What configuration data do you need

Exploded parts diagramConfiguration management is the process that collects and manages information about services and the components that support them. It makes sure that this information is available when and where it’s needed, and thus helps to enable many different IT service management processes, but companies’ choices about what data to collect and how to collect it vary widely.

Different approaches to configuration management

Every IT organization I have worked with seems to take a different approach to configuration management.  As I have already said, the amount of information collected varies widely; and perhaps even more significantly, so does the amount of effort involved, and the cost to the business.

  • Some IT organizations have large configuration management teams responsible for collecting information, checking that it's correct, making it available to people who need it, updating it when changes occur, producing standard and custom reports as needed, and carrying out regular audits to ensure that the information remains accurate.
  • Some IT organizations collect much less information.  They rely on the various IT support teams to collect and manage any information they need. In such cases there is often no centralized control over configuration management.
  • Some IT organizations allow their IT service management tool to dictate what data should be collected and maintained. The tool provides prompts and IT staff simply complete the required fields when the prompts appear.
  • One organization I worked with had a configuration management system that just stored the name, type and owner of each configuration item (CI), with links to related CIs. This was extremely simple to maintain but provided a great deal of useful information.  It was very easy to answer questions such as “If we shut down this network switch, what services will be affected and who do we need to inform?”

So, who’s right? Should you be collecting detailed configuration information about every component that you use, or can you do something much simpler and cheaper?

The right way to plan configuration management

The answer to this question, like the answer to most questions about IT service management, is “it depends”. There's no simple rule that will tell you how much data to collect, how much effort to expend, or what the appropriate level of cost should be. But there is an approach that I have seen used by many of my clients that has helped them to decide. They start by asking questions like:

  • Who needs the configuration data?
  • What do they use it for?
  • How quickly do they need it?
  • What format do they need it in?
  • How accurate does it need to be for their purposes?

It seems obvious that you should start by thinking about questions like these, but in my experience, it doesn’t necessarily happen. I regularly see people start to “do configuration management” by acquiring complex (and sometimes expensive) tools; using them to collect whatever data they were designed to collect; and then to produce whatever reports they were designed to create. In one extreme case I asked a configuration manager which IT staff made use of the information that they spent many hours painstakingly collecting and updating; the manager didn’t know! Worse than that was the fact that this didn’t surprise me. I had already talked to everyone in IT who might need configuration data and discovered that they didn’t use the data that was being provided because it just didn’t meet their needs.

On the other hand the organisation that just stored the name, type and owner of each configuration item (CI), with links to related CIs, provided excellent value, because their configuration management was very low cost and fit for purpose, providing exactly the right information when and where that information was required.

So, if you're looking to start collecting configuration data, or to improve the way you already do it, here is my suggestion for how to set about making decisions about what to collect and how to collect it. Go and talk to as many stakeholders as you can think of, and ask them what they need. And don’t just ask the obvious IT process owners; you should also speak to customers, other business units that you work with, and maybe even suppliers and partners.

Once you know what information people want, you can start to think about how to make it available to them. How quickly do they need it?  How accurate does it have to be – do they need detail or is an estimate enough? What format will work best for them? Sometimes the best solution will be to just collect the information when it’s needed; more often you will need to collect it in advance and store it.

When you know what information people need, and how best to deliver it, you can go on to design a configuration management system that delivers great value for you and your customers.

Conclusion

Configuration management can be very expensive and time consuming, and if you get it wrong it can deliver very little value. So make sure you really understand what your stakeholders need, and then use that understanding to help you define a configuration management system that delivers the maximum value for the minimum cost.

 

Image credit: Bennett

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