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What is a CMDB?

Acting without reliable information rarely produces good results. Establishing a single source of truth via a CMDB can help you fix services faster, reduce operational risks, lower costs, and enable you to make better business decisions.

When the NHS suffered the now infamous WannaCry ransomware attack, the healthcare behemoth was almost brought to its knees overnight.

Somewhere across the infrastructure, an asset owner had failed to update their Windows operating system and the hackers had found a way in through the vulnerability.

By the time they knew they’d been attacked, NHS IT security managers had no idea which machines were affected, what software they were running and where they were physically located. So, despite identifying the problem relatively early on, they were unable to fix it.

Implementing a CMDB gives organisations a comprehensive ‘map’ of their entire IT infrastructure, helping them to keep track of endpoint devices. With an efficient CMDB implementation in place, the NHS could have avoided WannaCry – or dealt with it more effectively when it occurred.

A CMDB – the heartbeat of an organisation

A CMDB is essentially the heartbeat of any organisation’s IT department. It’s a rich data base of the assets or configuration items (CIs) that underpin an organisation’s IT services. These CIs can be software, hardware, people or documentation and the CMDB creates transparency by tracking all the CIs, displaying how they relate to one another. A good CMDB gives organisations a holistic view of what’s making up the business services offered to customers.

The system focuses on accessing accurate, up-to-date data, including all the CIs, where they’re held, how they’re configured and the relationship between all of them. The CMDB is the fount of all knowledge, the trusted source of information across the organisation. It’s the truth for anyone to see at anytime.

As the CMDB is at the heart of the organisation, it also needs ongoing nurturing and updating; it should be looked at as a living, breathing entity that brings huge benefits to a business when implemented properly.

The benefits of a good CMDB

Along with the obvious benefits of allowing CIOs to view, track and control CIs across the entire IT infrastructure, a good CMDB will include:

  • Event mitigation – a reduction in outages and reduced downtime.
  • Automation – human error and risk will be mitigated and costs to the business will be significantly reduced.
  • Data accuracy – an improvement in decision-making results from accurate data.
  • Faster resolution times – CIOs quickly understand the CI's relationships across the system.
  • Truth – a significant increase in the single source of truth.
  • User experience – an overall improvement in end-user experience, hence customer satisfaction.

All of these will enable you to:

Fix service issues faster

With accurate data you can trust, an up-to-date CMDB will help you make connections across your IT network, identifying the root cause of issues much faster.

This helps maintain service availability and keeps customer satisfaction high – resulting in better CSAT scores and customer loyalty.

Reduce operational and security risks

You can't protect what you can't see. If your data is being kept siloed away in spreadsheets, it's likely missing from the big picture.

And that's dangerous. If you can't govern your data and devices, then you're opening yourself up to risk. Risk that your operations could suffer from not having accurate data to act upon, and risk that those gaps in your visibility could open you up to a potential security breach.

By using a CMDB as a single place to manage and govern your CIs, you can close those gaps and operate far more effectively.

Lower costs – increased agility

ServiceNow's strength lies in its ability to take the legwork out of repeatable activities. A CMDB is essential to achieving this by providing one place for workflows to draw their information from to execute effectively.

This accelerates response times and eliminates repetitive work, meaning you'll both save on spend and have greater flexibility to proactively tackle and react to incidents and issues.

Make better business decisions

Information is power. If you can't trust that you have accurate data, you'll struggle to act decisively and see the results you'd like.

That's where your CMDB comes in – providing rich, up-to-date insights to give you an accurate picture of how your organisation's IT is performing, allowing you to operate with confidence.

FlyForm's top tips for CMDB design and implementation

  • Define your business goals. Start the CMDB design goals and workshops from a business perspective – NOT from a technical perspective. The focus should be on cost savings; what’s in the IT estate and what’s the ability to undertake a comprehensive impact analysis? What are the pain points that have a customer or business impact? Everyone across the organisation needs to understand this so that everyone is aligned to the challenge of building the CMDB.
  • It’s important to remember the necessity for a data model in the design phase of the CMDB. How granular do you want to get with your CIs? All organisations need to understand what they’re trying to capture, which assets, who the data owner is and then linking all that back to the business goals. How will all this help the business? The data model then needs to be physically prepared and signed off by the stakeholders before proceeding.
  • Governance. Create a configuration management role. That person will then oversee the processes and the platform. An organisation may have a very good model initially, but have not added a configuration management role, or there’s no investment for that role by management. Often the result is that six months later the CMDB is in chaos, the data is not updated or is inaccurate and the value of the system is eroded. The failure to invest in a single source of governance often then involves a very expensive clean up exercise to maintain the CMDB.
  • Senior stakeholder buy-in. This is tied in with governance. Someone at board level has to champion this. This is also linked back to the business goals – what is the business trying to achieve? With a big CMDB project there can multiple stakeholders. Here at FlyForm, we’ve seen a room with 30 people – that’s a lot of personalities, different views and challenges. This can cause its own problems, so it’s vital a business has a single person to ensure the CMDB is being done properly.
  • A single source of truth. To have all your key data in one single source goes back to the old world where you have a database of disparate information, different systems. By using the ServiceNow platform, the organisation has the benefit of bringing that into one simple plate. Hence, the CMDB view becomes the single source of truth by utilising the multiple source in a single source everyone trusts. This becomes the go-to resource everyone works with every day.
  • Don’t boil the ocean. This gets back to the “kitchen sink” metaphor and for many people this is the most important aspect of a CMDB. An organisation – particularly at board level – has to overcome the misunderstanding that within three months they will have reached nirvana. Everything is captured, everything is automated and there’s never going to be an issue. That’s simply not the case. A CMDB needs a phased approach. Start out small and take a particular service or business environment. This can then be tied back to a particular business challenge. Taking a macro approach to building a CMDB can cause problems around costs and complexity and this often results in a lack of governance – no one wants to take responsibility. At Flyform we see a lot of people getting into problems with this.
  • Make sure the CIs link back to the business services. Even if a business gets the bottom layer right, ideally the point to all this is to have a business awareness around it. The end users have to understand what the business impact will be, how it will affect them.
  • Roles and responsibilities. The configuration librarian or whoever is going to own the CMDB has to understand that this ongoing. Credentials will change, networks will change, so even when you put an automated Discovery tool in it’s not going to stay perfect. An organisation needs someone looking at those dashboards, looking at those services, overseeing the single source of truth.

Conclusion

Here at FlyForm, we’ve come across many organisations that have tried to implement a CMDB in some shape or form. According to Gartner, for US organisations it takes about three attempts to implement a successful CMDB. Many try to boil the ocean, fail to maintain accurate CIs or to invest in a librarian to oversee the implementation and then the day-to-day running of the CMDB.

All this often cultivates the perception that the CMDB is some sort of unattainable entity. But this is simply not true. With the right approach and the right implementation, a CMDB is actually an easy project to undertake. There are indeed huge complex projects, but more often if you get the structure right from the start and go through the correct phased steps, implementation can be simple and successful.

This article was inspired by our video ‘What is a CMDB?’, recorded by Phil Davies and Steven Williams – Senior Technical Consultant and ITOM specialist.

Learn more: How to automate and optimise Customer Service Management with FlyForm