I have seen the future of CMDBf

I got a sneak peak at CMDBf v2 today.

I am calling it v2 based on the assumption that the one being currently standardized in DMTF will end up being called 1.0 (because it’s the first one out of DMTF) or 1.1 (to prevent confusion with the submitted version).

At the Semantic Technology Conference, David Booth from HP presented his work (along with his partner, Steve Battle from HP Labs) to provide a SPARQL front-end to HP’s Universal CMDB (the engine under what was the Mercury MAM product). Here are the slides.

The mapping from SPARQL to TQL (the native query interface for UCMDB) was made pretty easy by the fact that TQL is a graph-oriented query language. How much harder would it be to similarly transform a CMDBf (v1) query interface into a SPARQL query interface (and vice-versa)? Not much. The only added difficulty would come from the CMDBf XPath constraints. TQL has a property value mechanism that is very similar to CMDBf’s “propertyValue” constraint and maps well to SPARQL functions. The introduction of XPath as a constraint language in CMDBf makes things harder. It could be handled by adding XPath support to the SPARQL engine using function extensibility. Or by turning the entire XML into RDF and emulating XPath in SPARQL. But in either case, you’ll have impedence mismatch at some point because concepts such as element order that exist in XPath have no native equivalent in RDF.

The use of XPath in selectors on the other hand is not a problem. HP’s prototype uses Gloze (available as a Jena package) to turn the XML returned by UCMDB into RDF. An XSLT transform could turn that same XML into a CMDBf-valid XML response instead and that XSLT could easily handle the XPath selectors from the query request. This is another reason why constraints and selectors should remain separate in CMDBf (fortunately the specification is back to doing this properly).

Here is why I call this prototype CMDBf v2: The CMDBf effort (v1 or 1.1), in its current form of re-inventing a graph query, can succeed. Let’s assume the working group strikes a reasonable balance between completeness and complexity, and vendors choose to compete on innovation and execution rather than lock-in (insert cynical comment here). CMDBf may then end up being supported by the main CMDB vendors. It wouldn’t provide federation capabilities, but having a common CMDB query interface supported by the Big Four would help with management integration. And yet, while the value would be real, it would only provide a little help to solve a larger problem:

  • As a technology limited to IT systems management, it would be unlikely to see widely available tools (e.g. user consoles and language-specific libraries).
  • It wouldn’t get the kind of robustness and interoperability that comes from wide adoption. While pretty similar, there might be some minor differences in the various implementations. Once your implementation has been tweaked to work with the implementations from the Big Four, you’ll call it done. Just like SNMP, another technology that is specific to IT systems management (see it happen here).
  • Even if it works perfectly at the query level, it will just hasten the time when developers run into the real problem, model interoperability. CMDBf doesn’t help at all with this. In fact, it makes it harder by hard-coding some dependencies on an XML back-end (the XPath constraints).

In the long run, IT management has to become more automated and integrated. That’s a given. The way it happens may or may not go through CMDB-like configuration stores. But if it does, we’ll have to eventually move beyond CMDBf (v1) towards something that addresses the three requirements above. And federation. I don’t know if it will be called CMDBf v2, and/or if it will come from the DMTF (by then, the CMDBf brand might be an asset or a liability depending on developer experience with the specification). But I strongly suspect (“probability 0.8″ as a Gartner analyst might put it) that it will use semantic technologies. Because the real, hard, underlying problem is a problem of semantic integration. In that sense, David and Steve’s prototype is a sneak peek at what will come after CMDBf v1/1.1.

Pretty much since the beginning of CMDBf I have been pushing for it to ideally embrace SPARQL (with no success) or to at least stay close to it conceptually in order to make the eventual mapping/evolution smooth (with a bit more success). This includes pushing for a topological query language, trying to keep XML idiosyncrasies at bay and keeping constraints and selectors cleanly separated. Rather than working within the CMDBf group, David took the alternative approach of simply doing it. Hopefully this will help convince people of the value of re-using semantic web technology for IT systems management. Yes semantic technologies have been designed for a much more general use case. But the use cases that CMDB systems address are a subset of the use cases addressed by semantic technologies. It’s hard for domain experts to see their domain as just a subset of a larger problem, but this is the case here. Isn’t HTTP serving the IT management community better than a systems management-specific alternative would?

By the way, there is no inferencing taking place in the HP prototype. We are just talking about re-using an existing, well though-through graph query language. Sure OWL inferencing and some rules could be seamless layered on top of this. But this is in no way required to do (better) what CMDBf v1 tries to do.

And then there is the “federation” question. Who do you trust more to deliver this? A bunch of IT system management architects in DMTF or the web and query experts at W3C, HP Labs etc who designed and implemented SPARQL over many years? BTW, it sounds like SPQARL federation was discussed at WWW 2008, based on these meeting notes (search for “federation”).

2 Comments

Filed under Automation, CMDB, CMDB Federation, CMDBf, Conference, DMTF, Everything, Graph query, HP, IT Systems Mgmt, Query, RDF, Semantic tech, SPARQL, Standards, W3C, XPath

2 Responses to I have seen the future of CMDBf

  1. CMDB federation could very well be nothing more than the next kind of technology for the same kinds of integration we’ve seen from the big four vendors. I think it is a forward step to use a format that covers semantic representation though.
    I share your skepticism about how far these efforts will penetrate into the broader community and even the customers of the tools that use them. Will these end users know and be fluent in the set models offered by the W3C or DMTF? What if a user wants to pick and choose from one of these “standard” models, or what if they want/must extend or change the model to fit their world?
    As a potential end user, I would want a very small meta model that I can use to develop my own specialized ones. Given that predilection, it seems to me that the federation layer will need to do more than query, import and export but also ontological alignment. Was that topic raised?

  2. Yes the topic was raised. It is currently under consideration by the group. In fact, I have a pending action item to send a written proposal to the group that will include very lightweight use of RDF. Stay tuned.