A Small Business Guide to Configuration Management Database (CMDB)

Change is a constant in the technology world. The CMDB enables management of IT changes with minimal risk to your business. Learn how a CMDB helps.

Updated June 26, 2020

Information Technology (IT) systems require structure and defined workflows to operate properly and predictably. IT teams need the same to maintain these systems (and their sanity).

That’s why the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) became a widely adopted IT framework since the U.K. government established these best practices in the 1980s. ITIL processes cover the gamut of IT operations, including the Configuration Management Database (CMDB).

As a company’s use of technology grows in complexity and scope, the role of the CMDB becomes increasingly essential. It’s the key element for the functioning of IT systems.

Overview: What is a CMDB?

The CMDB is a core component of ITIL’s Service Asset and Configuration Management processes. It tracks the configurable items (CIs) within a company’s technical assets and how these items interact across IT systems. The greater a company’s IT assets, the more a CMDB helps.

In ITIL, assets encompass any component required to deliver technology solutions to your company and customers. Examples include servers, software, documentation, and even technical knowledge inside a team member’s head.

Within these assets are a subset of components called configurable items, meaning the IT team can make changes to them. A printer’s settings can change, so the printer is a configurable item, but the printer’s ink cartridge is not. These configurable items comprise the contents of the CMDB.

The CMDB is akin to a giant database (it’s actually more like a data warehouse, an information system for analyzing data), detailing the specifics of every CI, such as the name and purpose of each, its relationship and dependencies to other CIs and the company’s IT systems in general, and when the CI was last updated.

With the advent of cloud computing, IT systems have only grown in complexity, further highlighting the importance of a CMDB.

How do CMDBs work?

It’s important to track CIs and their relationship to other parts of IT systems. If you make a change to a CI and don’t realize how that change affects other parts of the system, you can cause the system to go down, what’s referred to as an "incident" in ITIL nomenclature.

I’ve seen this happen firsthand. A software engineer forgot to change a key CI during a software product launch, called a release in ITIL, and the system stopped working. With a CMDB, you can check which CIs require changes depending on the specific updates you’re making to your IT system.

Since CIs comprise a vast assortment of internal and external components, many increasingly owned and managed by third parties such as Amazon Web Services, the specific data in a CMDB resides in other databases, and the CMDB only references these.

If the actual data is needed, copy it to include in the CMDB.

Without this information centralized in the CMDB, it’s challenging to cobble together a complete, accurate picture of the IT environment. The ITIL configuration management process solves for this through the CMDB.

The CMDB is used to facilitate several other ITIL processes as well, including the following.

  • Incident management: The process of addressing incidents in ITIL is called incident management. IT help desk software, such as a ticketing system to track incidents, connects to and leverages the CMDB data to accelerate incident resolution.
  • Problem management: In ITIL, problems refer to systemic technical issues that are uncovered over time. The problem management process seeks to find and fix these. A CMDB assists in problem identification and analysis, allowing an IT team to understand where dependencies lie and if the problem originated with a specific configuration change.
  • Change management: The CMDB acts as a change management database for the ITIL change management process. This process focuses on reducing business risk related to system configuration changes. It relies on the data in the CMDB and ensures all CI changes are properly recorded.
  • Release management: A release involves the execution and rollout of technical changes. Release management employs a series of steps, which include use of the CMDB, to ensure releases avoid incidents like the one I witnessed.

Benefits of using a CMBD within your small business

The CMDB delivers several benefits to your business, and because configuration management database tools are plentiful, setting up your IT systems to automatically use and update CMDB information is not as costly or cumbersome as in the past.

1. Reduces business risk

Any change to your IT systems injects risk into your business. A change that causes your systems to go down impacts revenue, angers customers, and frustrates staff.

The CMDB centralizes information about your configurable items, providing a complete picture of your IT systems.

Having this information in one place makes it easy to identify components that rely on other parts of your IT infrastructure, so that changes can account for these dependencies to avoid a disruption of IT services.

2. Improves IT decision-making

When you’re weighing the impact of a technical change, whether that involves upgrading software or swapping out servers, a CMDB makes decision-making easier and more complete.

You have a snapshot of the CIs in one place. You understand the interdependencies between the components you’re considering to change. You can then analyze the amount of effort required and the related costs to determine if the decision is the right one.

3. Ensures legal compliance

Every business involves legal or regulatory requirements. The CMDB contains details about the CIs that affect a company’s ability to meet these requirements. If you need to update an IT service that affects legal compliance, you can plan accordingly.

The CMDB also makes it easy to audit your systems to ensure compliance regulations are met.

Challenges of using a CMBD within your small business

While a CMDB delivers several benefits, it includes challenges as well.

1. Maintaining data integrity

IT systems undergo frequent changes. Your organization makes updates, but so do third parties providing technology to your company. Ensuring the CMDB includes accurate and updated information from internal and external systems is challenging.

Without accurate data, the CMDB is useless, so maintaining data integrity is critical.

2. Accounting for storage and costs

As your IT systems expand and evolve, the amount of data in the CMDB will grow. Over time, the CMDB can become one of your largest data repositories. Your IT storage solutions must account for the CMDB’s size and future growth along with the related costs.

3. Ensuring data usability

The CMDB is only valuable if it’s usable. Its inherent complexity requires the IT team to implement CMDB tools and processes so that maintenance doesn’t become a hindrance. Processes are also required to extract CMDB data and analyze it to make business decisions.

Should your business use a CMBD?

Is a CMDB relevant to your company? Should your business adopt it? If your IT organization seeks to incorporate the ITIL framework, a CMDB is a necessity. Even if you’re not using ITIL, the CMDB’s advantages make it worthwhile. Any business with regulatory or legal requirements can particularly benefit.

Many open source CMDB tools exist to simplify CMDB management through automated workflows customizable to your IT team’s needs. Modern CMDBs are hosted in the cloud and designed to integrate with the systems and reports that leverage them.

Even if your IT assets are minimal now, they’ll develop over time. Designing your CMDB today is simpler than when your IT systems increase in complexity. Adopting a CMDB earlier also enables your IT team to get in the habit of managing a CMDB. The sooner you set up a CMDB, the easier to evolve it in the future.

Final words about a CMDB

A CMDB strengthens your IT team’s ability to manage risks, resolve incidents quickly and efficiently, and make informed business decisions. These benefits increase the company’s trust in the IT team.

The CMDB’s ability to reduce business risk alone makes it a necessity. You don’t want a mistake in a configuration change leading to system downtime. Through a CMDB, your IT organization can flourish with greater confidence and reliability, making it a valuable investment.

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