ITIL and cloud combination: bread and butter or oil and water?

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Whenever I think about ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), I remember the glaciers that I was not able to thoroughly enjoy on my Alaska cruise back in 2006. Because of a last-minute change in the exam date, my ITIL V2 Manager Exam was scheduled to be right after the day I was returning from my Alaska cruise, which I had booked almost one year in advance. And as those of you who have taken the exam would agree, ITIL exams are not a walk-in-the-park. You need to study all those books! So, because of this bad scheduling, while everybody was enjoying the scenery of the glaciers, I was enjoying the scenery of my ITIL books, well, especially on the last day of my cruise!

Despite this “cruising incident”, I do like ITIL. I especially value the “process-based approach” that is advocated by ITIL for service management. But, I do think organizations should not apply ITIL as a religious zeal at the expense of pragmatism, causing it to become a bureaucratic endeavor, which is one of the main criticisms of ITIL.

For the last three years I have been heavily involved with cloud computing and lately I am seeing a lot of discussions on forums and events about the applicability of ITIL in a cloud environment. At one side of the spectrum, people say cloud computing and ITIL are a perfect match, like bread and butter. At the other side, you can hear people saying ITIL’s process-heavy approach conflicts with the dynamic, agile, and on-demand approach provided by cloud computing.

So, what do I think?

Before answering this question from my perspective, we should remember the three important facts about ITIL:

  • ITIL is a technology-independent best practices framework
  • It is not a static framework; Continual Service Improvement is at the heart of ITIL
  • It is also a non-prescriptive framework. ITIL expects organizations to engage ITIL processes with existing process models

In a cloud computing environment, the key service management disciplines such as availability management, configuration management, incident management, and others, are still there. But there are several important considerations compared to a traditional IT environment.

Shift of responsibility
There is a shift of responsibility for many of the service management disciplines because many services in a cloud environment are provided by the cloud service provider (in the case of public cloud). Because IT is dependent on the cloud service provider for these services, Supplier Management and Service Level Management processes will be even more important in a cloud environment for the IT shops that use services from cloud providers.

Implementation differences
The way that some ITIL processes are implemented differs in a cloud environment. Take for example the incident, problem, and change management approach in a public cloud implementation. In a traditional IT environment, if a service goes down, users call the help desk. If the root cause of the problem is found to be a hardware failure, a technician is dispatched to repair the faulty hardware and restore the service as soon as possible.

In a cloud provider scenario, this service would most likely be running on a virtual machine and the preferred approach would be to disable the faulty hypervisor and switch to a healthy one. The faulty hypervisor would be repaired or replaced at the next maintenance cycle. You can extend those examples. Implementation of some of the processes will be different because of the differences between a traditional and cloud-based IT environment.

Changes in the Service Portfolio and charging models
Service Strategy in ITIL V3 provides guidance on clarification and prioritization of service provider investments in services and relies upon a market-driven approach. Because cloud computing does not change the dynamics of the market, the market needs will be essentially the same. The difference will be how service providers build their services and how these services are charged to the service users (that is, utility based model), be it a public or private cloud.

So, in a cloud computing environment Service Portfolio, which is the main focus of Service Strategy, will be similar to a Service Portfolio in a traditional IT environment except that the portfolio will include cloud services being offered and all the investment decisions made regarding these services.

Integrated processes with cloud providers
It is very important for IT shops and cloud vendors to integrate some of their service management processes such as Change Management, Incident Management, and Release Management. For example, all Change Management roles and responsibilities between the cloud vendor and the IT organization should be agreed upon and documented, so that changes can be introduced with minimum impact to the services delivered. On a similar token, it is essential to integrate the Release Management processes to ensure that when deploying new releases, production environment is protected.

So my two cents is that ITIL is still relevant in a cloud environment. If organizations do not follow a service-based approach that is advocated by ITIL, there will be no accountability and control for the services being delivered (think about proliferation of VM images with no information on who created them and with what purpose) and this will expose the business to unnecessary risks. But, cloud computing has introduced new models of how the services are provided and consumed; and many of the ITIL processes will be implemented differently in this new environment, along with maybe some new processes not applicable in a traditional IT environment.

By the way, I’ve booked a new cruise to Alaska for next month and this time I am definitely not taking my ITIL books with me!

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