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Embark upon ITSM asset management with systematic tagging

The journey to an organized data center begins with a single tag. Start using IT tags today to apply updates, control access and help automate management.

IT tags are a powerful way to make coding, system management and cloud wrangling easier. Teams can use tags across the entire range of IT systems, but there's a danger of over-organizing via tags.

Tagging quickens the pace of IT service management (ITSM) tasks, such as support, updates and troubleshooting. It can even make the accountant's job easier when used to allocate costs to business groups.

Tags are just text strings attached to devices and infrastructure as part of an ITSM asset management strategy. A tag is a key-value pair, seen as metadata. It assigns common attributes to assets, so they can be logically defined and grouped.

A simple key-value pair example that would prove useful for ITSM asset management is the following: stack = production.

In this example, the IT infrastructure team applies the stack tag to all production servers when they are built. When the administrator needs to perform system management, such as an update, he puts the tag production into an update query to restrict any operations to those servers tagged with production.

Other key-value pair examples include owner = QAteam and location = LosAngeles. Using this set of tags in an update rollout, the global IT manager can apply changes only to servers owned by the quality assurance (QA) team and located in the Los Angeles data center.

Conversely, tags can exclude items from an action. For example, the support team could apply the update to servers owned by the QA team, but not based in Los Angeles, with a tag-based rule.

IT tags group items from storage blocks to virtual servers, networks, load balancing and just about everything else. The hierarchy and structure of tags are up to the IT team.

You may even use tags without realizing it. Have you ever used the latest tag when pulling software from a version-control repository? It's a quick way to grab the most up-to-date code branch of the software. Docker enables the latest tag by default.

Beyond asset management

Tags can cover security, source code and access control, as well as ITSM asset management. Tags can also allow or deny access to a resource.

VMware Horizon View virtual desktop management is tag-aware and a good way to demonstrate this concept. The administrator can assign each group of users different access levels by assigning them to tags. For example, a user with the tag operator can only access the virtual machine when located inside the data center, whereas users with the tag tier3 can access the infrastructure remotely and locally. The associated tag effectively functions as an allow-deny switch.

IT tags in action

For those who haven't yet used IT tags, experiment with them as soon as possible. To get your feet wet with tags, turn to the author's tutorial on Canonical's Landscape server management tool. Refer to your infrastructure and application documentation on how to set up and utilize tags for specific products.

All of the major cloud providers also use IT tags. For example, Amazon Web Services offers tagging documentation for its instances, as does Microsoft Azure.

Best practices for IT tags

Tags are only as good as the ITSM asset management strategy behind them. Meaningless tags, incomplete asset coverage and the all-too-common problem of too many cooks in the kitchen all easily derail attempts at effective ITSM. If possible, start from Day One with IT tags. It will make the administrators' lives infinitely easier. And follow these guidelines:

  1. Tags are an all-or-nothing proposal. If you use them, make sure every IT asset has an appropriate tag. Leaving tags off of a few VMs means they will be dropped from any support and maintenance operations. Be consistent.
  2. There is such a thing as too many tags. The more values applied to assets, the less effective tagging becomes.
  3. With power comes responsibility. Be careful who has access to create and modify tags.
  4. Make the tags mean something. This rule sounds obvious, but it is human nature to create an ad hoc tag in the moment. Will you still know what that tag means two years later? Will someone else? Members of the IT team can also search on tags, so make the text easy to guess and interpret.
  5. Use specific, agreed-upon tags. ITSM is done to improve efficiency and communication, not inspire questions like, "What the heck is this tag?" Use IT tags sparingly and eschew anything overly complex. Create a logical, high-level view of the tags and a plan for tag growth as ITSM asset management evolves.
  6. Automate tagging. When the team builds instances, servers or other assets in a virtual environment, enable them to automatically assign tags, rather than manually. Automation makes life a bit easier.

There is no reason to forgo tagging as part of an ITSM strategy. IT tags enhance the manageability of the infrastructure and can be highly automated. Once done correctly, ITSM asset management solves the perennial issue of tracking down which servers are in production, and even which servers are in production at site X, and can be excluded from the updates that need to happen at sites Y and Z. 

This was last published in January 2018

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What common virtual IT systems attributes should be used as tags?