Service management: Viva la evolution

In the same time that countless technological marvels have come and gone, a gradual evolution in the way businesses manage and monitor their IT systems has slowly but surely unfolded.

That evolution has seen systems management (a tool-focused approach to tending an IT infrastructure) develop into IT service management (ITSM). This methodology encourages IT departments to define the IT resources they provide to the business in terms of discrete functional services, and to model their relationship with the business as though they were a third-party service provider.

The Effective IT Survey 2009 found once again that practices commonly associated with ITSM are growing in both adoption and perceived effectiveness.

The proportion of respondents that had adopted asset management and helpdesk automation tools – both techniques for improving the ‘customer service’ an IT department can deliver to the business – went up from 57% in 2008 to 63.9% in 2009, while the proportion of adopters who described that strategy as either “effective” or “very effective” grew from 63% in 2008 to 74% in 2009.

Meanwhile, adoption of the IT infrastructure library (ITIL) – the framework of guidelines that helps IT departments to achieve IT service management (and more) – also continued to grow in popularity, from 37% of our 2008 survey to 45% of the 2009 respondents; 64% of adopters described ITIL as either effective or very effective this year, up from 60% last year.

These findings corroborate research into IT service management conducted by Information Age in November 2008, which found that 80% of IT managers were implementing ITSM or were planning to do so. Just over 30% reported that ITSM was “well established” within their organisations.

The key driver to ITSM, identified by 61% of ITSM adopters in that report, was the desire to improve the IT department’s ability to report on its own service delivery. In other words, IT departments look to ITSM to prove their worth to the business.

As Leigh Heritage, service delivery manager at tea maker R Twining & Co explained to Information Age in October 2008, the process of adopting IT service management can improve the standing of the IT department within the business. So successful did his department become at defining ‘customer’ requirements, handling service level agreements and managing change that it became a centre of excellence for project management.

“Not only does the business now get IT involved when they are planning new projects,” explained Heritage, “but they also ask to borrow our project managers for their own projects”.

The sense of satisfaction in ITSM that Information Age has repeatedly found among its readers is echoed in the financial performance of those systems management tools vendors whose products embody the ideals of ITSM. The IT management software industry, which includes ITSM-related tools, was worth $18 billion in 2008 (early on in that year, at least), up 19% from 2007, according to Forrester Research’s calculations.

The field is a hotbed of innovation, Forrester also found, with more invested in R&D, by vendors large and small, than in most other software industries. This is perhaps due to the fact that in the ITIL guidelines, ITSM vendors have a blueprint for exactly what it is their customers are trying to achieve, therefore making R&D less of a gamble. Certainly, the release of the third version of ITIL in 2007 has seen many vendors introduce functionality to support initiatives – such as service lifecycle management – expressly advocated by that document.

The battle for BSM

So at first glance everything appears to be well in the realm of IT service management: the users are satisfied, the vendors growing and innovation is flourishing. But according to Jean-Pierre Garbani, a service management analyst at Forrester Research, the continued evolution of IT service management is in jeopardy.

Just as ITSM has added business focus to existing systems management practices, so business service management (BSM) adds even greater business orientation to ITSM.

BSM seeks to define IT resources in terms that not only make functional sense to the business, but which relate directly to business metrics and concepts.

“The IT management software industry, was worth $18 billion in 2008, up 19% from 2007”

Despite its conceptual focus, there is a strong and complex technical component of BSM. The relationships between IT resources and business functions, via applications, are far from simple, and require automated discovery and extensive documentation to map and manage.

The lynchpin of this task is the configuration management database (CMDB), an exhaustive record of all components of the IT infrastructure – from servers and desktop PCs to biometric card readers – enhanced with details of the applications that each component relates to.

“CMDB is probably the hottest piece of technology I have seen in the management space in the last 20 years,” Bob Beauchamp, CEO of BMC, the systems management vendor that has made BSM a mainstream concern, told Information Age in November 2008.

But according to Forrester’s Garbani, current incarnations of CMDB technology are too technically focused, and contain too little business-relevant information, to deliver on the true promise of BSM. “A business service is sometimes an application, sometimes a part of an application, or a group of complementary applications,” he writes. “[But] the typical application discovery that populates the CMDB is based on discovering applications from a network standpoint: it only finds online application dependencies.”

This and other flaws mean that many BSM initiatives, rather than move IT and business closer together, may drive them apart by entangling IT in yet more complex technical infrastructure.

“BSM runs the risk of becoming a piece of IT management detritus that litters the road to IT improvement,” Garbani writes. Service management tools must continue to evolve, he argues, and fulfil the complete BSM vision.

If it is to avoid an awful fate, BSM “must be able to provide the big picture that will propel IT into an industrial stage, where services are designed rationally with business productivity. This can’t be achieved without additional knowledge as to what is available in today’s CMDB.”

Garbani’s analysis underlines that the evolution from systems-focused to business-oriented systems management has some way to go yet. But there is plenty of optimism that this will happen: market conditions and customer appetite are both favourable.

And it is worth noting that while BSM may not have reached its full potential, ITSM is already helping IT organisations serve their business divisions in an unprecedented fashion. A telling finding in Information Age’s own ITSM research was that IT departments are routinely called upon to deploy their service management expertise in non-IT areas such as call centre operations and sales and marketing.

Long may the evolution continue.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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