IT at your service

Prompted by the ITIL management guidelines and by a growing awareness that IT has often failed to provide the business with the services and support it needs, many IT organisations are now looking to transform themselves into service-centric functions.

By applying the principles of business service management (BSM), these organisations hope to change the way they think about IT. Rather than just a pile of equipment, the IT stack is to be re-imagined as a series of services, carefully mapped to the tools that support them.

“In IT, we spend our time worrying about tools,” laments David Osman, head of ITIL alignment at Deutsche Bank. “But the business process should be the focus of our work.”

The benefits of adopting this outlook are self-evident. Not only does the act of mapping the connections between hardware, applications and business services reveal the relative importance of each IT asset, it also means that maintenance and upgrade costs can be quantifiably linked to business benefits.

And the pressure on IT to adopt the service management paradigm will only increase as more functions are outsourced. Managing service level agreements (SLAs) with third party providers will become as important a part of providing a platform for business as the implemention and maintenance of the technology internally.

The roots of service management

Shifting the focus of IT management to service provision does not mean that attention to technological detail can be relaxed. In fact, the opposite is true.

In building a catalogue of business services, a solid foundation of IT asset management must first be laid. Even though the ITIL guidelines do not make explicit mention of it, only through accurate and often painstaking asset management can an IT organisation know exactly what is has to work with.

Forrester Research analyst Thomas Mendel notes that “IT asset management is often thought of as the glue that bonds together all the activities that support a distributed infrastructure”.

Aligning the IT function

BSM technologies are often regarded as a tool by which to better align the IT function with the business at large. Other tools include :

• Agile programming: An approach to developing software in fully working ‘iterations’, Agile allows users to provide business-oriented input during a product’s construction. (See page 38 for more on this methodology.)

• Cassandra methodology: An academic creation, this technique attempts to identify business objectives and link them directly to IT investments at each phase of a project.

• SOA: By defining how loosely-coupled software services support the requirements of business processes, SOA creates IT infrastructure that is responsive to business needs.

However, businesses often neglect to include software assets in their IT asset management efforts, adds Mendel. “This is perplexing, given that constantly decreasing hardware and software costs mean that business can afford more IT. [This means] the scope and complexity of new digital applications increase continuously.”

At the core of any BSM project is the configuration management database (CMDB), a record of all assets and the links between them. Many BSM providers now offer automatic discovery tools that find assets and chart the way they interconnect and populate the CMDB accordingly.

These discovery tools can certainly help any BSM project. Companies mapping highly complex virtualised environments, in particular, may well require some automated assistance, as well as those that are subject to highly detailed compliance requirements.

“The burden of proof that Sarbanes-Oxley places on IT departments [in documenting their IT resources] is so great, that you can’t provide the information required without automation,” says Stephen Ashton, director of global IT business management for investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.

But while these automatic discovery tools can be invaluable aids, they should on no account be seen as a replacement for the hard graft of IT asset management. After all, the same rule applies to CMDBs as to any database: junk in, junk out.

Unless used within a wider IT asset management program, automated discovery tools will “just give you a whole lot of data you don’t understand,” says Deutsche Bank’s Osman. “You need to be able to relate that data to business processes.”

Osman believes that BSM projects are often initiated without proper consideration for the IT asset management work that needs to be done if they are to be successful. “Everybody knows what a CMDB can do once it’s up and running, but nobody wants to think about the process of getting the data into it,” he says.

Another mistake Osman warns against is conflating a service-centric IT organisation with a service-oriented architecture (SOA). The latter is composed of web-services that do not necessarily map on to discrete business services. To assume that rendering application functionality as a collection of web-services will result in a catalogue of business services is an error.

“Some people see SOA as a quick fix, but if the foundation of the SOA is confused, then all you have done is move the problem up a layer in the infrastructure,” says Osman.

So, perhaps counter-intuitively, achieving a business service-centric view of IT will for many companies involve some highly detailed technological ground-work.

The good news, however, is that there is no rush to map out the entire infrastructure or to tie every single asset to a predefined ITIL business service, according to Forrester’s Mendel. There is a lot that can be achieved by cherry picking the ITIL services that will yield the highest return-on-investment, and return to less pressing services when the organisation is more adept at BSM.

“It is very misleading and can be very dangerous to try and do it all at once,” warns Mendel.

Lee Biggins

Lee Biggins developed as an entrepreneur selling cold cans of fizzy drinks to fishermen on hot days, to running his own car washing empire as a teenager. This spirit carried through to the developmental...

Related Topics