Why Configuration Management Matters

Thursday Sep 29th 2005 by George Spafford

Datamation columnist George Spafford takes a look at Configuration Management and what you should be doing about it.

People sometimes ask if configuration management and change management are the same functional set of tasks.

Both in principle and practice, they are two very different subject areas but they are dependent on one another. To understand Configuration Management (CM) better, let's review it through its four primary objectives and benefits.

From a broad perspective, CM has four objectives as outlined in ITIL (the IT Infrastructure Library):

First, CM needs to track all configuration items (CIs) at an appropriate level of detail in the organization. Teams need to know this information in order to make appropriate decisions. Thus, the CM function is tasked with tracking new, changed, and the processing of obsolete builds -- all of which are stored in the Configuration Management Database (CMDB) and the Definitive Software Library (DSL).

Second, CM must be able to provide accurate information to other process areas. There are two key aspects of this. The CM team must have accurate information about what is in production and they must be able to communicate it to the other process areas.

Third, data provided by CM is critical to effective and efficient Incident, Problem, Change and Release Management.

Configuration management must be able to supply the accurate current states to people solving incidents, problems and planning changes. Likewise, as teams make changes to production, they must ensure that those changes are communicated to the configuration management team so they can update the CMDB and DSL.

If that tight connection is broken, then the configuration management team will not be able to accurately report what is in production and both time and money will be wasted as the other areas try to establish what is actually in production to relative to the last known good build they are working with.

Fourth, CM must routinely verify production configurations against stored configurations and work to correct discrepancies. This is one of the toughest parts of the configuration management job and where tight integration with change management is necessary. Making sure that the current production builds match the last known good build is both the Achilles' heel of the process chain and where a detective control can make a world of difference.

By detecting changes to production builds and accurately reporting variances between the last known good state and the current state, the CM team can work with other teams to determine what corrective action is required.

These objectives are important because of what they enable for the organization. The following benefits can be accrued by having effective CM:

  • Build Variance Detection -- By knowing the last known good build for each CI, changes can be detected. These detected changes can then be investigated to see if there is a process problem, human error or a security incident that requires immediate attention. Detective controls are vital to change management and this means configuration management must be able to supply CI build information a timely and accurate manner, as well.
  • Efficient Change Management -- If a person doesn't know what the current state of the CI is and what he/she is starting with, how can that person arrive at the desired end state? In other words, unless engineers know for sure the configuration of a given CI, they may plan a change incorrectly, resulting in availability problems, missed dates and poor performance. If the CIs are inaccurate, an inordinate amount of time is spent simply taking inventory the CI and figuring out how it is configured versus being able to take the configuration for granted and beginning with the engineering of the change.
  • Data Mining for Problem Management -- Engineers investigating incidents can mine configuration records to look for corresponding incidents when certain CIs are used in a certain way.
    For example, they may investigate all Windows XP SP2 builds and find that release 3.0 of a vendor's software causes stability problems, whereas version 2.9 did not. If the configuration records are in error, they may miss causal relationships that would allow them to identify underlying problems and thus miss the opportunity to develop solutions.
  • Enhance Ability to Rebuild -- If a CI fails, is stolen or is involved in a disaster, it is far easier to rebuild it if the final production build of the CI is known. Moreover, if the final build exists as a drive image, an engineer or technician can simply make sure the new hardware matches the last known good build and then restore the image. Recovery processes that used to take hours manually can be done in minutes.
  • Assist with Budgeting -- Understanding what hardware and software goes into a given CI allows for proper costing to serve as an input in the budget planning process. Costing information isn't just important for planning purchases, but also for ensuring the firm has adequate insurance. Tracking CIs also allows IT to rapidly report what capital assets are in use, what are being decommissioned, or transferred to other departments or divisons.
  • Assist with Licensing -- Understanding what software is deployed allows management to track quantities of the various tools in production and validate that license counts are properly managed. Firms do not want to have too few licenses and risk a legal dispute, and they do not want to have too many and have excessive expenditures.

    Configuration management offers many positive benefits to organizations. The challenge for the team is to keep timely and accurate records that are accessible to the functional areas that need them. This requires not only sound processes, people and technology, but also the unwavering support of management.

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