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ITIL, a data center's yellow brick road

The ITIL offers a comprehensive approach to improving the quality of data center. But it also requires willpower, time, and person-power. Be advised: ITIL is no "quick fix."

Using the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is akin to building a house from a takeout menu, according to industry watchers and implementers alike.

Although ITIL, a set of best practices standards for IT service management, does provide the overall framework for process improvement, it's up to the individual company to cherry-pick the individual components that make the most sense for any given implementation.

"It's more of a guideline than a prescription," said Tim Norton, founder of Simalytic Solutions LLC, a Colorado Springs, Colo., consultancy that focuses on capacity management and application response time. Norton, who is beginning to do some modeling work with the ITIL processes, said it's important to know going in that "you're going to have to put in a lot of effort" for ITIL to really pay off.

According to adherents, it's worth the work. Maria Metcalf, director of program management at UnitedHealth Group in Minneapolis, has been implementing the change-management piece of ITIL at the giant insurer. It took about a year to learn the ITIL lingo, have individuals become certified in the process, choose a tool and then actually do it.

The firm focused on processes it did not already have in place, Metcalf said, and change management was selected because the company wanted to replace old tools. "We had customized our tool so much that we could no longer continue to build on it without rewriting it," she explained.

It's more of a guideline than a prescription.
Tim Norton
Simalytic Solutions LLC
As part of its ITIL efforts, UnitedHealth Group has implemented a configuration management database that it continues to populate with data. In July, the company will go live with the incident- and problem-reporting processes.

Metcalf said ITIL has resulted in fewer disruptions to major systems "because of well-planned changes and an ability to connect all the right organizations when a change is requested. We have hundreds of applications and Web sites, so there's a steady stream of changes happening." She said she's compiling the statistics to back up this claim, but isn't yet ready to go public with specific results.

ITIL was originally created by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) in London, which was under a mandate by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to improve IT efficiency throughout the government. In 1991, ITIL became a formal process that defines service desk, release management, configuration management, capacity management and other IT areas.

As European organizations have adopted ITIL, it has jumped to their American subsidiaries and now other interested parties as well. ITIL is being used worldwide, by dozens of corporations. The major ITIL-related user organization in the United States is called the IT Service Management Forum (IT-SMF), and its board of directors reads like a Who's Who of Corporate America. Representatives from American Express, UPS and Proctor & Gamble, among others, are listed.

ITIL is also continually being refined and updated. Some 34 different ITIL books were published between 1992 and 1998. The eight current core titles are available in three different versions: CD-ROM, book and intranet license.

Sid Finehirsh, founder and CEO of the CMX Group, a consultancy in New York that helps clients sort through and implement ITIL, said he feels the framework's greatest value is in enforcing precision for how ITers speak about and understand the infrastructure. "ITIL offers a lot of precision in vocabulary that we've been using for years. In ITIL, an 'incident' is different from a 'problem,' which is different from a 'known error.' We've commonly used these terms interchangeably, but I find it very appealing that there are definitions for what these terms mean, how they're different and how they're linked."

Still, as Finehirsh pointed out, that precision carries a cost. "It's one of the challenges of ITIL: If you're going to do it, you need a critical mass of ITIL speakers. Just training one person isn't going to get you any results -- you need to understand the language and processes needed to improve the IT infrastructure."

Another caution, according to observers, is to beware of vendor hype. While there are many products around that are "ITIL-friendly" or "ITIL aware," there is no single ITIL standard to adhere to. So anyone that claims to be "ITIL-adherent" is stretching the truth, at best.

The best way to get started, most agree, is to educate yourself about ITIL. The OGC and IT-SMF sites, among others, have some good primers. Another possibility is to take an ITIL-foundations course, being offered by many consultancies, software vendors and others.

It's also helpful to understand how ITIL is different from other quality-improvement processes. Unlike ISO 9000, ITIL is not a standard. And where Six Sigma is a top-to-bottom activity for pretty much all the piece-parts of a company, ITIL is specific to IT. As Finehirsh said, ITIL "doesn't require you to re-engineer everything in the organization."

What ITIL does provide, he added, is "an approach. It's a starting point, a guideline. It has a ways to go" before every single piece of the IT infrastructure is fully defined. "But I think it's hugely valuable, beyond a lot of the previously hyped things we've been doing. ITIL is a substantial and mature approach to improving cost containment and service delivery."

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