What to look for in a CMDB

If you are shopping for a configuration management database, make sure it has four key capabilities, Gartner says.

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This is the third story in a three-story series on the new systems management technologies for the enterprise.

Having one single data repository to store all corporate management information for a company's IT environment might be possible, but it's not realistic for most IT shops .

Through their complex frameworks, systems management vendors such as BMC Software Inc., CA, Hewlett Packard Co. and IBM have aimed to offer a single database to store and manage relationships between assets, change management, performance and availability information.

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However, most companies are not organized in such a way that would allow them to load all their data into a single configuration management database (CMDB). "In IT, the concept of an enterprise architecture hasn't filtered into the operational domain," said Cameron Haight, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "We have the potential for conflict in areas of metadata where there is no common taxonomy. We have the potential for silos of CMDBs."

Every enterprise has political, technical and organizational boundaries -- not to mention compliance initiatives. So inevitably, IT shops will have to develop some sort of database architecture to gather up all of this information. The need for the CMDB remains alive, but the ability to organize management information is further complicated as horizontal capabilities, such as virtualized environments or services-oriented architectures enter the mix.

In theory at least, CMDBs can help IT managers allocate their resources throughout the enterprise. They can populate these databases any way that makes sense to describe their unique environments. The old concept of the framework has since given way to something else entirely.

Today, what is more likely to develop is a system of federated databases that each has their own specialty. Each may feed into a central view. One of the reasons that the systems management market has evolved in this direction is that the big systems management vendors don't have the expertise to deal with all of the data.

Many of the major vendors agree that a federated model makes sense. BMC, CA, HP, IBM and Microsoft all support the Service Modeling Language, which would create a common language and model across an infrastructure. Many of these vendors -- including Microsoft -- also belong to a CMDB federation working group, called the CMDBF, whose goal is to create a common specification for sharing configuration information across an enterprise.

Your configuration management database shopping list

According to Gartner, a CMDB should have four key capabilities – visualization, federation, reconciliation and synchronization. First, you need to be able to visualize individual infrastructure components such as an application running on a server, networking or storage devices, said Patricia Adams, a Gartner analyst.

A second capability is federation, which is the ability to integrate data from tools outside of a single vendor's software suite, Adams said. Most IT managers are leaning toward suite-based approaches, where they might buy their problem incident, application management and CMDB from the same vendor. But the suite must be able to accept data from other tools, she said.

A third CMDB feature is the ability to reconcile data. What's important here is to be sure that your data is scrubbed before it's entered into the CMDB. "Some companies might have assets that report in different ways," Adams said. "We need to clean it up, and it all must be correlated."

Next, it needs to be synchronized. If there are any inconsistencies, the CMDB -- in conjunction with a change management tool -- should create a problem ticket.

Not every tool on the market will have all four capabilities, Adams said. "For example, a service desk might lack the visualization or the reconciliation capability."

One misconception is that everything in an IT environment should somehow be accounted for in the database. That's not true, said Adams. "You don't want everything in there -- just what is relevant," she said.

Many companies are considering a CMDB with a service view, for example, where you don't need all the financial data or incident records. "For some large companies, the call volume in their help desks can be huge," Adams said. "It just becomes a large amount of data to manage."

Before an IT shop begins to create a CMDB, it's important to understand the business problem that the company is attempting to solve. Gartner envisions companies having several CMDBs, including one service view and perhaps one that just looks at performance and availability, networking or security.

Some experts are advising IT shops to take on a phased approach to building their own CMDB. "Start with tracking your physical assets, PCs and laptops," said Andi Mann, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. "It's a case of finding what will pay back to the business or IT, and then using those as building blocks."

All of the big vendors claim to be able to manage everything, but the cost is astronomical, said Robert Kuehfus, a LAN engineer at Sodexho Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based food service company. His organization tries to funnel as much as it can into its IBM Tivoli Enterprise Console. Right now, Kuehfus uses only HP System Insight Manager and the Unix alerts with separate consoles for Microsoft MOM and Mercury Interactive Sitescope. "It's complicated to get it to work," he said.

For Kuehfus, however, CMDB remains a Holy Grail. The company has a home-grown service desk for its Windows Server components and applications, plus some escalation and warranty information. "I would like to just be able to click on a system and know everything associated with it," he said.

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