITIL to agree on what it is all about.”

But that doesn’t mean that a CMDB isn’t useful. In fact, most ITIL gurus believe it is one of the core elements of ITIL success, particularly when it comes to its configuration management process.

“Without a CMDB, an organization is limited in how well it can perform other ITIL processes such as change management, incident management, and problem management,” said Ed Holub, an analyst at Gartner. “Most organization’s that assess their process maturity against ITIL’s definition of best practices for ten core processes score the lowest on configuration management.”

OK, so it’s important. But what is it and what is its value? Brian Johnson, ITIL practice manager at CA, uses the example of a major financial customer that wanted to build a CMDB to understand how people and technology impacted the organization.

To get this information, they created a CMDB with the following elements (known as configuration items or CIs):

  • Hardware – routers and servers.
  • Software – Oracle, Peoplesoft and custom systems.
  • Telco – PBX plus circuits.
  • People within the organizational structure; and
  • Finance data such as the budget code hierarchy and contracts.
  • The institution put all that into a CMDB which provided a customized portal for everyone in the organization. You could traverse any of the CI's to view the relationships or dependencies. In addition, individuals could "subscribe" to events that happened to any CI and receive notification when a change impacted a particular relationship they were concerned about.

    “One of the largest causes of unplanned system downtime is the unintentional side effects of implementing changes,” said Holub. “A server being updated with a security patch might result in the online banking system slowing down or to stop working altogether from the customer’s perspective.”

    A CMDB, then, can help reduce the risk that such a problem could occur in the first place. In addition, it can help to isolate the cause of any problem so technical support can resolve it quickly.

    Ron Potter, an ITIL project manager at TeamQuest Corp. of Clear Lake, Iowa, gives a further example of the applicability of a CMDB to the help desk. If all infrastructure information is available to the customer service rep (CSR) via an up-to-date CMDB, the CSR can gauge the impact of an issue to the enterprise during the first call. If it is large-scale situation, the CSR can quickly get the word out to key customers, as well as recording a message for the call system so people know there is a problem.“The goal here is like trying to minimize the impact of one of those humongous pileups in the fog on I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley in California,” said Potter. “You can’t do anything for the initial group of people but by putting up flashing warning signs you can slow down the ones behind them and stop them from crashing into the back of the accident victims. This buys time for the other users to devise workarounds until service is restored.”

    CMDB Central to ITIL

    EFW, for instance, began to harness ITIL a few years ago. At that time, its IT infrastructure was inefficient, unresponsive and difficult to manage. EFW had five unintegrated systems for problem tracking, for example.

    If someone called in to speak to IT, but it turned out to be a facilities problem, IT would have to cancel its trouble ticket, call facilities and ask them to open another ticket. Under such circumstances, tickets sometimes got lost yet the person was still left with a problem.

    EFW adopted CA Unicenter Network and Systems Management (NSM), and Unicenter ServicePlus Service Desk as well as other CA elements for remote control, asset management and software delivery. This was done in parallel with the adoption of ITIL best practices.

    “The ITIL methodology gives you the framework of best practice solutions to pull everything together,” said Butler.

    Initially, Butler focused on other aspects of ITIL and was too engrossed in those to fully appreciate the value of a CMDB. Gradually, however, he came to appreciate that this one aspect held back the achievement of his overall ITIL objectives.

    ”Without a CMDB, your ITIL processes will be flawed,” said Butler. “They might work, but not fully. The thing you have to realize is that all processes depend on each other and everything has to integrate.”

    He attempted to solve the problem by using spreadsheets, Microsoft Access databases, and paper-based systems. But these proved difficult to keep updated. Further, they didn’t satisfactorily highlight the relationships between hardware, software and documentation. This led him to look for a more automated approach. As he had a lot of CA software already, it made sense to add CA’s CMDB software. After a successful trial, he is now rolling it out as part of his ITIL framework.

    “We can now see graphically how things relate to one another,” said Butler. “If a server has a change, we can see how that software change impacts everything else and how other applications are going to be affected.”

    However, Butler warns others that engaging in a CMDB is not something you plan to accomplish and then forget about. It has to be worked on constantly. Every change has to be documented, entered into the system and updated i.e. even with his automated system, he still says about 25 percent of the work has to be done manually. Accordingly, he recommends that others bite off a CMDB a little at a time.

    “A CMDB is not going to be easy and it’s not going to be fast,” he said. “As your system continues to change and grow, you have to keep at it. There is no light at the end of tunnel – it’s more like an ongoing train.”