Top five keys to success for a new CMDB project

Configuration management database (CMDB) projects require a steady hand and a lot of help from IT staff. Here are some tips to help you ensure CMDB success.

Ensuring a successful configuration management database (CMDB) implementation means taking a very slow, incremental approach and making sure that everyone in IT has a stake in the project's outcome, according to experts.

CMDB implementation projects are on the rise, thanks to the technology's promise to help IT systems managers deal more effectively with the exceedingly rapid rate of change in today's data centers.

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IT configurations are constantly changing, and managers need a way to keep track of the current state of each IT asset -- and its relationship to other assets -- at any given time. Having this reliable information about the state of IT affairs allows staff to make better-informed decision about things like purchasing, maintenance, security and upgrades.

"A CMDB is a centralized database of inventory information that often depicts relationships -- but instead of calling it 'inventory information,' we call it configuration items or CIs," said Patricia Adams, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. "We link [CIs] up with problem and incidence records and provide service views, so if [users] need to do change impact analysis, [they] can find out what the impact is going to be upstream and downstream."

CMDB goes hand-in-hand with IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a set of standards composed of many different elements that fit into CMDBs, said Arindam Banerjee, a vice president and software systems analyst with the Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group.

"The different elements of ITIL include standards for things like configuration management, incident management and change management," Banerjee said.

While there's a lot of talk about CMDBs right now in the media, analysts say actual adoption levels are just now beginning to take off. Companies considering a CMDB implementation project will want to keep these five pieces of expert advice in mind throughout the planning and execution stages.

1. Address organizational issues
Today, most companies' IT departments are broken up into silos, Adams said, including the networking, database and applications silos. But that approach just doesn't bode well for CMDB projects, which by definition touch every single aspect of IT.

"You want to make sure that everybody understands that they're working together as opposed to maintaining this silo culture," Adams said.

But breaking down silos is a process that requires more than just one or two lunchtime staff meetings in the conference room.

"The problem is that people have been doing things in their specific way for a long time and they don't want someone to come in and tell them that they're going to have to change the way they think or the way they do something," Adams explained. "That's why you have to make sure that everybody feels bought into the success of this initiative."

Companies that fail to address organizational issues are extremely likely to end up with, at best, a poorly performing CMDB, added Banerjee. "The biggest success factor for CMDB is organizational alignment," he said. "Without that you might as well not have a CMDB."

2. Put robust change and configuration management policies in place
A CMDB is useless if it's working on bad information -- that's why it's important to make sure that all IT configuration changes are documented and fed into the system.

Adams said the market is relatively saturated with software tools that can assist with all forms of configuration management and governance policies. Some of the available tools include general-purpose configuration tools, PC and server configuration tools, virtualization configuration tools and networking configuration tools.

BMC, HP, CA, IBM and a host of smaller companies offer change management tools.

3. Execute an exhaustive discovery process
After addressing the organizational and change management issues, the next thing to do is identify exactly what all data sources for the CMDB are going to be, and make doubly sure that those are all trusted and secure data sources. It's time for discovery.

"If I can't trust the data, it's not only useless, it's dangerous, because you're making decisions based upon this data," said Glenn O'Donnell, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "The discovery process comes into play here because discovery discovers the truth about the world around you. It discovers all the servers, all the networks and all the applications and what you wind up with are [individual] pockets of the truth."

Making sure you can trust data means verifying that the process that produces that data is a process that works, Adams said. Companies also need to make sure that the data is normalized and reconciled.

"Usually you're going to have a set of discovery tools that are feeding data into the CMDB," Adams said, "So you need to make sure that those data sources are trusted data sources."

4. Take an incremental approach
The next step is to identify and direct the focus of the CMDB project on no more than two or three business services. Do not try to go out and map everything all at once. Once those two or three business services are successfully mapped out, then pick two or three more and repeat.

"Take it in small, manageable chunks instead of trying to boil the ocean and please everyone," Adams said.

At this stage, companies need to start being cautious to avoid what Adams called "scope creep," a tendency for CMDB projects to quickly increase in scope from what was originally a small area of focus. With so many stakeholders in the project, it's relatively easy for things to get out of control. Companies need to map out their approach and strictly adhere to it, and make sure that all stakeholders' needs are worked into the implementation schedule over time.

5. Keep looking ahead
During the CMDB implementation -- and all IT projects, for that matter -- it's important for project managers to continually ask themselves if the approaches the company is taking toward all aspects of IT will support future growth goals.

Eric Golden, CEO of Equipois, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of mechanical arms, said his IT department is in the process of building its own CMDB.

"We've been in change since our birth, which was only two and a half years ago, and so for us the biggest part of change management is putting every system in place with an eye towards the future. That includes systems, policies, processes, everything," Golden said. "It's a tough thing because you always have short-term demands, customers that you've got to please, and you have time pressures. But you just have to make sure that you put things in place that will serve you three to five years down the road."

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