Configuration Management Planning: What To Do Before you Start

Configuration management planning should not start as you put together your CM Plan. By then, you've already predisposed yourself to how your plan is going to play out.

As with most things, the earlier in the process that you do your planning the better. Don't make the mistake of waiting until you start to define your CM process to do your CM planning. Your objectives should reach far beyond process. If you want to achieve the next generation of CM Planning, you need to start with an aggressive set of objectives and be ready to use next generation technology. Even if you don't meet all of your objectives, you'll find you're ahead of the game. Your preliminary objectives need to deal with a dozen or so key areas prior to zooming in on your CM process.

Here's what I might recommend as a set of aggressive objectives.

·         Automation: Automate what can be automated

·         Multiple site development:  Seamless addition of sites with no effect from geographic separation (other than time zone effects)

·         Administrative: Shoot for zero administration of your CM system and processes

·         Zero cost/big payback: You want a zero-cost solution that has big payback

·         Integration of tools and of the repository: All tools working from a common repository, using the same user interface

·         Next generation technology:  Benefit from already proven next generation technology that's not yet caught up to the mainstream

·         Guidance and training: No training is ideal, but perhaps settle for a couple of hours per role with guidance provided interactively by your technology

·         Process customization and improvement capability: Out-of-the-box processes are data driven for easy customization

·         Reliability and availability: 100% and 100% would be nice

·         On-demand information: Pre-canned reports and queries, rapid traceability navigation, easy customization of queries

·         CM standards:  Meets all recognized CM standards

·         Entire ALM process, not just CM: CM process specified well beyond current requirements, and extended from one end of the ALM process to the other

·         Security and data integrity: Adequate security levels and guaranteed data integrity

·         Serviceability, upgrades and evolution of your CM system:  Easy to service remotely without downtime, zero-impact upgrades, ability to evolve to handle wider process areas/requirements

Is this a bit idealistic? Perhaps, but perhaps not as much as you think. If you don't aim high, you're not going to get what you really want.

There are two ways to approach CM planning: push the state of the art or "follow the leader". The former approach uses your CM experience and outside resources to identify what are feasible goals that will eliminate traditional problems and maximize payback. The follow the leader approach looks at what most everyone else is doing and tries to stay in the ball game by emulating what has already been tried.

This is more attractive because there are well-known sets of procedures, tools, expertise, etc. that can be harvested with more or less a predictable payback and set of problems. Time constraints often push a project into the follow the leader approach, but in a sufficiently large project, it's really worth the effort to push the state of the art, or at least to set that as a goal. You may find that there are advanced tools, processes, and technology that are ready for mainstream and that will give you a competitive edge.

Some Examples
Many of the big strides we've take in CM were made in CM groups of large telecom companies. In those telecom companies where I headed up the CM group, I was always aggressive. In the late 1970s, when CM was really just version control and some build assistance, we took the time to analyze the situation. Two big results seemed to stare us in the face:

(1) Changes, not file revisions, have to drive the software CM process. That's how everyone always worked: they set about implementing a change but then saved the change as a bunch of file revisions. The key information was lost. As a result we were held hostage to the practice of dumping file revisions into the repository, trying to build and then fixing the problems until we had a stable base to go the next round. After a couple of iterations on a change-based CM theme, we settled on the fact that it was the change that had to drive the downstream effort. Changes, not file revisions, were promoted. Baselines and non-frozen configurations were automatically computed based on change states. Context views were based on baselines supplemented by changes. This was a huge success, but not without the other key result.

(2) In the '70s and throughout CM history, including today, many, if not most (read "all" in the '70s) software shops believed that branching was best if it were flexible enough so that you could multiply branches upon branches upon branches. Of course there was a cost for merging the branches, eventually back into a main branch, but that was simply an accepted cost. In 1978 we identified that a branch was required when doing a change only if the previous code needed continued support apart from the change. We attacked the question of what that meant and in the end evolved the stream-based persistent branches instead of a single main trunk. We pushed further to identify what was required in order to minimize parallel checkouts and addressed those issues, one by one. In the end, we built a stream-based CM tool that would grow to support 5000 users on a small number of mainframes (no real network existed back then)

The results were astounding:  simple two-dimensional branching, with one branch per stream in one of the most successful telecom projects of all time (at Nortel). There was very little training required (less than a day) to educate users on a command-line based tool (GUIs didn't exist yet). There was no need for complex branching strategies, labeling, and even, for the most part, parallel checkouts and merging. 95% of the merges were from one development stream to another, not using parallel branches. It was a simple, scalable solution still in use to this day (I think there's a GUI now though). Quite frankly, we didn't know how good a job we'd done until a decade later (late '80s) when we started looking at the industry as a whole and where it was.

The point is that some analysis, and a resolve to do things right, resulted in a highly successful solution.

Another goal we set for ourselves was to automate. This started at Nortel in the late '70s, where our nightly build process would automatically test compile and notify developers of problems before they left for the day, and automatically produce the builds required each day at the various promotion levels. In the '80s at Mitel, we took this one step further so that we could even download (over an RS232 link) the executables onto the test targets and run predefined test suites against them at virtually a single push of a button.

In both cases we would automatically compute what needed to be compiled based on change status and include/uses dependencies so that we would not have to compile the world every night. A 1 MIP computer was a powerful mainframe back then [VAX 780], and still could support dozens of users, but could not take a load of having to perform several thousand compiles in just a few hours.  So we focused on automating and then optimizing the automation to use as few resources as possible.

The focus on automation was highly successful.

In developing CM+ at Neuma, a couple of focus points were "near-zero administration" and "easy customization", to be able to support virtually any process. Because these were objectives in place from the start, they were easy to meet. We simply looked at the effect of every feature and of the architecture on administration and customization.
Where we might have otherwise cut corners, we simply refused to, and often noticed that the net effort was the same apart for some extra deep, gut-wrenching thought processes that there was a tendency to resist. The result was a near-zero administration, easily customized tool.

The lesson is: If you want to achieve ideal results, you have to have ideal objectives from the outset, and then work to them. And it doesn't seem to cost any extra effort. In fact, the simplicity and the "this is the way it should be" results give you plenty of payback down the road. So if you want to do real CM planning, set high goals up front and work to them.

How big a CM admin team will you need? We're not talking about CM functions here, just the administration that goes with your solutions. Well some of the traditional chores include:

·         Database optimization

·         Server (and VOB) administration

·         Disk space administration

·         Dealing with scalability issues as the project grows

·         Maintaining operation as you switch platforms (32- to 64-bit, Linux to/from Windows to/from Unix)

·         Multiple-site data synchronization issues

·         Upgrades to the database software

·         Upgrades to the various ALM tools and the associated glue that integrates them

·         Nightly backups and restore capability

·         Initial conversion/data loading from your existing solutions

These are big issues. You have to ensure high availability. You have to maintain good performance. Take a look at the various CM solutions out there. These tasks will require a few hours a week to a dedicated team of a few people, depending on your project parameters and the solution chosen. If you want to have fewer people doing admin and more working on core business, do your research - don't just play Follow-the-leader blindly. Especially if your CM planning team is familiar with solutions they've worked with.  The tendency is to stick with them because they know them, including their inherent risks. CM technology is progressing. There are leaner and meaner solutions and more advanced solutions that require less effort to maintain.

Integrated Tools

Have you ever used integrated tools? Were you satisfied with the level of integration and the speed of cross tool query? You can have the best of breed for each tool in an ALM solution, and integrate them together, but that won't give you the best solution. Ideally, you want management tools that share the same user interface, so you're not hopping from tool to tool and so that you're not complicating your training, and that share the same repository, so that data at all levels is available to all tools. Ideally there's no integration scripting that you have to maintain, even as you customize each management function. The second generation tools which knit together solutions are starting to give way to broader ALM solutions which are built on one or two core technologies.

Don't get into the situation where you have to have a team to do tool integration. Even worse is to have to outsource the same. If you have different groups picking their own management tools for the various functions, that's where you'll be headed. Instead, collect requirements and look around. You'll find that some do-all tools might not be the best in each function, but they're generally the best in some functions and have an added value of an integrated architecture. If traceability is important, integration is important.

Configuration Management Process

It pays to understand your process. Don't just throw existing tools in front of your team along with a handbook. Go through each part of your CM process. Ask yourself: Is this the way the user really wants to be doing this? The myth is that developers don't want tools and processes, as they just get in the way. The fact is that developers don't want tools and processes that just get in the way. Most processes and tools get in the way a bit but provide just enough payback to convince developers to use them.

Your processes and tools need to make sense. If they're not adding value to the users, take another look. It's not good enough to say: "We're a team, you're helping the downstream process by using them." A great number of them aren't interested in downstream process, which may be a separate problem. Good tools and processes should benefit the users as well as the rest of the team.

Using Change-Based CM Instead of File-Based

CM cuts down the number of steps the developer must take, and supports a simpler user interface, but not if the change concept is just glued onto a file-based CM tool. Change-centric CM tools manage change without having to keep revisions front-and-center. Similarly, an intelligent context-view mechanism helps to simplify things

Do your CM plans include the overloading of branches so that, besides parallel development, branches are used to track promotion states, releases, change packages, etc. If so, try to drop the baggage. Make sure your tools and processes deal with items such as branches, changes, builds/releases, baselines, etc. as first class objects on their own. A set of labels does not convert a branch into a build definition. Builds have a state flow all of their own, very different from branches. The same goes for changes

And don't confuse a change with a feature. Any number of changes could be required to implement a feature and any number of features might be implemented by a change (hopefully not, though). Similarly, you should have a process managing your 100s of features which is distinct from the process handling your 10s of 1000s of problem reports. They are very different beasts.

Look carefully at the main trunk vs trunk per stream scenario. Although a main trunk sounds simpler, it doesn't match reality and so is much more complex than a branch per stream scenario. Wrestle with this problem ahead of time and don't commit to one way only to find out too late you made a mistake. There are many CM issues that have to be addressed, and they have to be addressed objectively by looking at the way you expect things to happen.

Get your CM requirements down clearly. It's not that you need a way to compare the features and problems fixed in one build to another. It's that you need that at a touch of a button. You can't be expected to make timely decisions if your information takes hours or days to come by.

I might challenge you to look back at some of the past CM journals to identify better ways of doing things. This is generally quite different from the way most projects do it. Do you want your CM costs to be 5% or 15% of your project costs.  That's quite a difference off your bottom line.

The most common high level requirement we found in our initial requirements gathering for building a CM tool was that the project needs to be able to customize it to their own processes. Not a problem for some solutions: they just throw in a compiler, a pencil and an eraser.  Voila, it's customizable. No!

Your process is going to change and evolve as you understand your business better, go through mergers, and understand your development better. Make sure it's easy to change. This is a precondition. It doesn't have to have a voice recognition feature with artificial intelligence that converts your tools and processes to match your verbal requests. It does, however, have to support your processes and allow them to evolve in terms of data, user interface, rules, triggers, permissions, roles. Don't settle for: we'll figure out how to change it later. You want to avoid the mess of configuring an unconfigurable tool. You don't want to become the tool supplier, just the process supplier.

If you have to learn some tools in order to create new user interfaces, etc., so be it. If you don't, even better. Most tools will allow some level of customization through an "administrative" GUI, while leaving the rest to your compiler, pencil and eraser. Find out what capabilities lie on what side of this fence. And beware of the open-ended questions such as: Can you do automated approvals? The answer is yes. Find out instead, how much effort is it to do automated approvals, or even better: show me how this is done. If it's a 5 minute thing, great! If it's a 5 month thing, not so great.

Multiple Sites

Another area of danger is multiple site management. There is often a tendency to look at a version control tool that can support multiple sites and say, OK, well if we use that tool our problems are solved. Not so. Multiple site management means management of file versions, problem reports, requirements, customer tracking data, documents, project management tasks, etc. across multiple sites. If you've got multiple tools doing the separate functions, expect this to be a major issue unless they all have a common architecture for multiple site management. A single integrated tool that supports the multiple site management as a function of the common repository instead of on a function by function basis will give you fewer worries.

And then there's the question: what is multiple site management? Do I split up branches by site? What about projects, problems, requirements? There's the distributed data solution, and then there's the replicated data solution. There's also a distributed access to central data solution. Look at these carefully. Make sure that you don't have to put sensitive data on a contractor's site. Make sure that you can deal with all of the ITAR data segregation requirements you need to.

We've looked at some of the details and it's obvious that process and tools are a very key component of your CM planning. That means you need to do your research up front. You don't have to do tool evaluation or selection. You don't have to decide on CMM or RUP. You just have to know what's available. What technology is available, how aggressive can you make your objectives. You might have to decide between a high capacity truck and a fast car, but you might find that there are next generation solutions that give you the best of both. IT progress is too rapid to assume that last decades's solutions are more or less the same today. Would you look at last year's medical progress if you needed a cure today? Spend time to get informed.

Visit CM Crossroads forums and get feedback on today's thinking. Agile wasn't here yesterday, now it’s all over the map. If you don't have time, bring in some experts to help you. When you plan for CM, you're not just doing another feature, you're building corporate backbone.

A Word on Databases
It's a no-brainer to go with a Relational DBMS for your CM/ALM solution, right? There's no other standard. Well, I know of at least a couple of other solutions that deserve consideration. The problem with a pure relational solution is that it does not match the real world. In the real world of CM and ALM there are hierarchical constructs: WBS, Source Tree, Org Chart, Requirements Tree, to name a few.

There is a need to have one record point to an arbitrary number of other records: requirement allocation, reasons for a change, files modified by a change, include dependencies, product/component dependencies, etc. Data records need to have a concept of versions. A file has several branches, each branch has several revisions. The same goes for documents, requirements, and perhaps other objects. With an RDBMS, the tendency is to push the revision data out of the database and into the file versioning tool's meta-data. All of a sudden, a simple database operation to identify open revisions turns into a complex, inefficient task of searching through the versioning tool's set of files.

When the database does not match the real world, you need a process to map the real world objects onto RDBMS data, and you need another process to map the data back to the real world. This requires effort, resulting in short cuts that shouldn't be taken. It also requires expertise, meaning it's not easy to customize your tools and it’s not easy to get answers to your real world questions.

Hopefully they're all pre-canned in your solution so that you don't have to frequently turn to your expert. Another effect of the real-world to database mismatch is one of performance. You can't go to a requirement and ask for the sub-requirements. Instead you have to go to all requirements and see if the requirement is a parent of each requirement. The performance is orders of magnitude worse. But, data indexing comes to the rescue. So now you have to (automatically) maintain index files which need modification whenever the data is modified. You need to specify which fields need to be indexed, making customization tasks more complex. You have background processes constantly performing indexing.

Then there's handling of note" fields, such as problem descriptions, running logs, and of file management. RDBMS solutions don't do a good job here. You need to augment them. However, when you do, you lose many of the capabilities that you started with because the augmented tools don't share the same architecture as the RDBMS.

Don't be afraid of non-RDBMS repositories, provided they have the necessary functionality and a host of advantages. Just make sure they are as good or better in areas of reporting, reliability, scalability, data integrity, and performance.

Be Prepared
So what we've covered is not how to do CM planning, but rather how to prepare for your CM planning exercise. Do some research and then set your objectives high. Understand the tools and the processes out there. Bring in help if you need it, but make sure the objectives are clear. Pass your results onto the rest of the CM community (your successes and your problems) as you go. There's a lot of expertise available for free at CM Crossroads.

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