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The challenges of change and configuration management

Due diligence, business alignment and proper deployment are key to mastering change and configuration management tools.

Configuration management captures the current state of each system, providing detailed summations and control over the hardware, operating systems, drivers, applications, and other attributes of systems on the production floor. Change management tracks and documents even the most subtle alterations in those systems, allowing an IT staff to accurately find, follow and fix any part of the infrastructure. But change and configuration management is much easier said than done, requiring an investment in tools along with the keen business sense and discipline required to use those tools properly. Let’s consider some of the most pressing business and technological issues that impair these tools, and cover guidelines that can ensure successful management.

Start with a solid business process. Change and configuration management tools are intended to streamline and automate some manual business processes that have already been established. If business processes are undefined or have not yet been implemented, then a change or configuration management tool is unlikely to yield any benefit – in such cases, the additional tools are largely viewed as a burden.

“The tool can only help an org automate a successful process,” said Rand Morimoto, president of Convergent Computing, a solution provider headquartered in Oakland, Calif. “If you sit in front of a tool and try to figure out what you want to do with it, it's almost like sitting with a hammer and a box of nails and be on the cusp of building a house.”

To make the most of a change or configuration management tool, the business requires a clear vision and a solid plan that has the endorsement and support of management. Larger or more complicated companies may choose to engage an experienced consultant that can guide a business through defining and establishing policies and practices – and is well versed in automating those manual processes with the selected tool.

Align the business and IT planning. In addition, IT planning must align with business objectives. Change and configuration management tools should never be deployed as a unilateral IT directive. The impact of any prospective tool on IT and the business should be carefully evaluated, and this requires detailed communication and agreement between IT and business. For example, the tool’s automation should provide a clear savings for the business and reduce IT errors, while supplying useful features like history tracking, auditing and so on.

“When IT managers skip the important process of communicating with internal business executives, the core strategic benefit of change/management tools may get lost,” said Bill Kleyman, virtualization architect with MTM Technologies Inc. “Without that key communication, even great software can potentially have very harmful effects on business operations.”

Use the tools consistently. Also use change and configuration management tools consistently and in accordance with established procedures. Otherwise, data tracked by the tool can quickly fall out of date and produce erroneous reports – reducing the tool’s value to the entreprise. Consistency can be more difficult than it sounds, especially for personnel not accustomed to the discipline of formal process. The extra time and effort needed to use tools may be seen as a burden, and the results may not seem intrinsically worthwhile without guidance and training. Experts note that it may take several months before IT administrators use the tool with consistency.

Verify physical and virtual interoperability with the tool. A software tool can only change or configure the infrastructure that it can detect, so it’s critically important to ensure interoperability between the tool and the heterogeneous elements of a data center before a purchase is made. This includes servers, networks, storage systems, and so on. This guideline must also be observed when changing or updating change and management tools. A “lack of planning” during tool selection can be costly to fix and leave major parts of the infrastructure without needed support – seriously undermining the tool’s value.

Part of the physical infrastructure that is often overlooked is support for emerging devices. One example includes mobile or hand-held devices like iPhones or iPads. Support for these devices may have been unheard of just a few years ago, but the choice to adopt or upgrade a change and configuration management tool absolutely must accommodate such devices. Otherwise, a major part of the modern organization may be left uncontrolled in the hands of individual users.

A change and configuration management tool must also support the existing virtualization platform and provide detailed insight into virtual machines (VMs), virtual networks and provisioned storage volumes. This proof-of-principle should also be performed before investing in the tool. Remember that upgrades or patches that affect the virtualization platform may have unintended consequences to the change and configuration management tool. Advance testing will play a role in identifying and circumventing physical and virtual compatibility problems.

Consider Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager and Operations Manager; it supports Microsoft’s operating systems and applications, but also provides hundreds of plug-ins for platforms like Quest, Veeam or Odyssey Software, allowing management of a diverse infrastructure including Macs, Linux, iPhones, iPads, VMWare, Cisco, Android, Blackberry and more. Yet, it still supports Active Directory security, Windows domain/site structures, etc.

Setup and prepare the tool effectively. Buying the tool is not enough. Effective tool setup and preparation is essential before a business can get the most value from a software tool. This is even more critical for change and configuration management tools, which are notoriously complex. Administrators that are unfamiliar with these tools may not be able to prepare the tools properly. Similarly, a focus on adapting the tool for legacy tasks, rather than setting up the tool for efficient and optimized workflows, can also impair the tool’s value. This can lead to resistance in using the tool (or ignoring it entirely).

“Change and configuration management is something a consultant should be hired to help implement and cross-train staff on how to use the tool,” said Morimoto. “It's better to have someone who designs and implements the stuff all the time to provide hands on guidance, assistance, and cross-training.”

Consider the impact of backup and disaster recovery planning. Once deployed and setup properly, change and configuration management tools control key pieces of the data center infrastructure. Unfortunately, these tools are often overlooked during backup and disaster recovery planning. Attempting to recover an infrastructure without proper change and configuration management support may be just as problematic for a business as being unable to recover a critical VM. Administrators that deploy and maintain a change and configuration management tool must integrate the tool and its elements (e.g., a change/configuration management database) into the data protection scheme. 

“Some vendors provide a nice ‘out of the box’ approach to redundancy, while others leverage your existing systems environment – like vMotion – to provide it,” said Pete Sclafani, chief information officer at 6connect Inc., a network automation provider in Redwood City, Calif. “Either way, it needs to be tested on a regular basis.”

Consider the costs. Change and configuration management tools can be a costly addition to the enterprise, so it’s important to weigh the acquisition costs, maintenance/support costs and collateral licensing requirements. As an example, Microsoft bundles the client licenses for Configuration Manager as part of the Core Client Access License that many customers already own, and Enrollment for Core Infrastructure (ECI) licensing can provide an organization with all of the System Center, Windows Server, and Hyper-V licenses needed on a per-processor basis. Morimoto notes that such a paradigm can be an extremely compelling solution for customers.

Due diligence and business alignment
Ultimately, the biggest risk for change and configuration management is a waste of the investment. For example, a costly new tool is brought into the enterprise which does not support major parts of the infrastructure, is not setup to optimize the workflow, does not accommodate current management paradigms for the company, or even map to business goals. As a result, any information provided by the tool would be inadequate and add no value, quickly falling into disuse. Fortunately, careful due diligence and attention to business needs before an acquisition, along with a well-conceived deployment plan can help an organization make the most from change and configuration management. 

Next Steps

Idempotency keeps configurations from wavering

This was last published in November 2011

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