Monday, August 6, 2007

The CMDB - An anemic answer for a deeper crisis

My fist dabble in an occasional series of "A contrarian in the Data Center"....

I know that this is quite a provocative subject, but take a moment to consider where I'm going:

My thesis: CMDBs will be doomed either to (a) a short-lived existence as they sediment into other data center products, or (b) disappearing altogether as the industry finally realizes that utility computing (using generic hardware and standard stacks) obviates the need for an a la carte solution which tracks which-asset-is-where-and-doing-what-for-whom.

My evidence: Do you think that Amazon Web Services' EC2 compute "cloud" went out and purchased a commercial CMDB to manage their infrastructure and billing? Do you think Google maintains a central CMDB to track what department owns what machine? Isn't it odd that
an umteen-volume ITIL process ultimately relies on the existence of a conceptual CMDB? (In fact, doesn't it ring strange that such a "panacea" technology needs a so many volumes of paper just to make it work?)

My logic: CMDBs
are essentially a "band aid" for a larger (and growing) problem - complexity. They inherently do nothing to reduce the underlying complexity, configuration variances, or hand-crafted maintenance of the underlying infrastructure. In short, they are just another point-solution product that center managers think will help them drive to a simpler lifestyle -- and they're dead wrong. Instead, they'll be buying another complexity layer - but this time, one that requires them to re-work process as well.

"But wait!" you say; CMDBs are needed because how else do you get your head around infrastructure variances? On what do you base configuration management?
What do compliance systems use as a basis? Incident management processes have to "check in" somewhere, don't they?

Well, yes and no. By saying yes to most of the questions above, you're unconsciously complying with the status quo mindset of how data centers are architected and run. With layers of special-purpose tools, each supposedly simplifying the tasks-at-hand. But collectively, they themselves create complexity, redundancy, and the need for more tools like themselves. Every one of these tools maintain the assumption of
continued complexity, configuration variances, and hand-crafted maintenance of underlying infrastructure


My conclusion: What if the data center had an "operating system" ? This would automatically pool, re-purpose and re-provision all types of physical servers, virtual machines, networking and storage infrastructure. It would optimize how these resources were applied and combined (even down to selecting the most power- and compute-efficient hardware). It would respond to failures by simply managing around them and re-provisioning alternate resources. It would react to disasters by selecting entirely different physical locations for compute loads. And all completely platform-agnostic.

Now - if this system existed (and, of course, it does), then why would you need a CMDB?
  • The "Data base" and the "configuration-of-record" would have to already be known by the system, therefore present from the start, and constantly updated in real-time
  • Any infrastructure variances would be known in real-time - or eliminated in real-time, as the system re-configured and optimized
  • Configuration management, as we understand it today, would be obviated altogether. The system would be given a set of policies from which it would be allowed to choose only approved configurations (all standard, or not). The approved configurations would be constantly monitored and corrected if needed. There would be no "configuration drift" because there would be no human interactions directly with machines - only policies which consistently delivered upgrades, patches and/or roll-backs.
  • Compliance (per above) would essentially be governed by policy as well. The system's internal database (and historic record) could be polled by any external system which wanted to ensure that compliance was enforced over time.
  • Traditional incident management processes would essentially be a thing of the past, since most would be dealt with automatically. In essence, trouble tickets would be opened, diagnosed, corrected and closed automatically, and in a matter of seconds or minutes. Why then a massive ITIL encyclopedia to govern a non-existent human process?
Net-net: eventually, IT staffs will get off of the treadmill and realize that all of these point-solutions -- CMDB's included -- are merely perpetuating the need for themselves. Look outside the box you live in, break the mold, consider that there's a better way to manage IT on the other side. Say "No" to these point solutions, and start with saying "No" to the notion of CMDBs.

Say "Yes" to treating the data center at the system-level scale, not at the atomic scale.

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