ITIL®: a strategic key to the future

John Connor, ASG

Making IT best serve business needs and provide a higher return on investment (RoI) is not possible without an up-to-date picture of your IT resources - in effect, a type of service manual.

Over the years many attempts have been made to address this, but thanks to a British initiative, the IT Infrastructure Library, it may now be widely achieved. John Connor, senior vice president and chief technology officer at ASG, asks what is ITIL® and why should anyone adopt it?

Imagine running a power station without a comprehensive service manual. You would have no overall plant diagram, no proper identification of equipment, no details about specifications, no systematic way to deal with emergencies, no guidance to maintain the plant at peak efficiency or means to plan for the future. Now translate that scenario into the world of IT.

How many IT managers know exactly what and where existing assets are being used, and when new technologies should be phased in? Furthermore, how many can say that both overall and local systems are operating properly, fully aligned to business needs?

Even more important, are these systems, existing and planned, able to provide an acceptable return on investment (RoI)? These issues have plagued the IT industry ever since computers were first used to automate business processes back in the 1950s.

Today leaders of organisations, large and small, demand nothing less than accurate and timely answers to these questions.

The emergence of ITIL®

Recognising the importance of the issues, in the late 1980s IT professionals in the UK's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) began developing a comprehensive framework for all areas of IT service management. The initiative came to fruition in 1988 and has been promoted as an IT service management standard since the mid-1990s.

Today the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL®)[1] is the most widely accepted approach to IT service management in the world. It has been described as a de facto standard, used by hundreds of public sector organisations and business corporations.

ITIL® has been defined as, 'the process of maintaining and gradually improving business-aligned IT service quality, through a constant cycle of agreeing, monitoring, reporting and reviewing IT service achievements and through instigating actions to eradicate unacceptable levels of service'.

It is not a product or a service but a set of methods used to manage an IT infrastructure and deliver better service to its customers or users. The idea is to change the focus of an IT department's management from looking mainly at technology issues to seeing what IT resources the organisation really needs to support it, and meeting those requirements through constantly improving the system and its components.

ITIL® describes the necessary constituents to create an IT service management strategy. It does not say how these components should be integrated and implemented, what products should be used or what kind of external services should be purchased.

It is simply a methodology to be used in managing an IT infrastructure, aimed at delivering better service to its customers, whether in the public or private sector. Its procedures are supplier-independent and apply to all aspects of an IT domain, built up from a view of operational management and control by processes.

ITIL® provides a framework

The ITIL® framework looks at managing IT services by dividing them into service delivery and support activities. It is a constantly evolving set of best practices in IT service management. Previously updated in 2000, early next year it will be revised to create a third edition. It will reflect new terms and trends, aim to make implementation easier and say more about achieving RoI.

How it may be adopted, implemented and operated is explained in a set of reference books (currently eight, but due to become five in the next revision). The information may be purchased in a choice of three media formats: the books, a CD-ROM and an intranet licence.

The reference material is the official definition of ITIL® and constitutes a systematic approach to planning, provisioning and supporting IT services. IT staff may gain certified expertise in ITIL® by passing examinations with three certificates available at foundation, practitioner and manager levels.

The whole point of ITIL® is to make the IT infrastructure do what the business or organisation wants it to do. Thus the IT effort is focused on helping the organisation achieve its strategic objectives. By using it a business will know what needs to be done to understand service delivery requirements and what constitutes the support priorities. Any weaknesses in the service delivery processes may be revealed by monitoring and subsequently improved.

Better IT governance

Increasingly ITIL® is being seen as a way to put good IT governance in place. Besides squeezing more value out of IT resources, adopting the methodology will also support compliance with financial regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the US and similar developments in Europe. It encourages IT managers to look at business performance issues caused by poor service delivery and find solutions.

It also helps managers understand and control the costs of delivering IT services in relation to user and business benefits. It may then be easier to decide which services to retain or abandon in terms of costs incurred and benefits delivered.

ITIL® increases IT service reliability by ensuring that processes work properly and are repeatable throughout an organisation, in other words using standardized or systematic methods rather than 'ad hoc' ways of doing things, which can vary with the standards of the people carrying them out, or through departmental habits.

The set of best practices encourages an attitude of continual improvement because it focuses on service delivery and meeting users' real needs. It is prescriptive about methods of managing but allows flexibility in the means of execution.

Streamlining the business

For a major organisation such as a Global 1000 company or a large public sector department, ITIL® helps develop a common IT culture - one based on standard, repeatable methods and processes. This means that IT staff can move between different parts of the IT infrastructure and their existing skills will still be appropriate and transferable.

Thus the IT infrastructure across the whole organisation behaves and is managed in a consistent and harmonious way. Communication between the IT department and the organisation it serves is improved.

There is no single 'off-the-shelf' system that may be purchased to implement ITIL®; after all, it is a nonproprietary methodology. However there are many software products available to support its efficient operation. Again on the supply side there is a wealth of specialized expertise and best practice advice about how to adopt, operate and maintain ITIL®[2]. There are also independent institutions whose focus is the promotion, discussion and development of the subject.

An expected standard

ITIL® is beginning to be seen as a prerequisite or strategic catalyst to make other developments possible (see box). It represents the starting point from which to assess the IT resources needed to meet business requirements. Its systematic and rigorous approach will help organisations fully comply with mandatory financial regulations.

It facilitates better understanding, coordination and collaboration between IT and the rest of the business. Through ITIL® the right IT services may be supplied to the business on time and within budget. To sum up, all these benefits will help make an organisation more efficient, profitable and competitive.

SOA and ITIL®

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is a software concept that is increasingly being put into everyday IT practice. It is concerned with an IT system delivering services through the use of 'intelligent' software agents or providers. Through these agents SOA aims to make the use of software more efficient by reusing components and allowing non-IT people to create IT services to achieve tasks.

There are standard interfaces for services such that software can be changed and reconfigured to achieve different service levels or desired outputs. (This contrasts with object-oriented programming [OOP] where the consuming software and the providing software are closely coupled and can’t be separated in the same way.)

The real purpose of SOA is that it represents an approach to IT meant to create a more agile and responsive business. This includes responding to, or better supporting, the business environment and its conditions. It requires monitoring, reporting and action, and ITIL® service management focuses on exactly that.

View SOA as a way of designing an IT infrastructure, of architecting software services, which can be used underneath or inside an ITIL® framework to make a desired outcome happen. As the technology develops and becomes more established, this approach will make the adoption of ITIL® even more important.

John Conner is chief technology officer and senior vice president of business development at ASG Software Systems. John has 30 years of experience and has authored over 40 articles on enterprise systems management, large systems performance and automation. For further information please visit www.asg.com

References

1. IT Infrastructure Library and ITIL® are registered trademarks of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).
2. A full briefing paper on ITIL® is available from ASG (
www.asg.com).