What is a CMDB?

Configuration management databases (CMDBs) are often referred to as “the heart of your ITSM system”. A CMDB is a repository that acts as a data warehouse – storing information about your IT environment, the components that are used to deliver IT services. The data stored in a CMDB include lists of assets (referred to as configuration items) and the relationships among them. CMDBs and the configuration management processes that surround them are the core of modern IT operations – enabling the company to manage a data about a diverse set of IT components in one place (even if the actual devices are widely distributed). The CMDB aids the organization in performing service management processes such as incident management, change management and problem management, and is also an essential resource for decision-makers needing information to improve cost, quality and the performance of IT Services offered by the organization

What is CMDB

Evolution of CMDBs

The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) describes a set of processes for service asset and configuration management, with the objective of maintaining information about configuration items (Cis) which are the components required to deliver an IT service. The information that is managed as a part of ITIL service asset and configuration management not only includes lists of items but also the relationships between them. ITIL depicts the underlying technical capabilities needed to support asset and configuration management as a configuration management system (CMS) as a logical data model which may span multiple physical CMDBs.

As companies embrace new processes such as Agile and DevOps, the CMDB will take on an expanded role in enabling IT employees to understand the production environment and make real-time decisions about things like problems and changes. With the proliferation of cloud infrastructure and SaaS usage, companies will need to integrate more external data sources into the CMDB to maintain the big picture perspective of a modern hybrid IT environment. Many companies are also beginning to investigate new ways of managing data assets in the context of the CMDB to support digital transformation initiatives and digital business processes.

Looking to the future, the CMDB will play an expanded role in not only IT operations but (in a digitally transformed company) business operations as well. Having the right CMDB solution to build upon will be critical, one that supports your needs today but will also evolve with you as your company grows and business environment changes

Configuration management in ITIL

CMDBs were initially created as a repository for manually collected IT asset inventory data. As ITSM processes have matured and technology such as discovery tools have enabled automation in the collection process, the role of CMDBs has expanded, becoming a core part of most company’s ITSM solution. The role of the CMDB has always aligned with the evolution of service management and other IT processes and it will continue to do so into the future.

How does a CMDB work?

A CMDB is a repository (a database) that stores lists of information and relationships. What makes a CMDB unique and valuable is the data that it contains. The lists of configuration items with their accompanying attributes and the relationships between them describe the connective tissue that exists within the physical IT environment. The CMDB is often found as part of a larger IT Service Management (ITSM) platform or suite of capabilities which will likely include tools for populating data into the CMDB (such as discovery and data import tools) and tools for consuming data from the CMDB (things like a ticketing tool, change management system and reporting capabilities).

The CMDB works by providing a common place to store information about IT assets and other configuration items in a common place that people can access. This data typically comes from multiple sources and without the CMDB, it would be very difficult to put together a complete and accurate picture of the IT environment. Discovery and data import tools are typically used to identify configuration items in the IT environment and populate them into the CMDB. Some organizations also use manual inventories and audits to update their CMDB data. Once data from the various sources is loaded in the CMDB (or updated as things change), the information can then be accessed in a unified and consistent way by tools and processes that need to consume it.

It is rare for people to access configuration data directly from the CMDB because of the volume of data present and the format that it is stored in. It is hard to interpret a lot of data in rows and columns. That’s where the role of other ITSM tools and reporting capabilities come in. These tools access the data in the CMDB, sort it, filter it, and present information to users in a form that better aligns to the operational or business problem they are trying to solve.

Pros and cons of using CMDBs

As with any piece of technology, using a CMDB has it’s benefits as well as its drawbacks. While early CMDB implementations (a few decades ago) were very costly and cumbersome to maintain and difficult to use, modern CMDBs are now a core feature in most company’s ITSM solution. The key benefits of using CMDBs include:

  • Having a complete set of data about your IT environment in a centralized place so you can easily access it.
  • Integrating data from external data sources (such as vendors)
  • Understanding the composition of critical assets and the components that they depend on
  • Understanding what different assets are used for and which business processes and users depend on them
  • Providing information to support decision making about the IT environment, operational costs and technology decisions
  • Enabling risk management by providing an inventory of what technology assets you have that may have vulnerabilities

CMDBs are not without their drawbacks though. Creating, maintaining and effectively using a large set of configuration data can be costly both in technical resources and the human attention needed to ensure quality and value. Some of the key drawbacks of using CMDBs include:

Cost of data acquisition and storage

Frequently CMDBs contain a copy of data from other source systems. As companies grow and evolve, the data set can become quite large. The CMDB is likely to become one of your largest data repositories within IT.

Keeping data current and relevant

Your IT environment is constantly changing and as it does, your CMDB needs to be kept current with new assets that are brought into the environment, removal of those assets that have been retired/disposed, and changes to existing assets.

Data usability

The value of your CMDB doesn’t come from having data, it comes from using it. To use CMDB data effectively, you will likely need tools (like ITSM apps and reporting systems), data analysis skills (to organize and refine the data) and processes to consume the configuration data as a part of operations.

CMDB vs Asset Management

There is often a lot of confusion about the difference between configuration management and asset management in ITSM. Configuration management and the CMDB are focused on the data used to manage your assets during the period that they are live and present within your IT environment. This includes understanding what components a service or asset is comprised of, what it is used for and how it relates to other assets and/or services. Asset management on the other hand is the set of processes that are used to manage the end-to-end lifecycle of assets. Asset management processes often include things like procurement and purchasing, software license management, asset valuation and technology refresh processes.

The CMDB is an important tool in enabling effective asset management processes. The CMDB is intended to provide a complete and accurate view of the IT assets that the organization controls. This then enables the organization to manage their assets in an asset portfolio instead of managing each asset individually.

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