CMDB in the Cloud: not your father’s CMDB

Bernd Harzog recently wrote a blog entry to examine whether “the CMDB [is] irrelevant in a Virtual and Cloud based world“. If I can paraphrase, his conclusion is that there will be something that looks like a CMDB but the current CMDB products are ill-equipped to fulfill that function. Here are the main reasons he gives for this prognostic:

  1. A whole new class of data gets created by the virtualization platform – specifically how the virtualization platform itself is configured in support of the guests and the applications that run on the guest.
  2. A whole new set of relationships between the elements in this data get created – specifically new relationships between hosts, hypervisors, guests, virtual networks and virtual storage get created that existing CMDB’s were not built to handle.
  3. New information gets created at a very rapid rate. Hundreds of new guests can get provisioned in time periods much too short to allow for the traditional Extract, Transform and Load processes that feed CMDB’s to be able to keep up.
  4. The environment can change at a rate that existing CMDB’s cannot keep up with. Something as simple as vMotion events can create thousands of configuration changes in a few minutes, something that the entire CMDB architecture is simply not designed to keep up with.
  5. Having portions of IT assets running in a public cloud introduces significant data collection challenges. Leading edge APM vendors like New Relic and AppDynamics have produced APM products that allow these products to collect the data that they need in a cloud friendly way. However, we are still a long way away from having a generic ability to collect the configuration data underlying a cloud based IT infrastructure – notwithstanding the fact that many current cloud vendors would not make this data available to their customers in the first place.
  6. The scope of the CMDB needs to expand beyond just asset and configuration data and incorporate Infrastructure Performance, Applications Performance and Service assurance information in order to be relevant in the virtualization and cloud based worlds.

I wanted to expand on some of these points.

New model elements for Cloud (bullets #1 and #2)

These first bullets are not the killers. Sure, the current CMDBs were designed before the rise of virtualized environment, but they are usually built on a solid modeling foundation that can easily be extend with new resources classes. I don’t think that extending the model to describe VM, VNets, Volumes, hypervisors and their relationships to the physical infrastructure is the real challenge.

New approach to “discovery” (bullets #3 and #4)

This, on the other hand is much more of a “dinosaurs meet meteorite” kind of historical event. A large part of the value provided by current CMDBs is their ability to automate resource discovery. This is often achieved via polling/scanning (at the hardware level) and heuristics/templates (directory names, port numbers, packet inspection, bird entrails…) for application discovery. It’s imprecise but often good enough in static environments (and when it fails, the CMDB complements the automatic discovery with a reconciliation process to let the admin clean things up). And it used to be all you could get anyway so there wasn’t much point complaining about the limitations. The crown jewel of many of today’s big CMDBs can often be traced back to smart start-ups specialized in application discovery/mapping, like Appilog (now HP, by way of Mercury) and nLayers (now EMC). And more recently the purchase of Tideway by BMC (ironically – but unsurprisingly – often cast in Cloud terms).

But this is not going to cut it in “the Cloud” (by which I really mean in a highly automated IT environment). As Bernd Harzog explains, the rate of change can completely overwhelm such discovery heuristics (plus, some of the network scans they sometimes use will get you in trouble in public clouds). And more importantly, there now is a better way. Why discover when you can ask? If resources are created via API calls, there are also API calls to find out which resources exist and how they are configured. This goes beyond the resources accessible via IaaS APIs, like what VMWare, EC2 and OVM let you retrieve. This “don’t guess, ask” approach to discovery needs to also apply at the application level. Rather than guessing what software is installed via packet inspection or filesystem spelunking, we need application-aware discovery that retrieves the application and configuration and dependencies from the application itself (or its underlying framework). And builds a model in which the connections between application entities are expressed in terms of the configuration settings that drive them rather than the side effects by which they can be noticed.

If I can borrow the words of Lew Cirne:

“All solutions built in the pre-cloud era are modeled on jvms (or their equivalent), hosts and ports, rather than the logical application running in a more fluid environment. If the solution identifies a web application by host/port or some other infrastructural id, then you cannot effectively manage it in a cloud environment, since the app will move and grow, and your management system (that is, everything offered by the Big 4, as well as all infrastructure management companies that pay lip service to the application) will provide nearly-useless visibility and extraordinarily high TCO.”

I don’t agree with everything in Lew Cirne’s post, but this diagnostic is correct and well worded. He later adds:

“So application management becomes the strategic center or gravity for the client of a public or private cloud, and infrastructure-centric tools (even ones that claim to be cloudy) take on a lesser role.”

Which is also very true even if counter-intuitive for those who think that

cloud = virtualization (in the “fake machine” interpretation of virtualization)

Embracing such a VM-centric view naturally raises the profile of infrastructure management compared to application management, which is a fallacy in Cloud computing.

Drawing the line between Cloud infrastructure management and application management (bullet #5)

This is another key change that traditional CMDBs are going to have a hard time with. In a Big-4 CMDB, you’re after the mythical “single source of truth”. Even in a federated CMDB (which doesn’t really exist anyway), you’re trying to have a unified logical (if not physical) repository of information. There is an assumption that you want to manage everything from one place, so you can see all the inter-dependencies, across all layers of the stack (even if individual users may have a scope that is limited by permissions). Not so with public Clouds and even, I would argue, any private Cloud that is more than just a “cloud” sticker slapped on an old infrastructure. The fact that there is a clean line between the infrastructure model and the application model is not a limitation. It is empowering. Even if your Cloud provider was willing to expose a detailed view of the underlying infrastructure you should resist the temptation to accept. Despite the fact that it might be handy in the short term and provide an interesting perspective, it is self-defeating in the long term from the perspective of realizing the productivity improvements promised by the Cloud. These improvements require that the infrastructure administrator be freed from application-specific issues and focus on meeting the contract of the platform. And that the application administrator be freed from infrastructure-level concerns (while at the same time being empowered to diagnose application-level concerns). This doesn’t mean that the application and infrastructure models should be disconnected. There is a contract and both models (infrastructure and consumption) should represent it in the same way. It draws a line, albeit one with some width.

Blurring the line between configuration and monitoring (bullet #6)

This is another shortcoming of current CMDBs, but one that I think is more easily addressed. The “contract” between the Cloud infrastructure and the consuming application materializes itself in a mix of configuration settings, administrative capabilities and monitoring data. This contract is not just represented by the configuration-centric Cloud API that immediately comes to mind. It also includes the management capabilities and monitoring points of the resulting instances/runtimes.

Wither CMDB?

Whether all these considerations mean that traditional CMDBs are doomed in the Cloud as Bernd Harzog posits, I don’t know. In this post, BMC’s Kia Behnia acknowledges the importance of application management, though it’s not clear that he agrees with their primacy. I am also waiting to see whether the application management portfolio he has assembled can really maps to the new methods of application discovery and management.

But these are resourceful organization, with plenty of smart people (as I can testify: in the end of my HP tenure I worked with the very sharp CMDB team that came from the Mercury acquisition). And let’s keep in mind that customers also value the continuity of support of their environment. Most of them will be dealing with a mix of old-style and Cloud applications and they’ll be looking for a unified management approach. This helps CMDB incumbents. If you doubt the power to continuity, take a minute to realize that the entire value proposition of hypervisor-style virtualization is centered around it. It’s the value of backward-compatibility versus forward-compatibility. in addition, CMDBs are evolving into CMS and are a lot more than configuration repositories. They are an important supporting tool for IT management processes. Whether, and how, these processes apply to “the Cloud” is a topic for another post. In the meantime, read what the IT Skeptic and Rodrigo Flores have to say.

I wouldn’t be so quick to count the Big-4 out, even though I work every day towards that goal, building Oracle’s application and middleware management capabilities in conjunction with my colleagues focused on infrastructure management.

If the topic of application-centric management in the age of Cloud is of interest to you (and it must be if you’ve read this long entry all the way to the end), You might also find this previous entry relevant: “Generalizing the Cloud vs. SOA Governance debate“.

4 Comments

Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, CMDB, CMDB Federation, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, ITIL, Mgmt integration, Middleware, Utility computing, Virtualization

4 Responses to CMDB in the Cloud: not your father’s CMDB

  1. Reasons (1) and (2) do not seem to render CMDBs irrelevant in a cloud/virtual environment. CMDB data models will always need to evolve, support configuration/customization/extension/modernization/etc.

    Reasons (3) and (4) is also not compelling. First, ETL is only one of many ways that CMDBs can discover and update information. Most modern CMDBs support other more dynamic, event based models. Second, your comments about the existence of APIs and direct access to information replacing discovery/guessing is also correct.

    I think a major issue is the inherent assumption that CMDBs “know everything.” I think *MDBs in the cloud world are going to have to have capabilities to only discover things/configs/etc for which there is a need to obtain the information. This approach is more analogous to a federated database, in which the information gathering occurs when a query arrives. The federated DB does not aggressively try and get information.

    I did not follow your analysis of (5).

    I do agree, probably because of my background, that application centric management is the way to go, although I have an odd view.

    WRT to configuration versus monitoring, I do not see any intrinsic issue. Configuration, Definition, Monitoring, Operations, … are different facets in managing information for IT things. CMDBs would have had to and were already expanding to encompass more facets than configuration.

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  4. William,

    I am just reading this information and agree completely with your analysis. Evolven Software provides the ability to react to dynamic, virtualized changes as the Automated COnfiguration Control Solution – About time we had a next generation solution of CMDB. The CMDB was a good start but rigid and not designed to handle the next generation of IT – IF your interested we can show you what we mean and would love your input.

    Sincerely,

    Mark Mszanski
    EVP US Operations
    Evolven Software Inc.
    MarkM@Evolven.com
    http://www.evolven.com
    908.500.4087