IT service management (ITSM) is all about helping organizations achieve strategic targets and improve the efficiency of IT. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), which aims to provide structured, flexible guidelines for establishing governance standards around ITSM, is the most widely accepted way to implement it. Advocates say ITIL imposes discipline on IT processes, with the promise of improving productivity, reducing costs, enhancing services and attaining greater alignment of IT and the business.
"ITIL has become de rigueur as part of most IT service management initiatives," said Jason Frye, vice president for Digital Innovation at BMC Software. "Many organizations are using ITIL processes in their day-to-day activities."
But there are signs of impatience with ITSM and ITIL.
Impatience with ITIL
Several studies reveal falling implementation levels for IT service management, showing that some organizations think ITSM involves too much of an upfront investment and too long a runway to achieve the desired goals. The arrival of DevOps onto the scene is another factor, one that some experts say is leading some organizations to abandon ITIL - in whole or in part - to pursue returns from more agile methodologies.
"While many large IT organizations embrace it, the number of organizations committing to full ITIL implementation is relatively small as obstacles to adoption are real, upfront costs are significant, and benefits are sometimes difficult to quantify," said John Longwell, vice president of Research for Computer Economics.
Selective ITSM Adoption
Launched in the 1980s by The UK Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, ITIL is governed by the UK Office of Government Commerce. Adoption was light until the 1990s outside the UK and only gained traction in the U.S. within the past decade or so. The initial version of ITIL was thought by some to be a little too difficult to adopt by commercial operations. That led to ITIL version 2, which separated the operational and tactical levels.
Further changes in ITIL V3 provide more of a lifecycle approach, which included continual service improvement as provided by ITSM. While adoption has been rising steadily since its inception, it has reached a plateau in the last couple of years.
Few organizations seem to be adopting ITIL as a whole. In particular, ITIL is not that popular with software developers.
"According to our research, only about one-quarter of the organizations that adopt ITIL say they have fully embraced the practice," Longwell said. "Most adopters are only selectively putting ITIL into practice. It can be popular with service desk managers, but less popular with developers."
Popular ITIL Processes
A different picture emerges when looking at various elements of ITIL. ITSM modules for problem management, configuration management, service-level management (SLM), incident management, capacity management, service support and service delivery are some of the more popular areas of ITIL.
According to a report by Macquarie University, "IT Service Management: A Cross-national Study of ITIL Adoption," the decline in ITIL interest could be due to the lifecycle approach of ITIL v3 not being as practical as originally thought by its authors. Further, ITIL v2's emphasis on the separation of operational and tactical aspects appears to be causing organizations to cherry pick the ITSM modules most closely aligned to their immediate needs.
The three ITIL processes that exhibited the best adoption rates were incident management (95 percent of respondents), change management (88 percent) and problem management (71 percent), the research study found.
ITSM and DevOps
"ITIL is of particular importance and popularity around change management," said Frye. "This has become more apparent as organizations adopt DevOps models and move to multi-supplier sourcing for services in their environments."
DevOps calls for multiple rapid iterations, with developers working in tight coordination with operations personnel to create the apps that most closely match existing needs. The problem, however, is that this method can introduce so many changes that it is hard to keep up. Organizations committed to DevOps are also using ITSM practices such as change management to maintain some control, Frye said.
"Change in a complex production environment is the leading cause for major system outages, and using ITIL to inform standard change management best practices is key," he said. "Organizations who may have experimented with moving to a full DevOps model are increasingly looking to use parts of ITIL - change management, for example - to ensure success."
ITSM in Action
ITSM's value has been demonstrated by organizations with the persistence to carry it through. One example is Buckeye Partners. It manages over 6,000 miles of pipeline and 100 truck loading terminals throughout the U.S. Prior to ITSM, it struggled to deal with audits concerning compliance to industry standards and government regulations. It now uses ITIL to automate incident, problem and change management, which helps take 25 hours of manual labor out of the biannual audits. It also uses BMC's SaaS-based Remedyforce to groove in ITSM processes aligned to the audit schedule.
Another example is the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), a nonprofit that serves more than 200 law schools by administering the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to about 150,000 law school candidates annually. IT is put under great stress on the first and 15th of February each year, the application deadlines for the test. One year the organization couldn't meet its service level agreements (SLAs) as its systems went down under those peak loads. That let it to adopt ITSM, using it to eliminate disruptions to service delivery, as well as to re-architect its data center by adopting virtualization.
Jerry Goldman, director of technical services at LSAC, said he introduced ITSM by focusing on how to improve service levels. Capacity planning and ITSM tools from TeamQuest were used to quantify existing problems and develop resolutions using standard ITIL program components. This included figuring out the best configuration for custom applications developed in-house using TeamQuest-based modeling. Baseline performance data was captured and used to predict future performance levels of new applications, and to determine what the data center required to cope with its annual February peak demand.
"ITIL gave our operations a more scientific approach and allowed us to predict and prevent outages rather than react to them after they happened," said Goldman. "We utilize its processes to address event monitoring, performance management, performance reporting and capacity management. It has helped us to align our planning and provisioning efforts with our business objectives."
Balancing Agility with Discipline
While organizational change is challenging in the current economic climate, ITSM offers organizations the opportunity to restructure processes and add more structure to their IT operations.
"Even a partial approach to ITSM can have benefits, especially if focused on an organization's infrastructure and user-support services," Longwell said. "While some organizations worry that ITIL will make them less agile when it comes to innovation and implementing new technologies, the reality is IT is a very process-oriented function and you have to balance agility with discipline or you can get into trouble."
Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in Florida, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).