The Essential Guide to the Configuration Management Database (CMDB)

Anthony Orr

Jarod Greene, Cherwell Software

As a former Gartner analyst with more than 12 years of IT service management industry experience, Jarod understands the market from the vendor, end-user, customer, and analyst perspectives. His proficiency in IT service support management processes, organizational structures, and technology is sought after for speaking engagements, customer consultations, and product development. He has published numerous white papers, research articles, blogs, and delivers innovative IT-focused presentations at events around the world.


It is a cruel irony that the very systems we often create to bring greater clarity, faster and more reliable information, and ease of operation often become prohibitively complex. What we once did with a pad and pencil to keep track of office machines now require interconnected processes to interface, use, configure, and secure.

The complex infrastructure built and nurtured by IT departments is now considered a vital nerve center of businesses, governments, and global enterprises. But the systems and processes required to manage these infrastructures struggle to keep pace as the environment continues to evolve.

This is precisely where the Configuration Management Database (CMDB)—defined by the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL®) as an essential element for effectively maintaining and delivering IT services—enters the conversation.

This guide will introduce the concept of an ITIL-based Configuration Management Database, along with its purpose, its users, and its benefits. After reading it, you'll be prepared to implement a CMDB for your own organization, with knowledge on how to overcome common challenges, as well as an understanding of what to look for in a CMDB solution.

The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a best practice framework, originally crafted by the UK government in the 1980s to help manage and develop controls for the management of IT services. Within its five published volumes—Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service Improvement—ITIL provides a framework for the alignment of IT services with the needs of business. The ITIL standards are periodically updated to provide non-industry specific specifications to support processes and procedures to effectively deliver IT services, with the most recent version released in 2011. As far back as the 1980s, the ITIL principles and standards called for the creation and maintenance of a database to track and manage IT services—in fact, the concept of the CMDB is almost as old as the ITIL standards and is a foundational element for IT service management (ITSM).

Configuration Management was introduced as a process in ITIL V2 in 2000, but the principles that underlie the discipline have existed for as long as complex technology systems have been around.

The Configuration Management Database (CMDB) is a main component of the Service Asset and Configuration Management process, as defined by ITIL. ITIL version 3, issued in 2007, renamed the process to Service Asset and Configuration Management. Today, the stakes are high for proper CMDB implementation—failure rates, according to Gartner Research, are 80 percent. However, it should be noted that the ITIL Configuration Management process is still among the most used and trusted method for successful adoption and alignment—see more on how to get started implementing your CMDB below, in the tips section.

One of the main purposes of maintaining a CMDB is infrastructure and system control. Access to accurate data, including what IT assets you have, where they are, how they are configured, and the relationships that exist between them are all vital functions for lifecycle management, Change Management, Incident Management, and business scaling. The database serves as a trusted source for information and is a foundational element when following the ITIL standards.

A CMDB provides a total view of the IT configuration items, their attributes, and relationships. It should be noted that the CMDB is more than just a large inventory database for the tracking of physical assets. Elements of process, documentation, and human capital and how they integrate with the overall IT infrastructure are also managed. Identifying the Configuration Items (or CIs) is an integral function for the development of a CMDB. According to the ITIL definition, a CI is “any component that needs to be managed in order to deliver an IT service." That includes buildings, services, software, documentation, users, as well as hardware. CIs can vary greatly in size and scope because of their configuration, use, or internal and external relationships.

For any configuration item—whether physical or conceptual—associated attributes will be tracked, including identification code, name, descriptions, CI owner, location, status, and documentation. For example, a CI may be a Dell Laptop with attributes that include:

  • Username
  • Department
  • Total Memory
  • Processor Name
  • IP Address
  • Mac Address
  • Screen Size
  • Location
  • Serial Number

You may be wondering why this data is so important to track. Once the CMDB is created, it becomes useful to the entire organization in a variety of ways. Imagine an end user is having a problem printing from their computer. They call the IT service desk and ask for assistance. In order for the technician to aid the end user, they need information about the computer that the end user may not be able to easily provide, such as IP address. A CMDB provides the IT technician with all of the end user’s computer details in order to troubleshoot the problem. The technician will have visibility into not only the end user’s computer attributes, but also the connected printers. They will be able to easily diagnose the problem and get the end user back to work.

In order to improve productivity and streamline IT service delivery, medium to enterprise size businesses and government organizations that have growing dependencies on IT services are encouraged to use a CMDB. The complexities of today’s large scale and global businesses which deal with mobility, multiple locations, thousands of data and metadata points, and virtual capabilities make the institution of a CMDB an important feature for overall ITSM. Those involved in developing and managing the CMDB include:

  • IT technicians
  • Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO)
  • Configuration item data providers such as IT and procurement personnel

A CMDB acts as a credible and reliable source of information for the tracking, configuration, and relationships of the CIs across the IT service infrastructure. As such, it is used by a diverse group of users including: asset managers, security, performance, availability, and compliance personnel, executives, middle management, and IT support technicians. The CMDB supports proactive Problem, Incident, and Change Management, as well as release management functions. Furthermore, the CMDB is used to provide business intelligence that supports informed decisions about infrastructure including software implementation, hardware builds, scaling, and capital equipment upgrades.

Since the goals of a CMDB are to provide a mechanism for tracking and control of the IT infrastructure, a CMDB must provide an organized, visible, and logical view of the CIs, their location and relationships, and status. Additional benefits of deploying a CMDB include:

  • Reduced downtime due to incident, problem, and event mitigation.
  • Increased control with the ability to identify redundancies and inconsistencies.
  • Reduced operational, equipment, and personnel costs with automation.
  • Faster resolution times due to the ability to understand CI relationships and perform root cause analysis.
  • Increase efficiency with a single source of IT infrastructure truth.
  • Minimize risk with improved change management.
  • Improved decision making with accurate, real-time data.
  • Enhanced visibility into users and related CIs.

The benefits of a CMDB are enormous, but they do not come easily for every organization. It has been estimated by Gartner that it takes roughly three tries to get a CMDB implementation right. This may be because many take a “kitchen sink” approach by assigning too many different assets or defining too many attributes to their CIs. Some IT departments take a purely physical asset management approach to implementing a CMDB which provides shallow controls that do not account for integrations and interrelationships. Others do not properly vet what information to include in the system.

In addition, one of the greatest challenges in developing a CMDB is the reliability of the information present in the system. If the data is wrong, decisions based upon the information will be ineffective. Procedures that audit information on a consistent basis can weed out outdated information, validate data, and combat configuration drift.

Additional challenges include:

  • Difficulty collecting all appropriate data in the CMDB.
  • Tendency to over-complicate an already complicated process.
  • Too many assets or CI categories can be difficult to manage and maintain. (Gartner recommends that only 10 to 15 percent of total assets be cataloged in the CMDB.)
  • Implementation plan is unclear or too complex to complete.
  • Poorly defined Configuration Management roles and responsibilities.
  • Difficulty accessing data.

In order to combat the above-mentioned challenges, an approach that focuses on ease of use and deployment is often recommended. Most experts advocate introducing a CMDB in stages, adding CIs and integrated relationships only as needed. Others stress that leveraging solutions that provide clear views and visual mapping of the infrastructure also make finding incidents, identifying potential problems, and controlling change clearer. Finally, employing automation capabilities that streamline or eliminate costly errors or inconsistencies while also providing support to cross-functional departments is also strongly recommended.

CMDB Diagram

For additional guidance, read 3 Ways to Guarantee a Successful CMDB Implementation..

8 Tips to Keep in Mind

  • Tie CMDB goals to business goals.
  • Be selective—start small, deploy in stages, and identify and prioritize CIs.
  • Think about what you will need in the future.
  • Ensure flexibility and scalability.
  • Gather input from all relevant stakeholders.
  • Gather or automate the identification of CI relationships.
  • Determine audit mechanism for ensuring accurate, real-time data.
  • Share successes with business leaders.

One very common challenge, as mentioned earlier, is taking a purely “Asset Management” approach to Configuration Management. This often occurs duplicate data frequently appears in both the CMDB and Asset Management database. While it’s true that both systems may include the same asset or configuration items, the purpose of the systems are very different.

  • Asset management monitors and manages something of tangible or intangible business value through its lifecycle from purchasing, to operating, to eventual disposal. Tangible assets can include laptops, routers, printers, and software applications that are also part of the CMDB, and/or desks and chairs and other items that are not part of a CMDB.
  • Configuration Management can be considered a larger initiative than Asset Management. Configuration Management maintains information associated with CIs, such as associated configuration attributes and relationships, that are necessary to effectively deliver an IT service. Configuration Management also performs the functions of managing CI interrelationships, CI status, and the impact of a change on associated CIs. Several other ITIL processes rely on the CMDB data to function.

One of the best ways to combat implementation challenges is to find a software solution that supports your CMDB needs. According to Gartner Research publication, Implement IT Change and Configuration Management Before Developing a CMDB, “More than half of CMDB efforts become unmanageable, due to a lack of business alignment, inappropriate scope, or inadequate process rigor.” Looking for solutions that address these issues, as well as provide automation and ease process implementation, can help reduce the 80 percent failure rate of many CMDB initiatives. There are numerous software solutions with visual mapping functions and dashboards that provide ease of deployment and use. Look for solutions that:

  • Provide easy correlation between configuration items and incidents, problems, and changes.
  • Collect critical assets, including hardware and software inventory with any custom parameters, such as vendor, financials, and inventory attributes you specify.
  • Delivers intuitive dashboards that contain CI metrics for analysis.
  • Allow for manual or automated CI creation.
  • Audit history and revisions.
  • Automate CI workflow and associated email notifications.
  • Provides a centralized repository for CI data.li>
  • Tracks a variety of CI types and upstream and downstream relationships.
  • Tracks depreciation and asset/CI financial data.
  • Authorizes users and administrators through user role permissions
  • Allows automatic updates to ensure accurate data is available.
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Your CMDB is only as good as the data it contains. The data must be accurate, regularly updated, and available to associated processes in order for it to be useful. Other characteristics of a useful CMDB include the ability to:

  • Simplify the coordination and reconciliation of input from multiple data sources.
  • Unify data through automation or federation, identify CI duplication, and correct exceptions.
  • Minimize costs and errors through reduction of manual input.
  • Provide clear views of CI relationships for Change, Incident, and Problem Management.
  • Support Asset Lifecycle Management.
  • Provide the flexibility to scale in order to support additional CIs.
  • Establish and maintain relationships and application dependency mapping.
  • Support dynamically changing environments.
  • Improve efficiency and stability through better visibility of CIs.
  • Reduce risk and improve security because every CI is recorded and monitored.
  • Improve compliance with business rules, monitoring, and auditing, including warrantee and license tracking.
  • Develop accurate budgets for future purchases.
  • Provide easy access to data.

The future of Configuration Management is one that stresses the use, maintenance, and reliance on good data that is properly audited for accuracy, interrelated to align with business goals, and enhances IT services to users. As IT continues to provide more and more services across the entire enterprise, the management of thousands—even millions—of data points, assets, and functions will only grow larger and more complex.

According to Gartner’s report, Top Strategic Predictions for 2017 and Beyond: Surviving the Storm Winds of Digital Disruption, “The acceleration (of massive numbers of devices entering mainstream markets) continues, but it shows strong signs of leading to some secondary effects that may not be as well-anticipated…By 2020, half of large enterprises will be making business-critical decisions using discredited information. This is another unintended consequence of the pace of change being so high. With little ability to audit sufficiently the collection, distribution and vetting of data, it is inevitable that some discredited research or information will be consumed faster than our ability to recognize it as outdated, irrelevant or inaccurate.”

By deploying a strong CMDB solution, an IT department can more fully prepare for disruptive change and participate in the processes and procedures that add value and align services with the overall goals of the company. Streamlining information flow, providing accurate information for decision making, and enhancing service capabilities for departments that focus on core profitability make the CMDB a critical tool to enhance a company’s competitive advantage.

There are numerous ITIL based certifications that support the operations of a CMDB. These certifications are typically provided in a modular style and include Foundation Level, Practitioner Level, Intermediate Level, Expert Level, and Master Level. Certifications provide useful guidance and best practice methods for implementing and maintaining a CMDB. ITIL provides a framework to use, and certifications provide methodologies to put the framework into action. Elements of a good certification program include:

  • A deep understanding of the terminology and best practices of an ITIL-based CMDB.
  • Key elements to understand, control, and track an organization's IT services.
  • Strategies for combining the right data into a single storage repository.
  • Auditing and review strategies to prevent inaccuracies, redundancies, and configuration drift.
  • Methods for assignment of service priorities.
  • Development of a software library to support usage.
  • Security of CMDB data.

 

Additional Certification Resources:

Configuration Management is an essential IT service management process and has relationships with many other IT service management processes.

  • Change Management – Change Management relies on Configuration Management information within the CMDB when assessing the impact of a change on the IT infrastructure.
  • Service Catalog Management – Items available within the Service Catalog are typically also CIs within the CMDB.
  • Problem Management – In order to resolve problems, it is necessary to evaluate the current state of the impacted CI to determine whether a change is necessary.
  • Financial Management – Costs should be associated with CIs in order to track value and perform budget planning.
  • Asset Management – Asset management is one part of the Service Asset and Configuration Management process. Asset management focuses on the inventory and discovery of the assets used to deliver IT services.
  • Knowledge Management – Knowledge Management is responsible for capturing, storing, organizing, and making the knowledge associated with service management available. The Configuration Management Database contains important configuration data that can be processed into knowledge through the Knowledge Management process.

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