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Configuration management vs. asset management simplified

Configuration management and asset management are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. While similar in certain ways, they are not the same thing.

Configuration management and asset management move in the same orbit -- the management of an organization's systems and services -- but they have different purposes and goals.

In configuration management, an item's utility, function and availability matter; its value, brand and physical characteristics do not.

Asset management, on the other hand, is unconcerned with service onboarding and control of how an item is pushed into service. Instead, the goal is to manage the asset lifecycle -- but not the service it provides.

Key differences between configuration management and asset management

Services and systems to support business operations are brought to life via change management, which manages the services throughout their lifecycle. A proper change management system consists of a centralized database of items (configuration items) and interdependencies between the items upon which the changes are to be performed, termed the configuration management database, or CMDB.

Configuration management involves the documentation of changes made to a system or service configuration. Configuration items are highly controlled resources, whether physical or virtual. Changes made to those resources are well-defined, documented and managed, and tightly coupled to the service they provide.

Consider a scenario when IT staff needs to update a group of servers. A configuration management system holds records of the changes, and it documents useful information, such as the agreed length of downtime and patching schedules so that the SLAs can be accurately maintained and measured. It will also list key contact groups and handle alert suppression on the configuration items.

Configuration management ensures that every subsequent change made to an IT resource is approved, measured and managed. Asset management is more concerned with the cost of the resource and its lifespan.

IT asset management systems record details, including purchase value, vendor, purchase date, invoice number, serial number, phone number and other details that are deemed important. Configuration management is rarely concerned about that asset data because it does not further the resource's intended purpose.

While an individual asset can be part of a group that provides a defined service, such as desktop or mobile services, the loss or removal of an individual physical item (asset) from a potentially vast pool of items doesn't damage or hinder the overarching service (configuration). A failed software upgrade that was under change control, however, could affect the entire service.

Configuration items and assets can overlap

Configuration management ensures that every subsequent change made to an IT resource is approved, measured and managed. Asset management is more concerned with the cost of the resource and its lifespan. Even so, configuration management and asset management can apply to most items at the same time.

Organizations place different importance on IT assets, depending on the role an asset plays in the ongoing operation of the business. There is no hard and fast rule.

Assets can be -- and often are -- configuration items, and come under the purview of configuration management. But that is not a given. For example, a physical server is an asset. It has a useful lifespan and is subject to accounting rules. It is also a configuration item. The IT team applies changes to it and it is subject to the change management process.

Other items, such as certificate entries in a load balancing system, have value even though they do not physically exist. Since they have no tangible value, they are not factored into an asset management program. Yet they are important and must be documented, managed and controlled via configuration management.

Another key difference between asset management and configuration management is how products and services are brought into the environment.

An IT service is essentially managed into existence through a well-defined service implementation framework. It is fully managed throughout its life and subsequent decommission. The same cannot be said of a desktop PC. If it breaks, it goes through an asset disposal process, but is not subject to change review. Its status is, however, updated in the asset management system.

Controlling configuration and asset management

Services and systems configuration items have owners. This helps to enforce the RACI model, which stipulates that every key item has a person or group that is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed. Doing so ensures that the appropriate people know what's going on and are involved in the change management process when it pertains to items under their ownership. These people are able to approve or deny the changes.

As an example, a newly implemented disaster recovery service can be broken down into several components involving tangible items, such as the switches and network links, as well as the actual service itself. The virtual machines get asset management entries and properties. The system as a whole, as well as its dependencies, are all configuration items. Assets can be configuration items, remember.

With these configurations properly mapped, later system upgrades are less complicated. The IT team knows that all the dependencies are included as part of the change. As part of an upgrade, the change order will include all the configuration items and approvals.

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