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The Social CMDB

The Configuration Management Database Is a Social Media Channel

Written by Tobin Isenberg

ITIL defines a CMDB as a specialized data repository that provides the authoritative source for information about all the infrastructure elements that participate in the delivery of key business services—their identities, attributes, configuration states, and perhaps most importantly, their relationships with and dependencies on other configuration items (CIs). As a key component of the ITIL framework’s configuration and change management processes, the CMDB supports a very wide range of management functions and activities, and it needs to be accessible to a wide range of users from across the business. Many of these will be casual users with little expertise in special-use databases, yet all must be able to access the CMDB’s information and functionality quickly and easily with a minimum of orientation or mediation.

One way to make the CMDB more user friendly is to expose its features through a Web-based interface, leveraging the intuitive interactive techniques that are universally familiar from social media to simplify navigation, information access and collaboration.

Introducing Novell Operations Center CMS

The Novell Operations Center Configuration Management System (CMS) allows everyone in the organization to contribute data and share knowledge about configuration items (CIs), providing a way to build and maintain a CMDB collaboratively. When more users can contribute, the CMDB inevitably becomes a more accurate representation of the actual IT infrastructure.

When you first log in to the Novell Operations Center CMS, the home page displays a summary of news, information and links determined by your preferences and membership in various CMS communities, allowing you to focus immediately on content of interest with minimum noise and distraction.
(See Figure 1.) The summary page has two domain views: a home view that includes content from all your CMS communities, and group-specific views for each community. Key features of this interface and the logic behind it include:

Communities provide a way to associate items that are of interest to a group of CMS users who use those items regularly and work together to maintain them. An organization might have CMS communities focused on servers, databases, networking, security, compliance—any topic or affinity that dictates a shared interest in specific types of IT assets. Community membership may be open to all, available by invitation only or available by request to existing members.

A user’s community affiliations will be shown on the CMS home page by icons arranged along the left edge, and community-based filtering will determine much of the content that appears in other areas. Clicking on a community icon will filter the home page display to include only content relevant to that group.

The inbox, located in the home page center panel, displays messages related to the user’s community membership and roles, particularly if the user is a designated CI owner. These messages are likely to include alerts that certain configuration items have been flagged for management attention, as well as community membership notifications—invitations, requests, etc.

The community newsfeed, located directly below the inbox, displays recent events of interest. For a server community these might include a notice that a community member has installed a new operating system service pack on one server, or changed the IP address of another. Both the inbox and the newsfeed are critical channels for coordinating and synchronizing a community to manage and maintain the IT resources for which it has assumed responsibility.

A Google-like search function, located at top right, lets you search the CMDB using simple strings and queries, with no detailed knowledge of the system schema. Or you can click through to the search page to construct an advanced query based on CI attributes, class matches or Boolean expressions. (See Figure 2.) Making search simple and easy to use is a critical step in opening up the CMDB to users without specialized expertise. With the home-page search, an occasional user who is preparing for a system migration and needs an inventory of affected CIs for a planning meeting can log into CMS, do a quick search, print a report and be on her way to the meeting in a matter of minutes.

The Tag Cloud, located immediately above the inbox, is a useful feature that provides a visual grouping of a community’s key CIs, capturing several bits of information directly in the display. Each tag represents a category of items grouped by a specified attribute. The relative size of the tag varies with the number of items in the category, and the exact number is shown in parentheses at the end of the tag. Clicking on a tag brings up a list of all the items in the category.

Each community can create its own tags to provide quick access to items of particular interest directly from the home page. A server community might choose to have cloud tags for Compaq, HP and Dell. A database community might choose Oracle, Sybase and SQL Server. The tags displayed on the summary page will change depending on the community affiliation chosen by the user.

The Pinboard, located at the top of the right-hand panel, provides a useful place to pin or bookmark CIs you are currently working with or might want to revisit often. It is also a place to locate recent or saved reports and searches.

Viewing CI Details

Regardless of whether you find your way to a specific CI by way of a personal message, news feed bulletin, search, cloud tag or pinboard link, the method for accessing detailed information about that item is the same. Anywhere a CI name is linked, simply click on the name to bring up the Edit CI display. (See Figure 3.) In this view, clicking on the links at the top of the frame provides drill-down into the following topics:

  • Definition – Provides the CI name and class
  • Attributes – Provides information about the CI’s significant properties
  • Relationships – Provides information on the CI’s associations with and dependencies on other CIs, and includes a navigable diagram that represents those relationships visually (See Figure 4.)
  • Impacts – Provides a navigable diagram of all CIs the current CI impacts
  • History – Provides a list and calendar timeline of all events related to the CI
  • Flags – Provides a list of all flags and comments on the CI

Setting Preferences

Most of the features and content that appear in your CMS summary page—the communities that appear in the left sidebar, the events in your news feed, the default behavior of the pinboard—are determined by preference settings that are configured in the mySettings summary page. (See Figure 5.)

You can find the mySettings summary page by clicking on the Actions menu on the home page, then selecting Settings from the drop-down menu. Simply select the features you wish to see, the events you need to be aware of, the reports you want to receive, and the communities to which you belong. Save your changes and your Summary page personalization is complete.

It Takes Collaboration to Build an Accurate, Authoritative CMDB

Building and maintaining an accurate CMDB isn’t something that a small group in IT can do in isolation. It requires participation from concerned service consumers throughout the business, in a process that is unavoidably social and collaborative in nature. If every non-specialist stakeholder is required to acquire and master a thick client application in order to participate, the process will inevitably fail. By providing an accessible, easy to use CMS interface with interactive features that are familiar from social media channels, Novell Operations Center makes that access and participation quick, convenient and rewarding. The result is a CMDB that is more timely and accurate because it is more widely and frequently used.

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