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CMDBf is a lot more and a lot less than you think

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The DMTF CMDBf working group has recently published an updated draft of its specification. The final version should follow soon and I don’t expect major changes so now is not a bad time to start thinking about what this baby can do.

Since CMDBf stands for “configuration management database federation”, you might think the obvious answer to the “what can it do” question is “build a federation of configuration management databases”. Except it’s not. Despite its name, CMDBf provides little support for federation unless you take a very loose definition of the term. The specification gives you a query language and a very simple registration interface, with a sprinkle of metadata to improve interoperability. The query language lets you talk to a CMDB to retrieve information on configuration items (CIs) that it knows about. The registration interface lets you keep a CMDB informed of changes to CIs that it may care about. If you want to build on top of this a real federation, one that scales to the type of environment that CMDBs are used for today, you have to go further than what the specification provides. What CMDBf does give you is some amount of integration between CMDBs (at the protocol level at least, not at the model level). It may not sound like much but it is a lot of progress on the current situation and the right incremental step, whether you are aiming for true federation as the end goal or not.

That’s the “a lot less than you think” part. So, what’s the “a lot more than you think” part? Good stuff all around:

CMDBf provides a metamodel that is well-suited for complex IT systems and it provides an elegant graph-oriented query language on top of it. The most convenient representation for an IT system is neither “one big XML document” nor “a sea of nodes and edges”. CMDBf gives you a middle ground: a graph model with XML leaf nodes. So you can precisely model the relationships between your IT elements using explicit relationships (with their own records), but you can also attach a well-understood piece of XML to an item as a record without having to break that XML into a bunch of tiny relationships.

I am pretty sure there are other domains, beyond IT systems, for which this would be useful. It will be interesting to see if the CMDBf specification gets considered outside of its intended scope. But these domains are more likely to end up using RDF/OWL/SPARQL instead. Not everyone has made the leap from XML as a tool to XML as a religion, which made CMDBf necessary for us. But let’s not veer into another rant.

Let’s go back instead to describing how useful CDMBf can be to IT systems management, independently of any “federation” objective. Let me put it this way: if one was to create from scratch a configuration store for IT systems they should strongly consider the CMDBf conceptual model as the base metamodel. And something along the lines of the CMDBf Query (though not necessarily through its XML serialization) as the native query language for it. Most CMDBf implementers of course are not in this situation. Rather than writing the store from scratch they will create a CMDBf wrapper/interface on their current CMDB. And that’s fine too. CMDBf will work well as an interoperability protocol. Putting aside my gripes about XPath overuse, CMDBf strikes a reasonable balance that makes it implementable on top of any back-end technology (relational, XML, RDF, in-memory objects, bags of name-value pairs…). And the query patterns it supports map well to CMDB-to-CMDB integration use cases. But it is underselling it, in my view, to restrict it to this over-the-wire interoperability scenario. CMDBf also provides a very useful foundation for local access to the CMDB. CMDBf graph queries can support powerful visualization of the content of the CMDB. They can support the definition of configuration rules. They can support in-depth inspection of relationships (e.g. fault tree).

And that may jsut be the beginning. It could take three directions after v1:

The first one, as always for a standard, is that it is ignored and becomes irrelevant. I have to reluctantly list this one first, because it is statistically the most likely for a new standard. Especially one that is not a ratification of an existing de facto standard. And one that threatens an important control point for vendors. A slight variation on this scenario is for CMDBf to succeed from a marketing perspective, as a checkmark that most vendors tick, but not as a true technology. This is the “smokescreen” scenario from Mr. Skeptic. One scenario that worries me is that CMDBf could fail because of the poor models of the CMDBs that implement it. If your IT model is not granular enough or if it matches the UI of your application more than the semantics of the IT components, then CMDBf will expose these shortcomings and probably be blamed for them (with bad models, “shoot the messenger” becomes “shoot the protocol”).

The second possible direction is that CMDBf provides enough value in integrating CMDBs that people want more and challenge the group to deliver on the “f” part, federation. That could take the form of a combination of:

  • better integration with other protocols (mostly from the WS-Management family, like WS-Enumeration and WS-Eventing),
  • reconciliation support (here are ways to address it),
  • some model transformations or canonical models,
  • some optimizations in the query mechanism for distributed queries (e.g. data partition rules).

The third possible direction (not exclusive) is for CMDBf to become the basis for a standard rule language for IT models. Yeah, another one (remember SML?). SPIN and SML show us how a generic query language can be used to support configuration rules. I very much like SPIN but it requires adopting RDF as a metamodel, which is a hard sell in XML-land. SML suffers technically from being too reliant on an inappropriate validation tool (XSD) and treating relationships as a second thought rather than an integral part of the model. Which is fine in many areas (EMF does it too), but not, in my view, when modeling IT systems.

If we are not going to use RDF/SPIN then let’s copy them. We can use the CMDBf metamodel (graph-based) where SPIN uses RDF. We can use the CMDBf query language (graph-oriented) where SPIN uses SPARQL. Since CMDBf queries use XPath, we see some commonalities with SML (which uses XPath through Schematron). But in CMDBf XPath is scoped to the leaf nodes of the graph, not the entire model as it is in SML. In other words, SML adds relationship traversal to XPath, while CMDBf adds XPath to its relationship-aware queries. It’s a matter of who’s on top. It sounds academic but it isn’t.

Does the industry really want standardized, re-usable configuration rules? SML/CML seem to say no. The push towards Cloud interop, on the other hand, begs for it. At least if you believe in programming your environment in a way that is partialy declarative rather than entirely procedural.

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Published at DZone with permission of William Vambenepe. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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