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Coming up with a new configuration and change management plan

That old configuration and change management plan was unwieldy and out of reach, but the need for having one hasn't gone away.

In the context of information technology, the change management plan -- and its kissing cousin configuration management -- are usually thought of as subsets of IT service management, or ITSM. They require configuration data about an organization's IT infrastructure and the services running on it.

They say the only constant is change, and nowhere is that more true than in the data center. Despite all our practice dealing with change, doing so gracefully and efficiently is still one of the most challenging aspects of IT operations.

Change management helps IT operations professionals follow established procedures for making changes to an environment -- or discover the changes that cause a service to go awry, said Rob England, an IT consultant and blogger known as The IT Skeptic based in Wellington, New Zealand.

According to England, these tools and processes can help IT departments can answer two central questions: "How fast and how accurately can you assess the impact [of a change] to your organization?" and "Does the cost of downtime exceed the cost of adding more processes and tools?"

Indeed, no one does change management for the hell of it. IT organizations follow established practices and procedures in the hopes of minimizing outages and maximizing service levels (the metric by which many of them are judged). But while we all want more uptime and the better outcomes that change management promises, the number of organizations that have effective processes in place is small.

The CMDB letdown

Part of the change management problem is the industry's own making. Not so long ago, IT management vendors and practitioners got it in their heads that the first step toward change and configuration management was to implement an IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL)-inspired configuration management database (CMDB).

At its core, a CMDB is a simply a database that stores so-called configuration items (CIs). CIs describe and track individual assets, how they are configured, and their relationships to one another. That data is often used in support of other IT management tools such as a service desk and incident management.

This sounds straightforward enough, but depending on whom you ask, adoption of CMDBs has been somewhere between modest and downright disappointing. While CMDBs are commonplace in the Fortune 1,000, the number of implementations trails off for smaller organizations, said Ronni Colville, an IT operations management analyst at Gartner.

Among the problems that organizations have cited are high costs for software and consulting, difficulty in populating the database, intergroup politics, and inflated expectations about CMDB capabilities.

"A CMDB sounds like a good idea in theory. In practice, if you try and implement every little nuance, it's like driving pins in your eyes," said Brian de Haaff, Citrix Systems' senior product line director for GoToAssist, the company's IT service management offering.

Indeed, in the early days of CMDBs, many organizations undertook initiatives without properly analyzing the work involved or the business justification, said Gartner's Colville. As a result, she said, "there were a lot of false expectations. People were like, ‘It doesn't solve world hunger. It's not making dinner. What the heck?'"

England calls shops that need a CMDB "The 5% Club."

"There are 5% of organizations that are so complex that they need a CMDB -- and have the resources to actually do it," he said. But for the remaining 95%, implementing such a project is rarely worth the cost, time or effort, England said.

"The main reason you would do a CMDB project is for impact assessment," England noted. "If people can answer questions about the impact of a change fast enough, then you don't need to invest in a CMDB."

For that 5% of shops that have paid their dues implementing a CMDB, however, it can be a beautiful thing.

In part two of this article, see how a large packaged foods corporation is using CMDB to pinpoint problems to keep production flowing in its warehouses.

About the author:
Alex Barrett is the editor in chief of Modern Infrastructure. Write to her at [email protected]or tweet her at @aebarrett.

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