What is ITIL?

I first ran across the term ITIL® several years ago when I was researching some competing help desk solutions for Liberum Help Desk.  After some quick googling, about all I was able to determine was that it was some UK standard for how help desk tickets should be processed.  Fast forward to last year and ITIL pops back into my head when our IT department is reviewing our policies and procedures for our auditors.  Could ITIL be beneficial to our small IT department?

If so, what is ITIL?

The acronym stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, which doesn't tell us much other than it might have to do with books and computers.  In one aspect though, this is true.  ITIL is just a set of five books in the current version 3 edition.  More deeply though, ITIL is a framework for managing IT services.  The goal of the framework is three-fold: align IT priorities with business priorities, improve the quality of IT services, and reduce the cost of IT.

ITIL sets out to accomplish these goals by putting forth five phases to what it calls the "Service Lifecycle."  That's great, but what exactly is a service?  Is it your email server?  Is it the "spooler" on your Windows print server?  Not exactly - ITIL defines a service as "...a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks."


In non-consultant speak, it simply means a service is something you are providing to the business that allows them to be more efficient or more competitive without them taking on the day-to-day costs and risks of designing, developing and supporting that service.

A service could be a claims processing system at an insurance company, a virtual classroom system used by a school or even your e-mail system.  However, a service is not the web server behind that virtual classroom and it is not the back up system supporting your e-mail service. In and of themselves, those are not services that provide value to the business, but they are components of the services you offer which help provide the necessary service, continuity and availability levels.

Very briefly, I will describe the five phases that of the Service Lifecycle that are defined in ITIL -
  • Service Strategy - This is the senior IT management, CIO/CTO level that determines what type of services IT can offer to the business and can it be done cost effectively.
  • Service Design - In this phase, we determine business functional requirements of a service and discuss with the business what services levels are required (uptime, security of the service, response times for support, etc).
  • Service Transition - In the transition phase, the service is brought to life, tested and deployed.  It is in this phase where your developers live along with a change and configuration management, and your deployment tools (GPO, System Center, etc).
  • Service Operation - Here is where most IT staff spend their time in smaller businesses.  This includes the help desk functions (called a Service Desk in ITIL) and where your level 2 and 3 support operate.  Here your admins are monitoring Exchange for proper function, and your backups are being performed on a weekly/daily/hourly schedule.
  • Continual Service Improvement (CSI) - This last phase is not really a stage of a service's lifecycle.  Instead it is something that touches each of the previous four stages, and describes how you should be collecting metrics from the various processes, services and technologies, and use those to improve upon your service offerings.  It is a way to relate the bandwidth monitoring that a network admin is doing to the revenue produced on a customer-facing web site.
If this seems very theoretical or "pie in the sky", that's because it is.  ITIL is not a methodology that you can follow step-by-step to achieve IT Zen, nor is it a series of best practices that can be put directly in to use.  ITIL is a framework that you can use to fill out with your own processes and methodologies that best fit the business environment you work in.  In an upcoming post, I will see how ITIL can be put in to more practical use by those of use not working for a Fortune 500.

ITIL® is a Registered Trade Mark of the Office of Government Commerce in the United Kingdom and other countries.