Beleaguered software procurement professionals will often turn to any kind of independent advice for assistance. In the world of IT service management - or helpdesk as we used to call it - that "helping hand" started in the 1980s when what is now called the UK Office of Government Commerce (OGC) introduced the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) guidelines to deploying IT service management.
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ITIL is the set of best practices that provides advice on how IT should be managed, covering areas such as change and configuration management. It is designed to help IT departments refine their processes to make better use of both staff and technology.
Since their introduction, the ITIL documents have been extended and refined so that ITIL is widely accepted as the world's leading compilation of IT practice guidelines. An increasing number of organisations rely on the ITIL framework to shape their IT service and network management strategies.
IT managers can also apply these best practices and the tenets of ITIL to their daily network operations. Consultants and contractors with ITIL expertise, as well as organisations such as the IT Service Management Forum and Information Technology Process Institute, say the benefits of ITIL include lower IT operating, start-up and resource costs, and fewer network and system errors.
Forrester Research estimates that 30% of companies worth £500m or more are experimenting with ITIL, and about 13% have implemented it. Suppliers such as BMC Software, Managed Objects, Mercury Interactive, IBM and Peregrine Systems incorporate parts of the ITIL foundation into their service management products.
Indeed, it has spawned an entire industry of consultants and certification companies, along with the marketing hype that goes hand in hand with such success stories.
Respondents to a Forrester survey rated configuration management as an area that is getting a lot of supplier attention for network devices, operating systems and server software.
"What is most important is being able to describe a service in meaningful terms to the user, discover all the elements needed to deliver the service, measure service quality, and deal with exceptions and breakdowns.
"Companies that have gone through the ITIL implementation process see the most value in those processes that deal directly with their customers' concerns, and network management is a key part of enabling services," says Thomas Mendel, principal analyst at Forrester.
A new route for version 3 of ITIL
Now in newly released version 3 (ITIL v3), ITIL appears to have a more powerful presence than ever.
A key change to ITIL under version 3 has been a focus on the alignment of IT and the business and on the management of IT throughout the complete lifecycle.
So what originally started as a simple set of guidelines, intended for a limited audience, has ended up as a worldwide source of what is considered to be "best practice" when implementing IT service management strategies and deploying products.
Other developments include new IT strategies, including strategies for outsourcing and co-sourcing new concepts such as a new service management knowledge base that helps transform captured information into organisational intelligence new processes, such as request fulfilment process expansion, such as event management new practice areas and organisational structures and new methods of delivering ITIL.
However, there are clearly defined limits to the practicalities or otherwise of basing an entire IT service management software strategy - from procurement to deployment - upon ITIL guidelines.
For starters, an IT service management application cannot truly be ITIL-compliant. There is no scientific A-Z list of product pre-requisites, legal or otherwise, defined by any ITIL document that can be tested against in order to verify it against those requirements.
Even where an IT service management product appears to satisfy what requirements ITIL can recommend, there is still the issue of how that product works in practice - as regards interaction and integration with different modules, performance and, not least, flexibility.
ITIL and network management
I spoke at a seminar regarding ITIL's impact on network management software procurement. It is clear that it now has a significant impact on that selection process, however political - rather than technical - that might be.
For example, Pink Elephant, an ITIL specialist consultancy group, has an ITIL software "verification" process - Pink Verify - which has become something of a starting point for network managers looking to create a product shortlist, notably in the area of IT service management.
The problem here is that this verification process does not involve testing the software at all, but simply confirms that it complies with all ITIL requirements. In practice the software might not even work properly, let alone actually be any good or easy to use.
This is pretty scary for two reasons. First, it means that businesses might be spending huge amounts of money on poor quality software. Second, it means that independent software suppliers only have to develop according to a "checklist" in order to generate software that receives an independent approval, regardless of strength in depth and true innovation.
At Broadband Testing Labs this very issue has formed the basis of our testing of two recent products in the IT service management and change management areas respectively.
The ITIL guidelines preach the gospel of "best practice", but what about "better practice" instead? In other words, rather than simply producing software that meets the ITIL requirements, why not go beyond these and offer additional features and functionality that are of real use to the helpdesk and network management communities?
Sostenuto, from Sunrise Software in the UK, provides a secure A-Z lifecycle for any task or service request, with a series of operations impacting upon that service request/task which may or may not change the state at any point during that lifecycle.
Underlying business rules control what actually happens at each point along the way, the workflow dictating just what the user actually sees and does (managing their input and what screens they see and use) while the underlying elements remain largely transparent to them. In other words, it might be complicated below the surface, but above - from the user's perspective - it is all about simply driving a browser-based interface.
At a Gartner networking summit, David Willis, a vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said that a key message that was voiced was for users to "manage the policy, not the device" and "to reduce configuration bother". You should not have to master the minutiae of device types just to run your network better.
Willis said that the labour associated with managing networks had seen little improvement, and that staff-to-device ratios had not markedly improved over the past several years.
"Standardising equipment and normalising management are key strategies for better network management," he said.
Flexibility is the key here for example, the business rules engine allows anything to be mapped to anything else. This is IT service management software going way beyond the basics that ITIL dictates should be there, something not lost on users.
Adoption of ITIL and software
Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW) is representative of the banking sector in terms of its approach to ITIL and priorities for choosing software to manage its IT processes. LBBW has implemented Sostenuto as a tool to automate ITIL and improve its service.
The software provides the bank with the functionality it needs to provide a visible change management process to satisfy audit requirements.
With the heavily regulated environment LBBW operates in, making the audit process as smooth as possible is a high business priority, and ITIL supports this agenda.
"As an organisation we are growing constantly and the reason Sostenuto works for us is that it can be continuously re-configured to accommodate our changing requirements without the need for re-coding," said James Clear, LBBW's head of IT.
"It fits our business requirements, enhances our usability of change information and supports our audit responsibilities."
Flexibility is also fundamental to the set of business service management products launched by UK start-up NewNetTechnologies, which includes a change management application focused on network device configuration change - the major cause of network outages - and remote user automated support.
Again, in addition to ticking the ITIL boxes, the software can be completely customised on a per user basis, so it goes way beyond those guideline requirements.
This ITIL-plus approach is clearly necessary. IT service management consultant and author Noel Bruton compiled a report entitled "The ITIL experience: has it been worth it?" in which he interviewed 120 companies with regards to ITIL. Two-thirds of those using software to support ITIL adoption said that the software had to be customised even when the software was aimed at the ITIL market.
In other words, ITIL might be a starting point, but do not expect it to guarantee delivery of a product that keeps your network alive. Handle with care.