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Taking on Windows configuration management

Windows configuration management is certainly a difficult task. While it may not be the most fun you've ever had, it will save you a lot of pain down the road.

Harris Kern
For IT managers, Windows configuration management is possibly one of the least appealing tasks on their to-do lists. Still, documenting hardware and software configurations is one of the most critical tasks in Windows configuration management because it provides documentation for what you've done and a roadmap for what needs to happen.

The problem is that Windows configuration management isn't easy. Technically brilliant personnel historically lack the talent or the desire, or both, to clearly document the complexities of their work in a simple, succinct manner. Still, with upgrades to Windows Vista on your to-do list in the next 12 months, a Windows configuration management plan is a must.

What is configuration management?

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The formal definition of configuration management is a process to ensure that the inter-relationships of varying versions of infrastructure hardware and software are documented accurately and efficiently. As it pertains to the infrastructure, configuration management refers to coordinating and documenting the different levels of hardware, firmware and software that comprise mainframes, servers, desktops, databases and various network devices such as routers, hubs and switches. It does not refer to application software systems in production or the verification of various levels of application software in different stages of development, testing and deployment

Infrastructure hardware, such as Windows servers, come in different models, requiring different levels of operating system software. As models are upgraded, so also may the operating system need to be upgraded. Similarly, upgraded operating systems may require upgraded versions of database management systems software, like SQL Server 2005 and, eventually, upgraded applications software. So, when you are thinking about upgrading to Vista, take into account that it will sweep through your entire hardware, firmware and software configurations.

Keeping the various versions of hardware and software accurately updated is the primary responsibility of the owner of the configuration management process. In addition to the hardware and software of the data center, network equipment also needs to be documented in the form of circuit diagrams, network configurations and backbone schematics.

There are seven practical things you can do to improve Windows configuration management planning:

  1. Select a qualified process owner. In most instances, a single individual should be selected to own the Windows configuration process. This person should have a strong working knowledge of system and network software and their components and a strong knowledge of software and hardware components. But the biggest attribute has to be someone who is really focused on the Windows platform. A jack-of-all-trades in systems and software isn't as well suited.

  2. Acquire the assistance of a Windows technical writer or a Windows documentation analyst. Most shops have access to a Windows-focused technical writer who can generate narratives, verbiage or procedures or to a documentation analyst who can produce diagrams, flowcharts or schematics of the Windows infrastructure. Offering the services of one of these individuals, even if only for short periods of time, can reap major benefits in terms of producing clear, accurate documentation in a fairly quick manner.

    Expense is one of the concerns raised about using technical writers or documentation analysts. In reality, the cost of extended recovery times by not having up-to-date documentation on critical systems and networks, particularly when localized disasters are looming, far exceeds the salary of one full-time equivalent scribe.

  3. Match the backgrounds of writers to technicians. This suggestion builds on the prior recommendation of having a Windows technical writer or Windows documentation analyst work directly with the Windows configuration manager. The more you can match a technical writer's background to the specifications of the documentation, the better the finished product.

  4. Evaluate the quality and value of existing Windows documentation. Evaluating existing Windows documentation reveals a great deal about the quality and value of prior efforts at recording configurations. Identifying which pieces of documentation are most valuable to an organization, and then rating the relative quality of the content, is an excellent method to quickly determine which areas need improvements the most.

  5. Involve appropriate hardware suppliers. Different models of server hardware may support only limited versions of operating system software. Similarly, different sized disk arrays will support different quantities and types of channels, cache, disk volumes and densities. The same is true for tape drive equipment. Network components like routers and switches, and desktop computers, come with a variety of features, interconnections and enhancements.

    Hardware suppliers are often the most qualified and least involved in assisting with a client's documentation. This is not to say the supplier will generate, free of charge, detailed diagrams about all aspects of a layout, although I have experienced server and disk suppliers who did just that. But most suppliers will be glad to help keep documentation about their equipment current and understandable. It is very much in their best interest to do so, both from a serviceability and marketing standpoint. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

  6. Involve appropriate software suppliers. Similar to their hardware counterparts, Windows infrastructure software suppliers can be an excellent source of assistance in documenting which levels of software are running on which models of hardware. Microsoft does a great job of keeping its current products documented and is usually pretty open about future product releases. Use that to your advantage.

  7. Coordinate documentation efforts in advance of major hardware and software upgrades. The upgrading of major hardware components and software (think Vista!) can render volumes of configuration documentation obsolete. For example, the release of SQL Server 2005 has huge implications for your corporate database or enterprise-wide data warehouse. Make sure you're on top of that documentation. Coordinating different documentation updates in advance and all at the same time with the appropriate individuals can save time, reduce errors and improve cooperation among disparate groups.
Harris Kern is the author of 44 IT and self-help books. He is recognized as the foremost authority on providing practical guidance for solving IT management issues. Harris challenges industry leaders to build a competitive IT organization by re-focusing resources, people, process and performance. He combines the experiences of an IT executive, self-help/performance expert and management consultant. Harris is the founder behind Harris Kern's Enterprise Computing Institute and the best-selling series of books published by Prentice Hall. The series includes titles such as IT Services, IT Organization, and CIO Wisdom. Harris can be reached at

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