Past, present, and future of the CMDB

Is the CMDB Dead?

Mark Hillyard, Curt Thorin
© Shutterstock / zhao jiankang

What is the current role of the Configuration Management Database (CMDB)? These systems are important for overall configuration management, governance and DevOps coordination. This article takes a look at its past, present, and evolving future and the benefits of integrating the CMDB with existing IT operation systems.

Many enterprise IT organizations have a Configuration Management Database (CMDB) in place. These systems are important for overall configuration management, governance and DevOps coordination. Yet these legacy data repository systems can fall short in our dynamic IT environment. They require manual updating and can’t always support real-time decision-making. Furthermore, we have new requirements since the onset of widespread WFH workplaces. In this article, we talk about the past and current role of the CMDB, how it is evolving and how integrating it with other IT operations systems can modernize infrastructure monitoring and configuration management.

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Some history

Remember the enormous fuss over Y2K? IT execs were concerned that the new century turnover would break their systems, which led to the secondary concern that they weren’t sure what was even on the network. The 2001 release of ITIL v2 best practice led to the notion of a Configuration Management Database (CMDB) which would enable the tracking of every technology asset and its configurations and show the relationship between those assets. Yet getting all that data in one place proved to be a problem—one which has persisted to this day.

Is the CMDB still relevant?

CMDBs have been around for a long time, and they still play a valuable role in the enterprise IT organization. In fact, a CMDB has never been more essential than now. The year 2020 has been chaotic for most IT organizations – with employees quickly transitioning to working from home and using a wide array of personal devices and networks, all of which need to be monitored, maintained and secured. As shadow IT persists and organizations move increasingly toward rapid deployment and release models that incur frequent, ongoing change, governance and control become critical.

Contrary to what some may think, you can’t safely go faster without a level of control. This is a balance that DevOps practitioners must strike, and it entails a deep understanding of all elements within the IT environment and how they relate to one another. If the enterprise doesn’t have a CMDB (or something akin to it) to provide visibility into infrastructure components, configurations and relationships, the IT operations team is working at a disadvantage. Such lack of knowledge slows down developers– and nobody wants that. Even worse, without always updated, reliable infrastructure data, DevOps teams risk a catastrophic result with each software release.

Modern CMDB requirements

Today’s CMDB is critical for incident management and must be supported by a mature, well-understood change enablement practice in multi-cloud and hybrid environments, yet legacy platforms aren’t designed to monitor systems residing outside of the corporate firewall. More importantly, modern applications are built on containers and ephemeral microservices which appear and disappear frequently. It is nearly impossible for IT staff to manually update the CMDB under such constraints, and the truth is, people weren’t typically doing this regular updating years ago. Today, the only viable way to maintain state and configuration data to support accurate, real-time decision-making is through automation.

Most CMDBs on the market today lack automation; they still look and act much like a data repository. The appetite for heavy manual work is razor-thin—and IT organizations simply don’t have the people power to do it regardless. Simultaneously, the role of the IT operations professional has evolved dramatically: it is no longer as focused on installing, patching and rebooting systems. These individuals are now expected to manage applications and platforms in an end-to-end fashion, serving the business with their unique requirements spanning distinct business units and use cases. Therefore, the more that we can use technology to reduce the load of traditional incident management tasks and enable operations to be a true partner with development, the better we can serve the business and end customers.

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So, what now?

Integrating modern and legacy tools is one practical solution for resolving these issues. Newer IT operations management (ITOM) technologies which incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning (AIOps) to automate the discovery of assets and topology mapping can bring the CMDB into the modern age. An open ITOM framework for integrations can keep the CMDB always up-to-date, without manual intervention. This enables IT operations staff to focus on optimizing and improving infrastructure for reliability and performance, versus digging into one dashboard after another to make sense of the status quo.

Understand the requirements and scope of your CMDB. Tracking the configurations of components that are not business critical only expands on the effort and resources needed to successfully maintain the CMDB, creating waste in the process. Keep it simple and iteratively improve the CMDB over time. Most importantly, get started now. Even seemingly small, simple improvements can have a positive cascading effect down the road.

IT environments will only get more complex – even though the end goal is simplicity, cost savings and efficiency. To keep pace, enterprise IT organizations will need to rethink the traditional CMDB. By integrating the CMDB with modern IT operations monitoring, management, and automation systems, IT operations teams can finally have a reliable repository of data on all of the company’s on-premises assets and multi-cloud resources, while also gaining the ability to automate manual tasks that impair productivity and eventually remediate where appropriate with the right approach to AI and machine learning.

Mark Hillyard
Mark Hillyard is a Senior Advisor at Beyond20. Over 15+ years in IT he has worked on some of the largest system infrastructures supporting the internet. Mark can be reached online at LinkedIn.

Curt Thorin
Curt Thorin is a Solutions Consultant at OpsRamp. He has 20+ years' experience in enterprise IT software and services. Curt can be reached online at LinkedIn.

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