What is configuration management, and why is it important?

What is configuration management, and why is it important?
Configuration management was born as a systems engineering discipline in the 1950s, when the U.S. began developing tactical and strategic ballistic missiles. The manufacturers found that they had trouble mass producing missiles from the successful prototypes, because they'd failed to record the contents of the successful configuration in an organized manner. We can only imagine what the result of testing the unsuccessful production models might have been—certainly, something to record in the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

IEEE defines configuration management as—take a deep breath—"a discipline that applies technical and administrative direction and surveillance to and identifies and documents the functional and physical characteristics of a configuration item, controls changes to those characteristics, records and reports change processing and implementation status, and verifies compliance with specified requirements."

One of the challenges of high-tech product development is to ensure that the product being manufactured is identical to the product that was designed, reviewed, tested, and validated. Although physical prototypes and functioning systems are often built during the engineering process, the true output of an engineering effort is paper: the drawings, code listings, specifications, process instructions, and other documents that define the "form, fit, and function" of the product or system. In most cases, this documentation must be able to stand alone; that is, it must provide complete manufacturing, installation, and servicing instructions, without a need for engineering to supply further information.

The documentation must be absolutely accurate and deterministic. Product samples manufactured by different personnel on different days or by different manufacturing facilities must be identical in form, fit, and function. And as models and versions change, the documentation must change with them. As different models and versions proliferate in the field, the manufacturer should be able to reproduce the exact design documentation of any model and version for maintenance and servicing—this is a requirement for products manufactured under ISO standards, the European CE mark, and numerous regulated industries, such as medical devices and aviation.

Configuration management is the discipline and set of methodologies used to control the documentation of a product through its life. To learn more about configuration management, visit our Configuration Management summary page, where you'll find a selection of our guidelines, templates, and articles on the subject.

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