What is dependency mapping?
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Published: 18 January 2024
Contributors: Keith O'Brien, Michael Goodwin

What is dependency mapping?

Dependency mapping is the process of identifying, understanding and visualizing the relationships between applications, systems and processes within an organization’s IT operations.

Modern IT environments include many different types of software, hardware, network devices and virtualization technologies, and use a mix of on-premises infrastructure and cloud environments. Identifying all these systems, and understanding their dependencies, is an important but challenging process that helps organizations streamline and optimize their IT ecosystem.

This process helps an organization uncover vulnerabilities that need immediate remediation and inefficiencies where independent processes would be more advantageous. It enables an organization to improve its decision-making and better understand how a failure or issue in any one component will impact the rest of the IT ecosystem. Dependency mapping usually includes a visual representation of IT assets across an entire IT environment through visualizations like Gantt charts.

Dependencies can either be vertical, which are dependencies between different types of IT components, such as services to applications, or horizontal, which are dependencies between similar components, like application to application.

In a dependent ecosystem, an incident or problem with one component—like a piece of software with a bug or code malfunction—can put the entire chain of dependencies at risk and result in outages across the entire system. This is commonly referred to as “dependency hell.” Organizations seek to minimize these scenarios by understanding how their dependencies work and eliminating unnecessary ones.

Identifying dependencies through an ad hoc or manual process can be a lengthy, time-consuming process with no guarantee that IT team members will emerge with a complete understanding of a system’s complexity. For this reason, organizations often use dependency mapping tools and automation to help visualize the relationships between applications, data and tasks.

Dependency mapping—a core component of observability practices—has become increasingly important given the interdependence of modern enterprise IT services. Observability helps organizations visualize distributed applications for performance optimization and faster, automated problem identification and resolution.

Mapping dependencies is a critical component of IT project management and change management, for an organization must know how its systems interact and rely on one another in order to effectively manage ongoing projects and organizational change.

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Types of dependency mapping

There are different types of dependencies, and dependency mapping, that influence an organization’s comprehensive strategy. Breaking dependencies down by type can help an organization better understand the most consequential dependencies in its IT systems and how to improve them.

Application dependency mapping

Application dependency mapping, also known as application discovery and dependency mapping, is specifically concerned with dependencies between applications. Application dependency mapping helps an organization solve application performance bottlenecks and identify ways to make its applications run more reliably and efficiently.

Infrastructure dependency mapping

This involves understanding dependencies between servers, networks, databases and storage systems. For instance, infrastructure dependency mapping will identify how one server crashing will affect other servers, or how a database failing affects the organization’s overall data storage. It is especially helpful for understanding uptime and disaster recovery.

System dependency mapping

This discipline identifies the internal components of a system and existing dependencies, as well as dependencies between discrete systems within the enterprise. It can also include external dependencies within an organization’s industry. An organization’s industry or focus will dictate which systems are included in this dependency mapping.

For example, it could involve financial systems for banks, smart grid systems for energy producers or healthcare information systems for healthcare organizations.

Sweep and poll

This simple method pings IP addresses to learn from the responses which type of device was pinged. This can help organizations with simple network audits but does not provide real-time insights into dependencies, especially in agile environments.

Network topology

This dependency mapping type concerns the physical and logical arrangement of nodes and connections in a network.

Internal vs. external dependencies

Modern IT environments generally include a mix of in-house, third-party SaaS and open-source solutions. A complete understanding of both internal and external dependencies, and how solutions interact, helps organizations delivery greater value to stakeholders.

Internal dependencies

These are dependencies within an organization’s internal IT infrastructure, such as those that exist between software, servers and other tools in on-premises data centers and private clouds.

These are dependencies within applications, processes and systems that an organization controls, where the organization can intervene to resolve an issue or remove or strengthen dependencies.

External dependencies

These are dependencies between applications and systems outside an organizations’ complete control, such as those hosted on public cloud services, or those reliant on external APIs or open-source software. In these scenarios, an organization may be unable to directly control disruptions, which can lead to issues like performance degradation, outages, data leaks and credential exposure.

What causes IT dependencies?

There are several reasons for dependencies in software development and network infrastructure in today’s IT environments. These include:

Open-source development

Modern organizations are more likely to use open-source software, which requires communication between their owned applications and a third party that manages updates and other changes to the open-source software.

Microservices architecture and IT agility

Organizations need to move quickly to succeed. As such, they’ve embraced business agility, or the ability to quickly reconfigure services and launch new solutions to respond to changes in demand or customers habits.

To become more agile, organizations have turned to microservices architecture to build applications split into independent services that communicate through APIs. This approach allows different teams to work on different services within the application, ultimately accelerating the software development process.

While components of microservices operate independently, and ideally each microservice solution is fully autonomous, microservice solutions often have component services that communicate with other microservices across the network through APIs. This can create dependencies.

Cloud computing

Organizations that use public clouds have data, services and applications hosted externally. To effectively manage operations, and leverage the scaling benefits of cloud computing, it is imperative for organizations to understand how their cloud services depend on their on-premises services, and vice versa. Many cloud providers include tools to map these dependencies.

Benefits of dependency mapping

Dependency mapping, and the enhanced observability the discipline provides, can help organizations:

Strengthen risk management and mitigation

Organizations with complete visibility into their IT dependencies, and an understanding of how one issue could cascade into another—like how an SSL library issue might create security vulnerabilities across the network or how a change in an external API configuration could take an application offline—are better suited to prevent a catastrophe from occurring in the first place.

Knowing how each dependency change will affect the overall system can help organizations be better prepared for future attacks or issues.

Reduce downtime

Organizations with a strong dependency mapping practice are better positioned to prioritize and optimize their incident response protocols to ensure as much uptime as possible.

Improve root cause analysis

Dependency mapping helps organizations trace a discovered problem to the initial issue or error. This helps identify the root cause and strengthen the entire system.

Minimize unnecessary dependencies

Dependencies are not inherently bad; in fact, they can be beneficial. For example, dependencies can provide the ability to leverage existing code for reuse in other components, which minimizes new developmental needs. But not all dependencies are necessary.

A holistic visibility of dependencies can help organizations decide which dependencies are mandatory or valuable, and which ones should be eliminated.

Resource utilization

Understanding critical dependencies can help organizations allocate resources more effectively. By ensuring that components upon which other parts of a system rely are properly resourced and monitored, organizations can take steps to reduce the possibility of widespread performance degradation or failure.

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