The focus of service level management (SLM) is starting to change from using metrics that are convenient to either internal or external IT providers to those that are important to the business - although such a shift is still in its early days.
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Although most enterprises already have some form of IT service level agreements (SLAs) in place, most today tend to concentrate on measuring the performance of individual technical components. This means establishing targets based on factors such as availability and how quickly the IT department or an outsourcing provider has pledged to bring a given system or network up should it go down.
But there is a growing impetus behind changing the balance by attaching service levels to entire processes and activities that are more meaningful to the business. Such activities include performance response times, particularly during peak workloads, number of transactions processed per hour and data security.
Tom Shave, a principal consultant at Morse Consultants, explains, "It is about agreeing on appropriate and reasonable targets for providing services to meet the organisation's requirements, documenting those targets and using software to measure and manage conformance in order to improve the service on an ongoing basis."
Activity of this type is key to adopting a wider service management approach to IT, which has been much talked about in the industry over at least the last three years. But to date, the number of organisations embracing such a philosophy has been limited, although it is gaining traction.
For those enterprises that have gone down this route, however, key drivers include moving to shared services, which often requires that IT departments or outsourcing providers become more visibly accountable as part of the transformation process, and regulatory compliance issues. As Mathieu Poujol, director of technologies at Pierre Audoin Consultants, says, "Compliance people do not like there to be any risk around the IT infrastructure, but to be able to channel risk, they need reliable metrics and clear agreement on IT service levels."
Moreover, Tony Lock, programme director at analyst Freeform Dynamics, indicates that there is "a distinct correlation" between effective service management and improved ratings from customers. "Once IT starts considering business operations in terms of how they deliver services to users, they become much more in tune with what users want and there are far fewer problems in terms of the business perception of IT," he explains.
But, despite its importance, the SLM element of service management has so far been lower down the priority list than other areas such as incident and change management. This situation has not been helped by the fact that many IT departments find it difficult to disentangle and identify the components of any given service.
To do this requires undertaking an audit of the organisation's hardware and software assets and understanding underlying processes in order to feed such information into a configuration management database (CMDB). CMDBs provide a single view of the authorised configurations of each component of the IT infrastructure as well as the relationships between them, which makes it possible to understand where bottlenecks are taking place. Such information is, in turn, fed into the SLM system in order to monitor what is happening with the individual components that make up a broader IT service and alert staff to take action quickly should a problem occur.
"The tool is aware of the service that the customer has access too and how critical it is, but it also understands the underlying components that make up the service. So the tool should automatically prioritise assignments to the relevant support teams and ensure that they are dealt with as soon as possible," Shave explains.
Although systems management tools have traditionally focused simply on managing infrastructure, most have incorporated at least some form of SLM functionality over the last few years. But such offerings are still likely to require some form of adjustment to measure each organisation's particular requirements and/or some level of integration with existing offerings such as the helpdesk. It may also become necessary to make additional purchases in order to fill current gaps in functionality.
"The tools may not give you everything that you need depending on what you are using and what you are measuring, which means that you may need to acquire something else. You also need to report on service levels in a way that the user will understand and while some systems have good reporting tools, others do not," says Lock.
Other important considerations include being able to provision and de-provision services as required, which again may require the introduction of datacentre automation tools to both speed up the process and reduce costly manual intervention.
Given the complexity of such initiatives, however, the SLM market is, unsurprisingly, an immature one today. This means that, if projects are taking place at all, they tend to focus on individual critical services rather than being more universal in nature. As Poujol indicates, "This is not a simple project and if you want to introduce an enterprise-wide SLM strategy, it will realistically take several years."
As a result, Linda Symons, manager of IBM's Tivoli user group believes that while SLM is a logical progression from present day systems management, it will take some while yet to take off. "The majority of companies have been struggling to manage the constituent parts and having almost got that working are now looking for the information they collect to show the whole picture. I still do not think people are quite ready, but they are interested and dabbling," she says.
Moreover, SLM has slipped on the radar since the credit crunch and tends to be seen as the icing on the cake, says Symons. One of the issues in this context, adds Symons, is that an SLM tool is only as good as the data that goes into it, but most companies struggling to get this right.
Another challenge is that such a move requires a reworking of both business and IT processes, which can be a daunting and political task. Although best practice frameworks such as ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) for service management and CoBIT (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology) for IT governance can help, it is important at the very least to establish a service catalogue to act as a foundation.
This catalogue should include information based on discussion with users such as how critical each given service is to the business and why, how good service delivery is today as well as a baseline for the future.
A problem for many organisations, however, is defining what a service means in the first place, says Shave, as it means different things to different organisations.
"Is it a technical service such as a network or an end-user service, such as the provision of e-mail? In practice, it will be a combination of the two as the technical service supports the business one," he explains.
But what that business service comprises in terms of hardware, software and networks will also need to be documented and processes developed to ensure that all new services are created in a consistent manner. It is also important to explore how such services will be provided and to devise performance metrics that are meaningful to customers themselves. The capabilities of the support team likewise has to be realistically evaluated and thought given to how service performance will be reported on.
A further important factor, however, is understanding where to start and what services it is important to start off with. "You are talking about managing the IT infrastructure as a whole and few people have done that," says Lock.
"Those kind of questions can become deeply political and will require IT service deliverers to talk to their customers in, perhaps, a completely new way. It is more philosophical than anything else and it is about two-way communication," he adds.
Such discussions can be fraught with difficulties, not least because, if users are asked whether a service is good enough, they are likely to say that it could be better. "But if you push them and ask them what is important for the business as a whole, they can start taking decisions on what gets priority. Not all services are created equal, but it is up to the business to decide on that inequality," says Lock.