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Figure out the differences of asset management vs. CMDB

There is no shortage of software options for change management tools. Operational goals can help IT teams decide if ITAM or CMDB is the right choice for the organization.

Organizations require capable change management tools; configuration management databases and asset management platforms are two common choices.

There is some functional overlap. These are markedly different tools used for different purposes, and there can sometimes be confusion about where these fall in the spectrum of change management tools.

The choice of asset management and configuration management is not mutually exclusive. IT asset management (ITAM) and configuration management database (CMDB) feature sets are increasingly integrated into broader service management frameworks, which means the question of asset management vs. CMDB is not a one-to-one comparison.

The basics of asset management

An asset is any tangible or intellectual element that is useful or valuable for a product or service. This definition is astoundingly broad, but the notion of asset value provides a term that is most useful for business and financial decision-making.

ITAM is the management of IT assets across the entire asset lifecycle, which typically includes asset acquisition (or procurement), operation, maintenance and disposal. The lifecycle involves cost considerations, such as purchase costs, operational costs and depreciation, plus routine maintenance and repair costs.

IT asset management lifecycle

Asset management often includes contractual issues for asset leasing costs, licenses, service and support. Full-featured asset management also covers regulatory compliance matters for each asset, such as configuration, security and governance. Even end-user devices can be tracked for security and compliance. More asset management offerings have embraced cloud computing to track the costs of cloud resources and services.

ITAM can provide more granular insights and can label and map physical asset locations and tracking states. License tracking -- tracking application users or seats -- helps to ensure that the business is not in violation of any licensing agreements and maintains proper business governance or can reveal unused licenses, which the business can later reduce to save money.

Given the vast scope of ITAM, there are detailed feature lists, but most ITAM features can be consolidated into several capabilities. An ITAM tool should be able to do the following:

  • offer streamlined procurement and rapid onboarding of new assets;
  • track all hardware and software asset types with business-specific data;
  • identify and manage the vendor portfolio;
  • provide metrics and status of selected assets;
  • help with financial and security audits;
  • support the use of custom workflows to alert administrators of issues; and
  • assist with cost optimizations.

Asset management touts an array of benefits, such as better asset utilization, faster and more accurate business decision-making through improved asset visibility and monitoring, and proactive asset and compliance/security auditing.

ITAM and other asset management tools can be notoriously complex and intricate. The tool must possess exceptional hardware and software discovery capabilities, as well as comprehensive workflow management. It should also be an effective means of translating licenses, contracts and policies into useful business intelligence.

Any asset or element that the tool cannot see and track automatically must be manually handled, along with any custom workflows and reporting. Asset management tools can demand significant time and attention to operate effectively.

Available practical asset management tools include ManageEngine AssetExplorer, BMC Helix ITSM, InvGate Assets, ServiceNow Asset Management and IBM Maximo Application Suite.

Delve into configuration management databases

Organizations often address configuration management as a subset of asset management. An ITAM tool tracks hardware and software details that include an item state. The state generally refers to the information that helps manage and control the item -- its configuration. A configuration management tool defines assets as configuration items (CIs) and manages them in order to deliver a service.

Configuration management provides control over asset information, such as device name, owner name, model or version, and required details to interact with other assets; these vital attributes constitute a CI.

The at-hand operational goals determine the choice of asset management vs. CMDBs.

All CIs are stored in a CMDB, which protects CIs and provides an interface for admins to directly query, copy and alter CIs.

CIs and the CMDB are at the core of change management. The idea behind change management is that, once admins establish a known-good, working and secure configuration, that configuration should remain unchanged. This is especially true where configuration alteration might reduce the asset's performance, expose the asset to security vulnerabilities or even simply expose the business to violations of business governance requirements.

By establishing and enforcing change management, the business can effectively prevent unauthorized changes to an asset's configuration and report all change attempts. Any troubleshooting can look for unanticipated changes in configuration.

Configuration management and CMDB tools can vary dramatically in scale and interoperability, but the fundamental operations of a CMDB should do the following:

  • discover and assess the current CIs of existing IT assets;
  • automatically update CMDB entries when an admin changes or updates an asset;
  • enable admins to quickly add, modify and remove CIs from the CMDB;
  • map dependencies between assets and CIs;
  • simulate or predict the effect of a change to CIs; and
  • audit CMDB records for security and compliance initiatives.

A CMDB notes common benefits, such as reduced clerical and process/workflow errors. The business can reduce risks, while improving security and compliance, with the creation of a single source of truth (SSOT) for configuration information and then track and enforce that information over time.

A better view of available assets and dependencies can also help with plans for future upgrades and new services and minimize the additional investment. For example, a CMDB can reveal which servers run an older OS version and prompt IT to prioritize patches and secure associated vulnerabilities on the affected servers.

CMDBs can be complex and difficult to manage. If the CMDB contains too little CI information, the benefits of configuration management can be limited or difficult to obtain. If the CMDB requires too much CI information, proper management may demand far too much time and human intervention to be a reliable, long-term SSOT for IT.

There are many different configuration management/CMDB tools available for every enterprise size and need. Common examples of such tools include SolarWinds Service Desk, IBM SmartCloud Control Desk, ServiceNow CMDB, BMC Helix CMDB and GLPI.

The choice of asset management vs. CMDB

The choice of a configuration management or asset management tool can sometimes be confusing. Admins should address scope requirements; asset and configuration management attributes can overlap, but the scope can be radically different. All CIs are assets, but not all assets are CIs.

Consider an application server. The server is both an IT asset and a CI. As an IT asset, the server represents a physical item, which carries financial value, depreciates over time, requires physical maintenance, and has associated service agreements and other operational considerations that do not require a CMDB.

But the server is also a CI, and admins can use a CMDB to track installed OS and application software, server setup and firmware versions. Unexpected or unauthorized changes to the server's CI might be undesirable and result in performance impacts, stability problems and security vulnerabilities.

The at-hand operational goals determine the choice of asset management vs. CMDBs. Business-oriented goals are often better served through ITAM tools, and they enable business leaders to review and make associated decisions throughout the infrastructure asset lifecycle. Service-oriented goals are usually better served through configuration management tools, and they let IT leaders see dependencies and plan, maintain and troubleshoot IT services.

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