What is configuration management?

Configuration management is the process of ensuring that the configurations of a system’s servers, applications, and other environments remain known, consistent, and trusted over time. Any IT system has certain configurations related to software versions, security, networking, and other settings that are essential for optimal functioning. Configuration management tracks, updates, and maintains these configurations so that the system performs at a predetermined baseline and remains secure despite any changes. It establishes and maintains the consistency of a system’s performance and its physical and functional attributes. It takes into account the system’s operational information, design, and requirements throughout its life.

Why is configuration management important?

Configuration data are settings that you can use to enable IT systems to function in a specific manner. Before deployment, you configure various parameters—such as memory allocation, hardware allocation, user access privileges, and network parameters—so that the system operates optimally. However, system requirements keep changing in an evolving business environment. 

Configuration challenges

Updating configuration values is challenging because of complex interdependencies, microservice architecture, and data management requirements. Without a system in place, configuration drift occurs very quickly. Configuration drift is when system configurations no longer align with business requirements or with related environments. For instance, configuration changes in a development environment must be recreated exactly in production. Missing or ignoring steps in this process results in configuration drift. 

How configuration management helps

With configuration management, you can monitor and update configuration data that software uses throughout its lifecycle. It provides a centralized approach to consolidating configuration data across different systems to serve as a baseline. Instead of manually updating configuration files on different hardware and software systems, you can use a configuration management tool to implement incremental changes safely and consistently across all platforms. More importantly, configuration management systems automatically document updates that you make so that you can analyze new configuration changes and impacts on system performance. 

How is configuration management relevant to modern software development practices?

Traditionally, software developers took a manual approach to managing application configurations. When they shifted to cloud architecture, they recognized the importance of automating configuration management. Therefore, they’ve integrated the job into various software practices to reduce development bottlenecks.

DevOps configuration management

DevOps bridges the gap between development and operations teams by automating resource sharing to increase productivity. With configuration management, you can anticipate changes early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC). In a DevOps setup, the software engineering team is responsible for testing, tracking, and managing configuration changes to ensure production readiness. 

Read about DevOps

Read about the software development lifecycle

Agile configuration management

Agile is a project management framework that divides software development workflows into smaller parts. By integrating configuration management with Agile, you can rapidly configure the underlying resources when you release software updates. You can track individual configuration items precisely in each software iteration. 

CI/CD configuration management

With continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), you can make incremental code changes while you maintain a readily deployable software version in the repository. With successful configuration management, you establish an automated pipeline that easily recreates test environments from predefined parameters. 

Read about continuous integration

What are the benefits of configuration management?

Organizations implement configuration management to streamline configuration settings across different IT systems. This leads to operational efficiency, responsiveness, and better customer satisfaction. The following are several key benefits that configuration management offers.

Improve system recoverability 

Software engineers use configuration management tools to create a baseline for functional software. Some configuration values might change and affect system stability when you’re introducing new features. With configuration management, you can prevent service disruption by recovering and reverting to previously working configuration values. 

Reduces system disruption

Misconfigured software results in service breakdown, which affects employees and customers dependent on the IT system. A configuration management system documents and stores all configuration changes in a centralized platform. You can recreate the environment where failure was detected for further analysis. This facilitates remediation efforts and reduces costly system breakdowns.

Enable auditable documentation

Computer systems operate with dozens of configuration values that change over time. You can use configuration management platforms to determine why specific configurations were altered and to track their impact on the software. More importantly, configuration management tools provide an audit trail to identify who’s responsible for the changes. This helps your developers effectively communicate new updates when collaborating on the same project. 

Accelerate software development

Development teams spend considerable time testing with different configuration settings during the software development process. With configuration management tools, you can automate, observe, and analyze configuration settings in test and production environments. You can simulate production environments easily by adding parameter changes without overwriting baseline values. 

Simplify configuration updates

With configuration management, you can easily apply configuration values at different software development stages. For example, computing capacities are limited if you’re developing software on physical machines. However, you must revert to actual resource allocation when you test the application in the production environment. With a configuration management system, you can easily switch between versions of configuration data instead of making manual changes.

How does configuration management work?

Configuration management works by writing scripts and code that automate certain tasks to successfully configure all parts of a system together. You can capture, consolidate, and streamline the metadata—such as hardware allocation settings, API keys, and database endpoints—that IT systems require to operate. The process works as follows:

  1. System engineers use configuration management tools to gather data from different hardware and software environments.
  2. The data is stored in a central repository (configuration management database) that stakeholders can easily access.
  3. Engineers review the configuration data to ensure that they’re the optimal value used by functional systems. 

You can use automated tools and frameworks to set up an end-to-end configuration pipeline when you deploy workloads on private, public, or hybrid clouds. 

Read about private clouds

Read about public clouds

The following describes some broad functionality of configuration management.

Version control

Version control systems (VCS) are a software tool that track code changes. When a VCS is applied in software configuration management, you can track configuration values that you add, change, or remove in subsequent releases. 

Container configuration management

Containers are software packages that consist of the necessary resources applications used to operate, regardless of the underlying hardware specifications. Among the resources are configuration values that enable the application to run optimally when it’s deployed. You can create several versions of containerized applications from different configuration data. You can use a VCS to keep track of all changes and maintain observability across all variations. 

Automation frameworks

With an automation framework, system engineers can run scripts that automatically provision systems and configure them across clusters, networks, and devices. By automating configuration management, you can achieve desired system performance without relying on manual intervention. This way, your organization can scale IT systems across complex computing environments while reducing the risks of human errors.

What are the steps in configuration management?

Configuration management is a broad discipline that engineering teams adopt differently to suit organizational needs. For example: 

  • System engineers might establish an end-to-end pipeline to automate configuration changes on servers, computers, and edge devices. 
  • Engineering teams subscribe to infrastructure as code (IaC) services. They write scripts to analyze resources and environments where existing systems operate. 
  • Software engineers use automation tools, such as Chef and Puppet, to monitor and revert unintended changes to workload configurations. 

Read about infrastructure as code

Use the following steps to successfully implement configuration management processes.

Identify data and tools

Identify and document configuration data that influences IT systems deployed in your organization. Devise a plan to track configuration items, such as code modules, secret keys, and network settings. 

Choose appropriate tools that engineering teams can use to scan existing systems in the IT environment and establish a baseline configuration. This is crucial to ensure that all subsequent software updates have stable configuration data to fall back on. 

Manage changes

Use change management tools, such as a VCS, to manage varying configurations in software updates. You can also appoint a configuration manager to oversee and authorize the changes that development teams submit. The manager promotes accountability and transparency by establishing a change authorization workflow and reviewing each configuration update request. You can also audit all change requests to ensure that the desired outcome matches the results that the requestors expect. 

What are best practices for configuration management?

Successful configuration management requires thoughtful planning and coordinated implementation to ensure data integrity and system continuity. The following are some best practices for configuration management:

  • Involve all stakeholders when you’re determining system components, configuration modifications, and reporting metrics for organizational technology assets
  • Use appropriate software tools to track related configuration changes in different files, dependencies, and environments
  • Test potential effects that configuration changes have early on in the development stages 
  • Track individual configuration items on all computers and devices, whether on public, private, or hybrid networks
  • Continuously fine-tune the process to ensure that all software deployed is managed effectively from a single control hub

What’s the difference between configuration management and IaC?

IaC is a software technology that you can use to provision computing resources by defining them in code. You can automatically set up servers, operating systems, virtual machines, network components, and other computing infrastructure by specifying the requirements with infrastructure provisioning languages such as YAML and JSON. 

With configuration management, you can automate application installations, settings, updates, and performance monitoring. Configuration management augments IaC by simplifying system deployment and enabling scalability on the cloud.  

Read about JSON

How can AWS help with your configuration management requirements?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides managed services that engineering teams can use to automate configurations across workloads at scale. You can use the following AWS configuration management services to streamline service delivery, simplify change management, and optimize recoverability:

  • AWS System Manager provides a centralized configuration control hub for managing resources in multi-cloud environments
  • AWS Config helps detect configuration drifts by continuously assessing workload resource relationships
  • With AWS OpsWorks, you can use Chef and Puppet to automate configuration cloud servers on AWS 

Get started with configuration management on AWS by creating an account today.

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