Configuration Definition & Meaning

A configuration is the way a system is set up, or the assortment of components that make up the system. Configuration can refer to hardware, software, or a combination of both. For instance, a typical configuration for a laptop PC consists of 8GB or 16GB (gigabytes) main memory, multiple USB ports, a hard disk or solid-state drive (SSD), a wireless card, and an operating system.

Many software products require that the computer have a certain minimum configuration. For example, the software might require a minimum CPU or graphics processing unit (GPU), and a minimum amount of main memory.

A new device or program may need to be configured when it is installed, which means its various switches and jumpers (for hardware) need to be set and values of parameters (for software) need to be defined. For example, a particular device or program may need to know what type of video adapter is available or what type of printer is connected to the computer. Thanks to technologies like plug-and-play and USB, much of this configuration is performed automatically.

How to manage system configuration

Once a system is configured, it still requires ongoing, dedicated management to ensure it is fully functional, optimized, and up-to-date. Thankfully, this responsibility can be completely automated to avoid human error and increase efficiency. Laptops, for example, will prompt users to update their operating system and applications and apply security patches.

The process is a little more complicated in information technology (IT) systems. Automated configuration management (often simply referred to as IT automation) incurs a hefty upfront cost and can demand more time and resources from IT admins initially, but the long-term benefits of security, stability, and productivity usually make the investment worthwhile.

The technical aspects of configuration management involve configuration items (e.g., monitors, email applications, switches, servers, etc.) and their relevant information within a configuration management database. Popular configuration management tools include:

  • Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform

  • Puppet

  • Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager (formerly System Center Configuration Manager, MSCCM)

  • Chef

  • AWS OpWorks

  • Terraform

  • SaltStack

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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