Serving up IT on a silver platter, also known as ITSM

Would you like that email account and Office installation a la carte?

In the 1950s, we imagined a world where everything was automated. Robots would clean for us, and small boxes would instantly produce hot food. Now, we have the Roomba and the microwave, and shortly, cars that drive themselves. Even Zuck is preparing his electronic butler. To top it all, there’s not a dodgy-looking Jetsons costume in sight.

What about IT professionals, though? You’d assume they would be at the forefront of the automation wave, but lots are still labouring away manually at work. The closest that many get to automation is a hastily-written Python script. Isn’t it time to work smarter rather than harder, in a bid to serve your users better, and make life easier at the same time? IT service management (ITSM) could be the answer.

IT at your service

In Deloitte’s 2014 Global CIO survey, 55 per cent of IT budgets are devoted to "business as usual" operations – keeping the lights on and the engines running, and everyone’s email flowing. Moreover, 55 per cent of CIOs also list "delivering business outcomes through business services" as a priority, making it the most important by far in CIOs’ eyes. ITSM addresses both of these things by turning those everyday operations into services that can be consumed by line of business managers.

ITSM makes services more visible to users, enabling them to do everything from setting up a new workstation to provisioning storage or buying software, all via an online portal. This brings several benefits, not least of which is the ability to charge back (or at least "show back") the cost of these services to users. That can help to make business departments more accountable for what they use and stop them placing unrealistic demands on IT.

Automate, automate, automate

ITSM can also help those IT departments by cutting the money they spend on IT operations. It does this by automating a lot of the mundane tasks, from resource provisioning through to change management and incident management.

Without automation, errors can creep in, creating fires that take lots of time and effort to put out. Errors in manual change management contribute to support incidents. Completely manual incident management ties up labour, and fighting fires like this isn’t scalable or sustainable. Fires spread, sucking up the resources of not just level 1 staff, but L2 and L3 engineers, in some cases.

“The way that we traditionally ordered stuff and started to configure things such as servers can all be done automatically now,” said Barclay Rae, CEO at the IT Service Management Forum. In the old days, phoning a helpdesk and asking for Microsoft project may have triggered a series of manual processes as people checked that you were authorised to buy it, and then checked that your server could handle it, he explained.

Today, automated ITSM enables people to request such services directly on a portal. “Now, there’s no human touch from there because it'll provision it for you in a virtual machine,” he said. “Something that took days or weeks, because there were a lot of people touching it, can now take seconds.”

An uphill struggle

It all sounds a bit Utopian. If ITSM is the promised land, then the IT manager can expect to be like Moses, slogging 40 years through the desert to get there. It takes a substantial effort to get ITSM right, and that’s the biggest problem for a lot of smaller companies that want to automate their IT service management. They’re perpetually stuck in firefighting mode, and don’t allocate the time and resource to building a more strategic solution, warned Martin Waters, head of product development for service management at IT training firm QA.

“A lot of SMEs still may not have even done the basics,” he said, referring to self-service portals. “Even those that have done the self-service portal for users. Often it’s just a veneer for information capture but there’s no automation going on behind it.”

Devoting enough resource to ITSM automation is only one part of the problem. Another is a lot of the processes they’re trying to automate span multiple disciplines, warned Waters. When companies forget this, it can lead to fragmentation and misaligned efforts.

“The danger is that single teams go off, scope an area of automation and the tools required for that, and they do in isolation,” he said. “So when it comes to link that tool into other activities, it hasn’t been thought about. Many of the services that you’re trying to define will use their own tools. You’ll probably have specific software for helpdesk co-ordination and configuration management, for example, and you should consider these integrations when determining which ITSM tool to buy.

Integration with IT asset management, network discovery and endpoint management tools are particularly important here. Assessing what’s in your estate can be expensive, said Rae, but you can use automated discovery tools to help mitigate this process, and clarify just what IT resources are available and what needs managing.

Emphasising service design

The other danger is that the teams don’t take time to refine the processes that they’re going to automate. ITSM automation is like carpentry: you measure twice, and cut once. If you’re automating crummy, ill-defined and inefficient processes, then it’s garbage in, garbage out.

Refining IT processes before you automate them requires its own level of maturity, and might mean addressing some cultural issues within the company. If your IT professionals are territorial and the place is politically charged, then you may have problems.

“Things might be seen as challenging their technical knowledge or authority,” said Rae. So a charm offensive may be necessary.

Even when you’ve driven automation into your ITSM system, don’t expect a lights-off operation. Someone is often going to need to check and approve something, whether it’s a report on how many VMs a development team is using, or a system alert revealing that a particular software service is nearing licence capacity.

The key is that a lot of the gruntwork to get to that point can be done in advance, leaving the staff responsible with a far easier job. They can then take that time and use it to concentrate on other things, like planning enhanced services that will wow business users, for example. Before that can happen, though, there’s a lot of work to be done, involving some joined-up thinking. Better get yourself some coffee, a pen, and a large napkin. ®

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