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Configuration Management Databases: What Is a CMDB?

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In this article, we go through important things to know about using and managing a CMDB. We discuss why having a CMDB is important, essential characteristics of a CMDB, some of the challenges in using a CMDB, and using a CMDB tool for managing test environments.

A configuration management database (CMDB) is a basic element of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework. Using a CMDB helps organizations keep all their information about important assets in a centralized place. Therefore, it helps with making better business decisions, with risk management, and with automating tasks.

In today’s world, technology has become an integral part of every business. From small to large organizations, all businesses must run IT services to support their day-to-day tasks.

This means that those organizations need to keep track of many assets, such as configurations and documentation. However, if you don’t track your assets and miss out on the latest updates for your assets, it can cause an IT failure or security issue. For example, if you don’t track versions of your application’s dependencies, you’ll forget to update a dependency to the latest version. This can leave your application susceptible to a vulnerability found in an outdated dependency.

Enter the CMDB. You can easily and safely store your important assets or components as what are called configuration items (CIs), in a configuration management database. Furthermore, CMDBs help centralize your data and enable automation possibilities, like requesting configuration items via an API.

What Is a Configuration Management Database (CMDB)?

A configuration management database stores information regarding important assets for your organization as configuration items. A CMDB tracks the history of those configuration items, and also their relationships with each other. ITIL defines configuration items as assets needed to deliver IT services that must be managed.

Therefore, configuration items may be hardware, software, crucial assets such as internal network layouts or cloud architecture, or even the personnel within an organization. The tracking options are endless. You can even track different business locations, software licenses, and serial numbers of company phones.

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Now, you may wonder how a CMDB assists an organization in this modern era.

Well, as we’ve already discussed, a CMDB keeps information about configuration items and the relationships among them. This is certain to be a great resource for any organization that needs to easily track its most important assets. Also, you can use the CMDB’s data to reconstruct your assets at any prior point in time. This is very useful if you want to roll back a previously implemented change.

It’s important to understand that we don’t want to store all information in the CMDB. A configuration item describes the most important properties of an asset that’s valuable for your organization’s success. Storing customer invoices won’t contribute to making better business decisions or managing an organization’s risks, therefore, they don’t need to be stored in your CMDB.

To summarize, with a CMDB, business leaders can easily get an overview of all the tracked items and map critical relationships among configuration items.

What Is the Importance of a Configuration Management Database (CMDB)?

Today, it is impossible to make a business successful without investing in IT services, like a CMDB, that automates certain tasks. However, CMDBs bring many more advantages. Here’s a shortlist of the most important benefits.

Mapping and Managing Your IT Ecosystem

A CMDB helps your organization to better manage and map the different assets related to your IT ecosystem.

There may be thousands of IT components in a medium-sized business. It’s not an easy task to keep track of all these configuration items. For example, you need to store passwords for databases in all of your testing environments. It’s easy to lose these password configurations. Maybe you currently use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them. But what happens if an employee deletes a password by accident? Unless you used tracked changes, there’s no way to retrieve the passwords.

Using a CMDB helps you keep track of sensitive data like passwords through an interface, and stores them securely. Furthermore, you can always access the history of any configuration item. A CMDB can even tell you who has accessed the password and who made modifications to the data. In other words, CMDBs serve a security and an auditing role.

Risk Management

If your organization doesn’t have a clear picture of the assets it manages, it becomes hard to comply with IT governance regulations, increasing the difficulty of risk management.

For example, you won’t know about which software is being used by which employees or which licenses are attached to which laptops. As a company, you need to be able to prove that every piece of software is associated with a valid license.

Centralized Asset Management

The main benefit of CMDBs is the centralized aspect. It helps companies manage assets in a centralized database and access them quickly. This saves a lot of time when you’re looking for certain configurations that might be scattered among different departments.

Reduced Costs

CMDBs allow your organization to make more informed investment decisions and save on expenses because you won’t buy unnecessary hardware or software.

Because CMDBs support effective management of your company’s hardware and software assets, you can get a better overview of things like how many laptops you own, who they’re assigned to, and which laptops run existing licenses. You can also track properties such as the age of an asset as part of a configuration item. This means that when you want to invest in new hardware or software, you can easily determine which laptops need to be replaced based on their age, or which laptops need new licenses.

Change Management Support

CMDBs know the relationships between different configuration items. Whenever you want to implement a change, viewing these relationships helps you understand the impact of the change on your users, systems, and IT services.

This allows change managers to design a smooth transition strategy and avoid business interruptions. For example, a certain change may affect the data model of a particular database. To avoid issues, the change manager needs to come up with a plan to update the data model of the database before implementing the change.

Want to learn more about the link between change management and release management? Read this blog post by Plutora.

Automation Through Integrations

Another power of CMDBs is that they integrate with most popular services for data retrieval. Common integrations include email providers, such as Microsoft Outlook and Gmail, and integrations with ERPs such as SAP.

CMDBs often expose API endpoints for accessing specific configuration items. This allows you to, for example, automatically spin up new testing servers using a configuration item that describes the properties of these servers.

Besides API endpoints, you’ll often find many plugins shipped with your CMDB software. Plugins allow you to connect various data sources to capture data automatically. For example, you can access information from Puppet, a configuration management tool, through a plugin, to populate your CMDB with configuration items.

This is a big benefit for organizations because they won’t have to develop custom integrations. Using preconfigured integrations saves your organization time and resources.

Fast Audits

CMDBs aggregate all information about assets like software licenses, making it easy to quickly audit whether all laptops have active software licenses.

This saves a lot of time, compared to sending an email to every employee who uses the software to ask about their license. That’s a painfully slow process that can be automated through the use of a CMDB.

Characteristics of a Configuration Management Database

CMDBs have some great features and characteristics. Some common but important characteristics are given below.

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#1. Transparency and Visibility

Transparency and visibility are the most useful characteristics of CMDBs. They give you a clear overview of the assets your organization owns and your IT ecosystem. And also a deep understanding of the relationships between certain assets and which employees use particular assets.

#2. Better IT Management

An organization’s success more or less depends on how well they can manage their IT ecosystem. That’s one of the biggest challenges of managing a business. CMDBs make this task easier. You’ll get all the information and data needed to make better business decisions to ultimately help you manage your organization effectively.

#3. Data Centralization

CMDBs allow you to retrieve your configuration item data from one database that centralizes your information. This is very efficient, and cost-effective as well. You don’t need to invest in custom data integrations to centralize or group data. A CMDB allows you to integrate business intelligence solutions to create dashboards to track, for example, hardware costs.

What Are the Challenges of Implementing a CMDB?

Industry statistics show that only 25% of organizations get the full value from their CMDB investment. And this is a very problematic reputation for revolutionary technology.

If you can understand the reasons behind this failure, you can easily elevate yourself to the 25% of successful organizations. There are some effective and easy solutions to get more out of your CMDB investment.

Let’s dive in and figure out the challenges and solutions for successfully implementing your CMDB.

Business Culture and Processes

According to Harvard Business Review, 93% of executives at large corporations say that people and processes are the main obstacles for adopting a CMDB.

This is where a business’s culture comes in. To successfully implement a CMDB, you need to educate your employees. Without proper education, your employees will fall back to approaches they used previously to manage your company’s assets, creating data silos. This must be avoided!

Furthermore, think about creating processes to support your CMDB. Imagine an employee installs a new piece of software using a company license. To document use of the license, you can create a process that details who should record this information and what information should be recorded. For example, record information about who’s using the license, on which laptop the license is installed, and when the license was installed. This allows you to track outdated licenses that you’ll have to update at some point.

Data Relevancy

Your CMDB might have lots of configuration items. You need to make sure you have only the most relevant data in order to make the best decisions. There could be thousands of irrelevant configuration items that you should ignore. Imagine storing all of your clients’ contact information. Your clients’ phone numbers won’t help you make better decisions. You need to clearly define which data you want to record in your CMDB.

Misconceptions About Data Centralization

A CMDB acts as a single source of truth. It holds the latest and most up-to-date information about configuration items. However, should you store all information in your CMDB?

As mentioned before, no, you don’t store all information in your CMDB. Only store the most relevant data, such as passwords and configurations. CMDBs often allow you to manage access to this sensitive information, improving data security. The goal is to store information that will help you implement changes more easily, improve business decisions, and manage risks better.

Let’s say, for example, you have a finance department. In that case, you should have a financial management tool to store your financial data within that department. The same goes for your accounting department. Financing and accounting information shouldn’t go into your CMDB tool because they don’t help with making better business decisions. You don’t need the details of each invoice available in your CMDB.

You may ask, “Then what’s the purpose of investing in CMDB software?” The goal is to make business data that’s vital for your organization’s success secure and available to managers and business leaders who need to make carefully informed decisions.

Accuracy Problem

Most organizations fail to get proper results from their CMDB because they struggle with the accuracy of their data. The main reasons for this are lack of formal processes and lack of cultural adoption. Formal processes help define who should record what type of information. Furthermore, you must educate your employees on the processes related to the CMDB and how to use the CMDB tool. This way, you can avoid data gaps and improve the accuracy of your data.

In the end, high-quality data will help your organization with tasks such as risk management, reducing costs, and change management.

Use a CMDB to Manage Test Environments

Without the use of a CMDB, your testing engineers have to rely on documentation every time they spin up a testing environment with the same characteristics as your production environment. This is a manual, time-consuming process that’s prone to human error. Therefore, why not rely on a CMDB that you can access via an API endpoint to retrieve configuration items that describe the testing environment?

Using a CMDB to accomplish this task saves you a lot of time, and also allows you to spin up multiple environments identical to your production environment. This is important because a testing environment should mimic your production environment as closely as possible. Plutora offers a tool that helps you manage different testing environments.

Furthermore, you can even use a CMDB to streamline development processes. For example, your continuous integration pipeline requires specific configuration items to build, test, and automatically deploy new software releases. Every time you want to create a new project within your organization, you can request configuration items from your CMDB that contain information about properties and how to set up a new continuous integration pipeline, instead of doing it manually. This saves your team time and resources.

Should You Use a CMDB?

To conclude, we’ve explained why a CMDB is a good solution if your business manages many assets. Assets include things such as database passwords, configurations for testing environments, company phones, and software licenses.

A CMDB provides you with a needed overview of the company’s assets. This allows you to implement practices like risk management, asset control, and license management.

However, implementing a CMDB also comes with its challenges. Make sure you educate your employees about using your CMDB. Your employees are key to the success of your CMDB implementation. In addition, define formal processes that describe who’s responsible for recording which information. This ensures you won’t miss any important information.

Besides people and processes, data quality is an important metric for the success of your CMDB implementation. If you have to deal with data gaps, it’s hard to implement change management. For example, maybe you want to roll out a new change. If you’re missing information about certain IT services, you won’t know how a change might impact a particular service.

In conclusion, it’s worth investing in a CMDB tool when you’ve got to manage thousands of assets. It will for sure help you comply with IT governance regulations such as software licenses.

Want to learn more about configuration management databases? Check out the following resources:

Michiel Mulders Michiel Mulders

Michiel is a passionate blockchain developer who loves writing technical content. Besides that, he loves learning about marketing, UX psychology, and entrepreneurship. When he's not writing, he's probably enjoying a Belgian beer!