In the 1950s the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) developed a discipline to track its various complex systems and any changes made to them, to ensure that all systems remained in optimal working condition. This practice evolved over time into what we now call configuration management.
Configuration management (CM) is a systems engineering process and governance methodology that allows organizations to track, control, and maintain their IT resources in a desired, consistent state. It also helps to ensure that these systems perform as expected, as changes are made over time.
As new features and ad hoc changes are introduced to systems and applications, enterprises need visibility into what those changes are and when they are implemented. Organizations also need to ensure that all updated resources continue operating optimally. Here’s where configuration management comes in.
Today organizations rely on configuration management to ensure that their IT assets work as expected and their users can use them consistently, without interruptions. Without effective configuration management, it’s challenging to track IT assets and changes made to them. Costly mistakes can also arise that impair productivity and profitability.
What Is Configuration Management?
Configuration management is an IT Service Management (ITSM) process. It applies to all kinds of IT resources, including:
- Operating systems
- Networking devices
- Storage systems
- Databases and data centers
How these systems are configured determines whether they will work as desired and expected. Configurations also change over time. Managing and tracking these changes is crucial to improve operations, strengthen security controls, and prevent outages, data leaks, and data breaches. For this, a systematic configuration management process is vital.
Is It Worthwhile to Invest in Configuration Management?
To answer this question, explore configuration management from two aspects:
- The consequences of not adopting configuration management
- The benefits of adopting configuration management
The Potential Consequences of Not Adopting Configuration Management
As IT ecosystems evolve and become more complex, configuration management has become a must-have for enterprise ITSM, governance, and compliance.
Without a proper and automated configuration management process, your organization might struggle to keep up with configuration changes as business needs change. This can degrade resource performance, organizational agility, quality of service, and customer experience.
Configuration identification, status monitoring, and auditing are more difficult without configuration management, so it’s harder to control resources and ensure processes are performing as desired. Design changes without adequate visibility hamper change management, leading to duplication of IT assets and increased costs.
Policies, documentation, and automation are all critical in configuration management. Without these elements, it’s more difficult and time-consuming to recover access to resources and restore service in case of an outage.
Some other possible consequences of not adopting configuration management:
- Improper communication of configuration changes, leading to failed or delayed implementations.
- Impaired ability to quickly modify system components to match changing business requirements.
- Deployment of flawed or unsuitable new components, resulting in outages, performance issues, and productivity loss .
- Difficulty or delays in quickly reverting to the desired working state.
The Potential Benefits of Adopting Configuration Management
The primary goals of configuration management is to enforce a desired configuration state for each asset, and to raise timely alerts if any configuration problems move the asset away from this desired state. This helps IT teams to address configuration problems quickly, which reduces costly mistakes and improves the quality of service and customer experience.
IT personnel and admins can create baseline configurations to implement effective configuration control, version control, and change control processes. This results in effective methods to:
- Improve asset management throughout the asset’s life;
- Improve visibility into design changes;
- Avoid problems due to configuration changes and asset interdependencies;
- Streamline audit and compliance processes;
- Improve the effectiveness of software development, testing, and debugging;
- Improve release management and project management.
One of the biggest benefits of configuration management is that it allows IT and DevOps teams to maintain the consistent performance of all IT resources. They can identify, track, and manage individual configuration items, as well as each item’s functional capabilities and physical attributes throughout its life.
Equally important, IT teams can understand how these various assets relate to each other and whether a change to one will affect others. Advanced configuration visibility also helps avoid unnecessary and costly asset duplication.
If appropriately implemented across the entire enterprise IT lifecycle, configuration management enables teams to find vulnerabilities in resources that bad actors may exploit via malware, ransomware, worms, and other cybersecurity threats. It plays a critical role in minimizing security risks and safeguarding IT resources.
Configuration management also yields many financial benefits and improves ROI by:
- Increasing IT staff productivity;
- Increasing user productivity;
- Reducing IT costs;
- Assuring continuous service delivery and minimizing downtime.
In sum, configuration management can deliver a high ROI, so it is definitely worth adopting.
How Does Configuration Management Work?
Important Elements of a Configuration Management System
Every configuration management effort requires a repository to store and manage information about the systems it configures, governs, and tracks.
These repositories or configuration management systems (CMS) come with the service management tools that are part of the system. They allow system administrators to track dependencies and predict the impact of configuration changes and outages on other systems or resources.
Unlike old-fashioned spreadsheets and text files that require a lot of manual effort for maintenance and updates, a CMS is more flexible and agile. It also integrates base workflows and best practices to simplify configuration management.
A configuration management plan (CM plan) is also an essential element of the configuration management system. It merges and reconciles various configuration items to present a consolidated view or single source of truth.
In a robust configuration management system, all configurations and changes, including software upgrades and hardware refreshes, are adequately documented and carefully enforced. This is why change management is an integral part of configuration management.
How to Implement Configuration Management
Configuration management always starts with information gathering. Gather configuration data from all components and services in development, staging, and production. Also identify, encrypt, and store secret data (passwords, for example). Once this data is available and aggregated, consolidate in centralized data files.
After configuration data is organized, establish baseline configurations by reviewing and committing the configuration settings of an existing production environment. It’s essential to maintain the baseline and carefully document any changes.
Deploy Version Control
Establish a version control system to improve change management and traceability.
Set Up a Database Audit System
Regularly review all configuration changes to increase visibility and accountability.
Configuration Management in Software, DevOps, and Cloud-based Environments
Software Configuration Management
Software configuration management (SCM) focuses on the management of components involved in software development. These include:
- Source code;
- Change requests;
- Service tickets.
SCM enables organizations to establish baselines, manage builds, improve reporting, streamline processes, control and audit change management, improve developer collaboration, and optimize resource allocation. In short, it helps standardize the software development process for better consistency and quality.
SCM in Agile and CI/CD Environments
In agile development environments, configuration management is used with CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous deployment) infrastructure to automate the immediate deployment of code changes to a live software system.
It also enables teams to triage and prioritize configuration tasks, identify task dependencies, and address them as part of agile sprints. These tasks include:
- Add new database endpoints;
- Update SSL certificates;
- Change passwords for email services;
- Add new API keys.
Configuration management is also used with version control and code review to:
- Increase visibility into configuration changes;
- Enable rollbacks to configuration changes and revert to a last known stable state;
- Prevent configuration breaks;
- Minimize downtime.
Configuration management automatically manages and monitors updates to configuration data. It generates a single source of truth by centralizing configuration values and metadata, which is especially beneficial for complex software systems and cloud-based system architectures.
SCM, DevOps, and Infrastructure as Code
Through DevOps configuration management, software engineers can request and allocate required resources on-demand, instead of having to wait for them to be allocated by a separate system administration team.
In DevOps environments, configuration management enables developers to create, test, validate, and deploy builds with very little IT oversight. They can also:
- Track and control changes;
- Audit access;
- Enforce desired or specific configurations;
- Secure component libraries and builds;
- Accelerate software testing and release.
Configuration management is also an essential part of infrastructure as code (IaC). IaC enables the use of proven development methods to manage and provision data centers programmatically through simple configuration files.
These plaintext definition files enable DevOps teams to leverage best practices such as version control, testing, small deployments, and design patterns to streamline the development lifecycle. They can write code to automate processes and provision and manage their infrastructure in the cloud.
Configuration Management Tools
Configuration management involves the use of different automation tools. In “pull” tools, an agent installed on servers runs periodically to pull the latest configuration definitions from a centralized repository and then applies those definitions to the server. In “push” tools, a central server triggers automatic updates to managed servers.
Activities and Capabilities
Various tools are available for a wide range of configuration management activities, such as:
- Hardware and software discovery;
- Enforce desired configuration states;
- Version control in software development;
- Change control, authorization, documentation, and reporting;
- Environment and configuration audits.
These tools make it easier for IT and development teams to:
- Implement required checks and redundancies as devices are configured and maintained;
- Keep IT assets in the desired state;
- ensure that changes are repeatable, scalable, and predictable;
- Detect and correct improper or undesirable asset configurations that might hurt performance;
- Log and report activities to create a comprehensive picture of the IT environment (including any changes made);
- Define and enforce policies around asset identification, auditing, compliance, status monitoring, and alerts;
- Document and automate configurations to ensure quick recovery in case of an outage.
Modern configuration management tools can support complex and expanding environments. They can also operate across various environments, including on-premise data centers, public clouds infrastructures, and private cloud deployment.
They also integrate configuration management activities with systems management and IT helpdesk tools. This integration enables administrators to track change requests and completed changes, particularly changes that may impact security or compliance.
Configuration management tools vary by scope, purpose, and cost. Before selecting a tool, clarify your organization’s specific system configuration needs. You should also consider whether the tool is easy to use, compatible with existing systems, has built-in cybersecurity features, and includes enterprise support.
Some commonly-used configuration management tools are:
Ansible is an agentless IT orchestration and configuration system. It uses a series of configuration data files that specify a sequence of actions to configure a system. These actions are then evaluated and executed by a Python-based executable.
Ansible offers a structured and refined experience to automate many traditional system administrator processes and achieve CI/CD.
Terraform is an open-source configuration management platform that supports several cloud platforms, including Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. It uses IaC to provision and manage cloud infrastructure, services, and clusters. This allows teams to create configuration files with reproducible definitions of the desired infrastructure.
Terraform uses an immutable configuration approach to prevent server configuration drift.
Puppet is an IT automation framework that relies on Ruby domain-specific languages (DSLs) to describe the system configuration. It uses a master-slave or client-server architecture to maintain resources in the desired state. An agent communicates with the server to retrieve configuration instructions.
Docker supports the idea of “containerization,” which is like an advanced form of configuration management. Its configuration files help reconstruct a snapshot of a desired operating system state and create lightweight, portable containers to speed up application development and delivery.
Git is a popular version control system to track code changes and get a holistic version control view of a project. Many other configuration management tools can be stored in a Git repository and leverage its version control tracking capabilities.
AWS OpsWorks simplifies configuration management for enterprises hosting their applications on AWS Cloud. It provides managed instances of two configuration management tools (Chef and Puppet) and automates the configuration, deployment, patching, updating, and management of servers using these tools.
Salt uses Python modules to create configuration templates and automate the configuration and management of infrastructure and applications at scale. It is based on a client-server topology and supports IaC to simplify rollout updates and infrastructure changes.
In addition to these and other software solutions, you can also leverage standardized frameworks such as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework to streamline configuration management processes.
Configuration Management Best Practices
To ensure the optimal configuration of all your assets, use these best practices:
Track All Changes
Use changesets instead of single-file commits to track changes. Changesets are packaged commits that make it easier to commit changes, roll back undesirable changes, and revert to previous configurations.
Integrate Early and Often
Early and regular integrations are crucial to ensure that any new features or changes are compatible with the rest of the environment.
Testing configurations early makes it easier to find bugs or harmful human errors in new configurations.
Implement Performance Testing
Performance testing enables DevOps teams to understand if any new changes could affect the system’s performance, speed, or functionality.
Test Configuration Management Tools
The configuration management tools implemented should work productively and effectively. Regular testing and validation are vital to achieving this goal. This can ensure that they efficiently accomplish their tasks within change management guidelines.
Codify Best Practices
By writing down a set of best practices, you can maintain optimal and secure configurations while improving governance.
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