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What is a configuration management database (CMDB)?

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A configuration management database (CMDB) is a database that is used to store and manage information about the components that make up an IT system. 

As a part of IT Service Management (ITSM), configuration management uses CMDBs to track individual configuration items (CIs): any asset or component involved in the delivery of IT services. CMDBs store information about a CI’s attributes, dependencies, and changes to its configuration over time—enabling IT teams to map and maintain the relationships that tie CIs together. 

By tracking this information and understanding how CIs are connected across infrastructure, IT teams can build more efficient ITSM processes—like change management, incident management, and problem management—and better assess how changes or disruptions impact IT services, infrastructure, and business outcomes.

An IT asset is any piece of hardware, software, or information that a business relies on to function. For example, this would include all of an organization’s laptops, printers, operating systems, applications, databases, routers, servers, cloud resources, software licenses—and even the data gathered about the use of this technology.

IT asset management (ITAM) focuses on managing an asset throughout its lifecycle, such as obtaining it, maintaining it, monitoring its depreciation in value, and determining when it will need to be replaced. While asset management typically looks at an asset individually, configuration management focuses on assets’ relationships to other assets and how they contribute to the performance of IT services. This is accomplished by storing assets and information about them as CIs, which are managed through a CMDB.

CMDBs differ greatly between and even within organizations, depending on the business outcomes being targeted. However, most CMDBs feature a dashboard that organizes and presents critical information about the selected CIs. This interface typically includes metrics about current and past CI use, listings of related incidents and problems, an IT service mapping function, and a means to track how changes to CIs are affecting larger business processes. 

The form of a CMDB can vary widely, depending on how a user configures relationships in the solution they're using. For example, a CI listing for a server might include information about the associated network interfaces, services deployed, service owner, and other CIs that would be impacted by a particular event occurring on the parent CI. 

As IT environments are constantly changing and growing more complex, the value of CMDBs depends on comprehensive efforts to maintain up-to-date CI information. A CMDB dashboard typically includes the means to automatically gather data about devices on a network to create and update CI records, but maintaining accurate CMDB data requires coordination across teams and departments.

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a subconcept of ITSM. If ITSM is a strategic approach to IT operations and service delivery processes, ITIL is the book of best-practices for actually implementing ITSM. ITIL provides practical advice and guidelines that an organization—regardless of industry or specialization—can follow to make IT processes and service delivery more efficient.

CMDBs are a fundamental component of ITIL’s approach to the configuration management process. According to ITIL, CMDBs are necessary for IT teams to keep track of the relationships between CIs and maintain asset data. ITIL specifically defines forms, guidelines, and use cases that organizations can follow in their configuration management process, with the goal of gathering and maintaining accurate data about CIs and their dependencies.

If an organization has any amount of IT infrastructure, it’s likely they follow some practices outlined in the ITIL—this means that CMDBs will play a central role in their ITSM approach. CMDBs gather data about every CI into one system, helping IT teams understand all of an organization’s assets and manage a variety of related tasks, like performing maintenance, resolving and learning from issues, ensuring compliance, and building more efficient IT processes.

Here are some examples of how a CMDB helps organizations maintain an efficient, secure, and reliable IT environment.

Impact analysis

Impact analysis—also known as change impact analysis—is the process of identifying and understanding how a change in dependencies, infrastructure, assets, or business activities might affect business outcomes. This analysis can also include estimating what needs to happen to execute a change.

For a modern IT organization to do impact analysis, it needs to gather information to inform its detailed study, both before and after a potential change. A CMDB tracks this information. A powerful CMDB includes a suite of built-in analytics options to allow organizations to use collected configuration data to make the best business decisions with the least amount of additional resources.

Incident management

A CMDB’s dashboard allows an organization to track incidents across an IT environment. More advanced CMDBs even allow users to track problems—the underlying causes of incidents—because the CMDB maps the relationships between CIs.

This information can be used to track incidents from their origin to their endpoint, which enables IT teams to respond more strategically to incidents. While this capability can minimize human intervention, organizations can use automation to make the incident response process quicker, more resource-efficient, and more predictable. For instance, automation can be used to open incident tickets, update them as changes are made, and automatically close tickets once the issues have been resolved.

CMDBs as a "single source of truth"

Since a CMDB is used to track CIs and maintain the relationships between them, many organizations use CMDBs as the record of all relevant data about the configuration of their IT environment—also known as a "single source of truth"—and rely on it when developing business strategy. The business value of creating this single source of truth only increases as organizations grow in complexity.

However, maintaining a CMDB as a single source of truth is logistically difficult, because putting all of an organization’s data into a single database can be unwieldy and error prone. To ensure the data is relevant and stored properly, many organizations adopt a federated approach to maintaining a single source of truth, which ensures that data lives in multiple places and is mirrored in the CMDB.

For example, an IT financial management (ITFM) tool could be used as the primary destination for financial information, but the CMDB would mirror that data and only serve as its primary source if that served the larger process. Federating data in this way—to maintain consistency between a specialized tool and a CMDB—requires powerful automation tools, so that system complexity does not overwhelm the ability for humans to manage their IT environment.

Red Hat® Ansible® Automation Platform can help you build your ITSM and configuration management framework through automation.

Red Hat Ansible Certified Content Collection for ServiceNow IT Service Management (ITSM) helps you create new automation workflows more quickly, based on ServiceNow ITSM, while establishing a single source of truth in the ServiceNow CMDB. With Red Hat Ansible Certified Content Collection for ServiceNow ITSM, you can: 

  • Enable full closed-loop automation to simplify the opening, advancement, updates, and resolution of IT service management workflow items. 
  • Update the CMDB with relevant and accurate information across disparate users, teams, and assets. 
  • Automate incident response and provide a consistent audit trail.
  • Streamline the required steps for issue remediation and apply them at scale. 
  • Ensure that infrastructure information is always up to date, actionable, and auditable, while work is completed by cross-domain teams that may or may not have access to ServiceNow.

Ansible Automation Platform is designed to be consistent, secure, and highly reliable, with a low learning curve for administrators, developers, and IT managers. Ansible Automation Platform configurations are simple data descriptions of your infrastructure—both human-readable and machine-parsable—helping ensure everyone on your team will be able to understand the meaning of each configuration task. This helps new team members to quickly make an impact and existing team members to get work done faster, leaving more time to focus on more critical and strategic work.

Ansible Automation Platform requires nothing more than a password or SSH key in order to start managing systems without installing any agent software, avoiding the problem of "managing the management" that is common in many automation systems.

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