How one small university built a successful CMDB piece by piece

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A configuration management database, or CMDB, is one of the most effective ways to streamline service delivery and operations at a university, yet many CIOs at smaller institutions believe they don’t have the resources to manage one. But Karen Warren, the deputy chief information officer of Wesleyan University, a private school in Middletown, Connecticut, with just 3,300 students, on Tuesday presented an alternative viewpoint. 

Warren said her university, which keeps an IT shop with about 50 employees, first assembled its CMDB team in 2016, and though none of that team’s members work on the CMDB full time, the project has been successful. In fact, she said, the university’s CMDB has become an integral gear driving the university’s operations.

“It can be done. We do not have dedicated [full time-employees] to this effort and we are working with a configuration management database that continues to be more and more important to the operation of our organization,” Warren said during Educause’s virtual conference. “Running IT efficiently enhances the organization’s ability to support the institution’s mission [and] having the information in a single source of truth has been an ongoing journey, but has definitely contributed to our efficiency.”

Wesleyan’s CMDB, a data warehouse that keeps tabs on all of the hardware and software assets across the university’s departments, along with information on their relationships to one another, is even slated to begin feeding data to the university’s service catalog this November, Warren said — a feat representing years of work in which the team had to convert reluctant staff members who weren’t initially convinced of the project’s value.

Shifting the reputation of the CMDB from that of an annoyance to a valuable centralized engine that powers the university’s services was an incremental process, said Kevin Kane, Wesleyan’s manager of student systems and web applications. Initially, he said, some of the information that people were being asked to enter into the CMDB — on top of their usual work — was already being entered into another system and they didn’t understand why they had to do certain things twice.

“It was kind of viewed as a burden on a staff that was already stretched thin that was already responding to a lot of different issues and onboarding services at a very quick rate,” Kane said. 

To get support for the project, Kane said he looked for a series of “quick wins” that would demonstrate the CMDB’s value and upon which he could “build momentum.” One of the first things, he said, was to automate the duplicative data entry. Once the CMDB had information on the dependencies of the university’s various technologies, he said, departments could for the first time find certain critical information in one location, without needing to hunt around in various databases and systems. They started to change their minds about the project, he said.

Another “quick win,” he said, was to include in the CMDB information on when computers needed to be replaced, which now automatically feeds into budget projections for coming years, rather than requiring a manual tabulation. Eventually, Warren said, the CMDB will also connect to a system that allows employees to order a new computer from the available inventory.

But one of the most crucial steps for a small university to launch a CMDB, Warren said, is to establish a list of goals early on that can serve as a lodestar for the project. Wesleyan’s goals were simple: Document technical and functional owners of services and applications, have a current listing of services and applications and understand and document dependencies. 

“If you’re going to put this much effort into having a configuration management database, it really helps to come down to what the goals are for you,” she said. “This helps particularly getting started and then as you start to get down a rabbit hole, which you can quickly and easily do when you’re working with configuration management databases, it gives you a reference point for turning back and looking at wait a minute why did we say we wanted this?”

Warren said her group also gleaned advice from papers published by the research firm Gartner and Educause to ensure such a “sprawling” project didn’t grow beyond her team’s control.

Today, Wesleyan has a formal change-management process, with documentation, and the upcoming launch of the university’s web-based service catalog will put the institution “light years ahead” of where it was just a few years ago, Warren said. It was careful planning that made the CMDB possible, and she encouraged smaller universities not to be discouraged by their limited resources.

“I would venture to say even if you do have dedicated staff, there’s no organization for whom one or two people could possibly maintain an entire CMDB, so you really need to the buy-in from the teams as to why you’re doing what you’re doing and what is the value to them,” she said.

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