5 Keys to Automating Configuration Management for Application Infrastructure


One of the trends being discussed in business, among vendors and in the analyst community is the importance of automating the functions performed by IT. Growing demands by the business, tight budgets and compliance pressures together accentuate the need for IT to be more agile, efficient and responsive to business stakeholders.

Naturally, vendors rush into this environment, each touting the unique benefits of its solution set and the urgency to move forward immediately.  A key area targeted for IT automation is the area of ‘configuration management.’  As it relates to automating day to day IT functions, configuration management can mean many different things: patch management, server and network management or others. 

One of the newer targets for configuration management techniques is the application layer itself.  Think about that great stack of software that comprises a contemporary J2EE application—application server, web server, database, middleware and so on—typically from different vendors.  But they all adhere to industry standards, right?  So they all must plug and play together nicely, right? Not really. 

In fact to make the entire stack work effectively, there are many individual configuration files, each one with a long list of their own parameters, which need to be edited, tuned and controlled.  And because the set of software is so complex, each element is managed by its own specialist in isolation without much knowledge of the other pieces of the puzzle. 

The combination of many software assets, configured manually without much knowledge of dependencies leads to predictable results.  Someone makes a change in one area while stability and performance problems show up elsewhere.  Once the problem crops up, a team of IT specialists will take hours, maybe days to track down the problem and provide the solution.  Analyst firms like Enterprise Management Associates and Forrester Research agree problems in the configuration of the application infrastructure are now one of the leading causes of downtime.

Some vendors and businesses are now focused on a comprehensive approach to tackling this problem. The five building blocks required are easy enough to understand:

  1. Discovery and mapping—What application element and software assets do I have in my environment? How are they configured, item by item?
  2. Change monitoring—Inform management not only about the applications that have changed, but tell them how they have changed.
  3. Release Management—Sometimes called ‘provisioning,’ this relates to the ability to model configuration changes to the application infrastructure and then deploy those changes consistently across all phases of the application life-cycle.
  4. Auditing and Reporting—Show the business that IT supports corporate governance initiatives, not only at the server and network level, but also at the critically important application layer.
  5. Integration with the IT environment—Insure that the tools for configuration management of the application infrastructure work seamlessly with your problem management system or your configuration management database.
1.‘Discovery’ is usually where these solutions should start—as long as they do not end there!  In order to provide the IT team with a solution to managing the thousands of configuration settings in a J2EE application stack, you need to have a repository of the environment itself, a working model that reflects your application infrastructure.  With this repository of data in place, IT can then begin to comprehend how the various elements on the application layer are actually configured.  More important, IT can begin to understand the dependencies between, say, how the data base is configured and its impact on the application server.  Thus, application configuration problems can be averted before they arise.

2.‘Change Monitoring’ represents a critical component of a configuration management solution for application infrastructure.  With so many servers, instances and individual parameters, the number of configuration items quickly runs to the thousands per application. 

Change monitoring must identify not only that a component changed, it must also identify exactly where the change was made and on which server(s).  Right now, IT specialists comb through text files trying to figure this out when there’s an application outage or when the application can’t make the transition out of the lab and into production. At mValent we call this “Hack and Hope”-- they hack into text files, make a change and hope that it resolves the problem.  Automation tools instead can be used not only to find the change, but to find only relevant changes, ignoring unimportant differences.

Another key component of change monitoring to be addressed would be the notion of versioning and roll-back.  This is a well understood capability that exists in source code control systems and was applied by Documentum among others to the content management problem.  Now, we should focus on providing versioning and roll-back to the thousands of configuration settings which comprise a J2EE application stack.  Rather than have IT scramble to figure out what has changed when there’s an outage, let’s just re-instate a known working version of all of the configuration settings.  Then, IT can take the analysis and resolution off-line without the pressure to restore service immediately.

3. ‘Release Management’ is an important forward-looking area of a configuration management solution for application infrastructure. Right now, IT teams use a mixture of scripts and manual methods to deploy changes to application infrastructure settings. New solutions look to apply true automation to this process, insuring that configuration changes are modeled, evaluated and approved prior to deployment. Release management also validates that the process applies changes correctly. This also offers automatic deployment of changes to configuration settings and provides ‘out of the box’ templates for deploying new versions of an application server or a complete J2EE application stack.

These tasks currently take days to achieve and are error-prone.  Applying automation reduces cost and time while advancing quality.

4. ‘Audit and Reporting’ in a configuration management solution for application infrastructure refers to a capability report on the application infrastructure at a detailed level.  This would include reporting on change activity—which applications are driving the most change and causing IT execs the most headaches with SLAs.  Currently, this information exists at the server and network level, but less commonly for the applications themselves where change and upheaval is more likely. 

Audit and Reporting also measures how your application infrastructure complies with recommendations, standards or your best practices for how the infrastructure should be configured.  Which assets are in compliance? Which are out of compliance?

Solutions should also measure change activity. Who made the change, Why, When, and so on.  And, it would be appropriate to measure whether changes were made according to your change process or were made outside that process.

5. ‘Integration with your IT environment’ in a configuration management solution for application infrastructure refers to the ability of the solution to fit with the other elements in the IT ecosystem, like your problem and incident management system, your Configuration Management Data Base (CMDB), a source code management system or your corporate LDAP directory.

Ideally the solution will integrate directly with these items and create a ‘closed loop’ environment for managing change to the application infrastructure.  As an example, when a ticket is opened requesting a change to the configuration setting for the web server, the solution should automate the actual change process, include the ticket number in the reason for change and report back to the incident system so that the ticket can be closed.

This eliminates yet another manual process and opportunity for error in IT management.

Benefits & Summary.  The major benefits of a configuration management solution for application infrastructure relate to reducing complexity and promoting compliance for IT.  By transforming today’s manual, error-prone tasks into a sequence of automated processes, your IT team will see benefits in:

·  Improving the productivity of your IT Infrastructure Team, by upwards of 50% and enabling them to spend more time on new initiatives rather than fire-fighting

·  Accelerating time-to-value for applications by 25%

·  Improving the quality and uptime of your applications by reducing the key elements that cause most of today’s outages

·  Providing comprehensive best practices and compliance reports to management and stakeholders.

With today’s IT struggling to meet increasing demands without headcount increases, a configuration management solution for application infrastructure offers important sources of value.

Jim Hickey Vice President, Marketing. Jim Hickey joins mValent with over 20 years of software marketing and sales experience with emerging and growing companies. Immediately prior to joining mValent, Hickey spent six years with Authentica, providing executive leadership in marketing, business development and sales. Jim has also had executive marketing and sales positions at Omtool and Xyvision and is a former strategy consultant with global consulting giant, Booz-Allen & Hamilton. Jim has an MBA degree from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and a BA degree in Economics from Harvard College.


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