To CMDB or Not to CMDB? ITAM vs CMDB

Co-authored by Patricia Adams

This year, I decided to make some landscaping changes around my property. I have been repairing fences, planting new gardens, and pulling up trees in my efforts to meet the landscaping goals I set. Throughout the process, I learned I do not own the correct tools for many of the tasks I intended to complete. On several occasions, I have improvised using tools in my possession instead of purchasing the recommended tools. For example, I wonder if I should have purchased and used a chain saw to cut down a tree, or was the hand saw I currently own sufficient? And will it continue to be efficient? Only time will tell, but I do fear the outcome from some of my decisions.

For IT asset management and support, ITIL and ITAM provide guidelines for best practices. ITSM and ITAM software are tools that manage and support IT assets and their configuration. An ITSM Configuration Management Database (CMDB) is a tool that documents an IT asset, much like a software tool that provides ITAM functionality. It is important not to confuse the different objectives of the CMDB and ITAM software tools.

  • ITAM objectives focus on managing an IT asset’s overall cost, including ownership, associated contracts with asset lifecycle, warranty, and refresh information. ITAM focuses on IT assets from an organization’s financial perspective.
  • Configuration Management objectives look at IT assets from an operational and support perspective. Asset availability and stability impact an organization’s day-to-day operations, so assets need to be documented along with their configuration and service offerings.

Although the objectives of ITAM and Configuration Management are different, one could argue that the CMDB could easily be used as a tool that can store both discovered ITAM data and Configuration Management data. This is similar to my landscaping question about using a hand saw versus a chain saw to cut down a tree. Is there a difference? Is one more effective than the other, or is the additional tool worth the expense? Regarding ITAM and the CMDB, consider the following three questions:

  1. Can I use the CMDB to store all my ITAM data?
  2. If the CMDB stores ITAM data, would asset reports improve since they are coming from a single database?
  3. Would it be more efficient to use a single database versus two separate databases to manage IT assets?

To answer these questions I faced-off with Patricia Adams, a recognized ITAM industry expert, so that we could provide two different perspectives for each question.

Can I use the CMDB to store all my ITAM data? 

Marcel Shaw:

The answer is yes, considering most ITSM solutions available today can be configured to store all IT asset data in the CMDB. Be aware that extensive modifications would be required to meet ITAM requirements. Asset properties that ITAM requires would need to be added to the CMDB. The CMDB does not provide discovery capabilities, so be sure to build connectors or integration to external IT asset discovery tools so that IT asset configuration information is discovered and current in the CMDB database. Also, you would need to create IT asset manager roles in the ITSM solution, with appropriate rights to the CMDB for the ITAM administrators. Managing ITAM data in the ITSM solution could make it easier to build and manage request fulfilment processes.

Patricia Adams:

Data Overload or Data Overlord?

Putting too much unrelated data into a CMDB to the business problem you’re trying to solve, such as mapping a business service into the CMDB, could lead to a costly and massive database. The greater the depth of information stored, the more time, effort, and human resources will be required to maintain the integrity of the data. It can’t be a trusted source if it isn’t accurate. With many people maintaining and making changes to the data, there is a risk that unapproved changes will happen and it might be to business critical CI’s. Limiting the amount of data will also limit the number of people that can make changes to the data, thereby maintaining the integrity.

If the CMDB stores ITAM data, would asset reports improve since they are coming from a single database?

Marcel Shaw:

Adding detailed IT asset information to the CMDB allows for comprehensive reporting. Creating reports using a single database could make it easier to build IT asset reports. A CMDB offers IT asset relationship information such as configuration, change risk, and impact analysis, whereas a typical ITAM solution generally focuses on peer, parent, and child relationships of an IT asset. If the CMDB stores and manages all ITIL and ITAM asset relationship information, building reports that show IT asset relationships from a single source may be easier and less expensive than building reports using multiple databases. Building reports from multiple data sources can be difficult and may require additional knowledge and training. However, as I stated in my previous answer, extensive modifications to the CMDB would be required to achieve such a goal.

Patricia Adams:

Reporting Overload

There is a natural tendency to want to consolidate information as much as possible. Nobody wants to log into multiple tools to get an answer to a simple question. However, when there is too much data stored in a CMDB, it becomes difficult to report, sort, and interpret the data. If you wanted to create a constituency of people that look at the same data, an extract would need to be created. This extract might be an XLS file or a mini data mart, depending upon the number of configuration items (Cis) in your CMDB. When running a report, take into account the last time the database was updated with current changes to ensure there isn’t any latency in the data. By putting too much data that might be irrelevant to relationships or business services, you risk overloading the viewers or users of the data with unnecessary information.

Would it be more efficient to use a single database versus two separate databases to manage IT assets?

Marcel Shaw:

Depending on the size of the organization and the amount of ITAM processes that need to be configured, the CMDB can be a cost effective alternative, providing a simplistic asset management solution. Customization would need to be added to the CMDB, which may be expensive. After applying ITAM capabilities to the CMDB, it would be unlikely that an organization would have a complete ITAM solution. This type of IT asset management may be sufficient for a smaller organization; however, the CMDB would need to be modified so it could handle contract, financial, and lifecycle information. Furthermore, ITSM processes would need to be modified or added to provide ITAM process functionality. Adopting this strategy could benefit an organization because they would not have to purchase a separate software solution nor would they have to train employees how to manage an additional product.

Patricia Adams:

Use the Right Tool for the Job

Many organizations want to centralize their information in a single, source of truth, but that source might not be the best place to store the data. For example, some organizations want to put contracts, process guidebooks, and policies into their CMDB. By keeping data in a tool that specializes in that function, you can ensure that the functionality is designed to store attributes of information about that item in a reasonable form.

Contracts should be stored in a database that allows you to image them, pull out key dates, create workflows, and associate them with cost centers or groups. This would be either an IT asset management tool or a contract management system. CMDBs are not designed to support this level of detail without extensive customization. Selecting the correct domain tool for the data and then linking or integrating it to the CMDB can ensure that you are not trading off functionality for centralized convenience.


IT organizations tend to agree that IT asset management is critical for success; however, the way assets are managed varies along with the management tools that are used. Most people I speak with seem to agree on one point; we can do better when it comes to IT asset management. Patricia and I would love to know how your organization manages IT assets. If your organization is either limiting or not limiting the data that goes into a CMDB, please contribute a comment and tell us your approach to configuration and asset management.