What is ITIL? Your guide to the IT Infrastructure Library

ITIL is a framework of best practices for delivering IT services. ITIL’s systematic approach to IT service management can help businesses manage risk, strengthen customer relations, establish cost-effective practices, and build a stable IT environment that allows for growth, scale and change.

What is ITIL? IT Infrastructure Library definitions and solutions
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What is ITIL?

The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a library of volumes describing a framework of best practices for delivering IT services. ITIL has gone through several revisions in its history and currently comprises five books, each covering various processes and stages of the IT service lifecycle. ITIL’s systematic approach to IT service management can help businesses manage risk, strengthen customer relations, establish cost-effective practices, and build a stable IT environment that allows for growth, scale and change.

Developed by the British government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) during the 1980s, the ITIL first consisted of more than 30 books, developed and released over time, that codified best practices in information technology accumulated from many sources (including vendors' best practices) around the world. IBM, for example, says that its four-volume series on systems-management concepts, A Management System for Information Systems, known as the Yellow Books, provided vital input into the original ITIL books.

In April 2001, CCTA, along with several other agencies, were rolled into the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which is now known as the Cabinet Office. The OGC adopted the project as part of its mission to work with the U.K. public sector as a catalyst to achieve efficiency, value for money in commercial activities, and improved success in the delivery of programs and projects.

The goal wasn't to create a proprietary product that could be commercialized; rather, it was to gather best practices that could assist with what the government recognized was an increasing dependence within the government on IT combined with a painful lack of standard procedures that were increasing costs and allowing errors to perpetuate. It quickly became apparent that distributing these best practices would profit both public and private-sector organizations.

Over the years, ITIL's credibility and utility became recognized, and in 2005 its practices contributed to and aligned with the ISO/IEC 20000 Service Management standard, the first international standard for IT service management; it is based on British standard BS15000.

Since 2013, ITIL is owned by Axelos — a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and Capita. Axelos gives businesses the license to use the ITIL framework, while managing updates and process changes. However, to use ITIL internally, organizations do not need a license. ITIL v3 was released in 2011, under the Cabinet Office, bringing updates to the 2007 version published under OGC.

In 2018, Axelos announced ITIL 4 – a major overhaul to the entire framework and the biggest change since ITIL v3 was published in 2007. ITIL 4, which started rolling out in Q1 of 2019, offers a more agile, flexible and customizable version of ITIL that is updated for modern businesses. The latest version encourages less siloes, more collaboration, communication across the entire business and integrating agile and DevOps into ITSM strategies.

What's in the ITIL?

The ITIL has gone through several revisions in its history. The original 30 books of the ITIL were first condensed in 2000 (when ITIL V2 was launched) to seven books, each wrapped around a facet of IT management. Later, the ITIL Refresh Project in 2007 consolidated the ITIL to five volumes consisting of 26 process and functions – this is referred to as the ITIL 2007 edition. In 2011, another update — dubbed ITIL 2011 — was published under the Cabinet Office. The five volumes remained, and ITIL 2007 and ITIL 2011 remained similar.

ITIL 4, which was released in 2019, maintains the same focus on automating processes, improving service management and integrating the IT department into the business. However, it also updates the framework to accommodate and answer to modern technology, tools and software. Since ITIL’s last update, the IT department has grown to become integral to every business and the new framework accommodates this by being more agile, flexible and collaborative.

ITIL 4 contains nine guiding principles that were adopted from the most recent ITIL Practitioner Exam, which covers organizational change management, communication and measurement and metrics. These principles include:

  • Focus on value
  • Design for experience
  • Start where you are
  • Work holistically
  • Progress iteratively
  • Observe directly
  • Be transparent
  • Collaborate
  • Keep it simple

The newest version of ITIL focuses on company culture and integrating IT into the overall business structure. It encourages collaboration between IT and other departments, especially as other business units increasingly rely on technology to get work done. ITIL 4 also emphasizes customer feedback, since it’s easier than ever for businesses to understand their public perception, customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

For more information on the benefits of the latest version of ITIL, see “ITIL 4: ITSM gets agile.”

How do I put ITIL into practice?

ITIL is a collection of e-books, but merely going on a reading binge won't improve your IT operations. First, you have to wrap your brain around the concepts and then get staff buy-in. Getting some IT personnel to adopt new procedures can be like herding cats, but there are tools that can help.

Along with the ITIL comes a whole suite of consulting, training and certification services. From the early 1990s, certifications were administered by two independent bodies: EXIN and ISEB, depending on your location. The two bodies formed an alliance at the end of 2006 to further IT service management.

Since 2014, Axelos is the owner of the ITIL personnel certification and exams are administered by Accredited Training Organizations (ATOs). Accreditations are administered by Strategic Examination Institutes (EIs). EIs need to be accredited directly by Axelos in order to offer accreditation to ATOs.

Before implementing ITIL at your organizations, there are several questions you should answer, such as what problems your organization is trying to solve and what is your route to continual service improvement.

For a deeper look at putting ITIL into practice, see "7 questions to ask before implementing ITIL" and "How to get started with ITIL."

What is ITIL certification and is it worth it?

The ITIL v3 certification scheme previously consisted of five levels: Foundation, Practitioner, Intermediate, Expert and Master. Each level required a stronger depth of knowledge and understanding of ITIL. The certification scheme under ITIL 4 has been streamlined to include the ITIL Foundation and the ITIL Master exams. The ITIL Foundation exam has two paths, ITIL Managing Professional (MP) or ITIL Strategic Leader (SL), which each have their own modules and exams.

The ITIL Managing Professional (MP) exam is designed for IT practitioners who are involved with technology and digital teams throughout the organization, not just in the IT department. This path will teach professionals everything they need to know about running successful IT projects, teams and workflows.

Modules include:

  • ITIL Specialist – Create, Deliver and Support
  • ITIL Specialist – Drive Stakeholder Value
  • ITIL Specialist – High Velocity IT
  • ITIL Strategist – Direct, Plan & Improve

The ITIL Strategic Leader (SL) exam is designed for those who deal with “all digitally enabled services,” and not just those that fall under IT operations. This path focuses on how technology directs business strategy and how IT plays into that.

Modules include:

  • ITIL Strategist – Direct, Plan & Improve
  • ITIL Leader – Digital & IT Strategy

Both paths can lead to the ITIL Master exam, which is the highest level of certification you can achieve with ITIL 4.

For those already in the middle of working towards a ITIL v3 certifications, credits will transfer over to the new certifications. Axelos recommends that all ITIL certification candidates continue the path towards ITIL master.

For in-depth analysis of ITIL certification, see "What ITIL certifications mean to your IT management practices."

How can ITIL improve my company's business performance?

A well-run IT organization that manages risk and keeps the infrastructure humming not only saves money, but it also allows the business people to do their jobs more effectively. For example, brokerage firm Pershing reduced its incident response time by 50 percent in the first year after restructuring its service desk according to ITIL guidelines, allowing users with problems to get back to work much more quickly.

ITIL provides a systematic and professional approach to the management of IT service provision, and offers the following benefits:

  • reduced IT costs
  • improved IT services through the use of proven best practice processes
  • improved customer satisfaction through a more professional approach to service delivery
  • standards and guidance
  • improved productivity
  • improved use of skills and experience
  • improved delivery of third-party services through the specification of ITIL or BS15000 as the standard for service delivery in services procurements

According to Axelos, ITIL can also help businesses improve services by:

  • helping businesses manage risk, disruption and failure
  • strengthening customer relations by “delivering efficient services that meet their needs”
  • establishing cost-effective practices
  • building a stable environment that still allows for growth, scale and change.

For a deeper look at how to get the most from ITIL, see "5 steps to successful ITIL adoption."

What will ITIL cost?

Getting started involves the purchase of the ITIL either as hardcopy, PDF, ePub or through an online subscription directly from Axelos. Then there's the cost of training, which fluctuates each year. The course leading to the initial Foundation Certificate typically runs for two days, and courses leading to higher certifications can be a week or more.

Add to that the inevitable cost of re-engineering some processes to comply with ITIL guidelines, and adjustment of help desk or other software to capture the information you need for tracking and generating metrics.

There is, by the way, no such thing as "ITIL-compliant" software; the ITIL is a framework, not a standard. Some help desk and management software has been engineered with ITIL practices in mind, however, and so will lend themselves better to teams working within the framework.

Examples of software and services designed with ITIL and ITSM in mind include:

  • Samange: Offers service desk automation with the ITIL framework in mind
  • InvGate Service Desk: A web-based ITIL-ready service that boasts a user-friendly interface
  • ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus: Web-based help desk and asset management software that is available in an ITIL edition
  • Vision Helpdesk: A multifunction service desk solution with ITIL integration

How long will an ITIL project take?

ITIL is not a "project"; it's an ongoing journey to improve IT service management. Best practices have to be baked into everything, and they have to evolve as the enterprise evolves. With IT staff buy-in, changes can begin once staff are trained, and some results should be apparent within weeks or months. Process changes do take time, however, as entrenched bad practices are rooted out and modified (and, potentially, staff changes occur), but many companies have reported substantial savings after their first year.

To get a better idea of what it will take to adopt and implement ITIL, you can browse through case studies on the Axelos website. Recent case studies include companies like Sony and Disney — two companies with massive IT operations to manage.

What savings can I expect?

Corporations and public sector organizations that have successfully implemented ITIL best practices report huge savings.

For example, in its Benefits of ITIL paper, Pink Elephant reports that Procter and Gamble saved about $500 million over four years by reducing help desk calls and improving operating procedures. Nationwide Insurance achieved a 40 percent reduction in system outages and estimates a $4.3 million ROI over three years, and Capital One reduced its "business critical" incidents by 92 percent over two years. After three years of ITIL implementation, forest products company MeadWestvaco claimed to have eliminated more than $100,000 annually in IT maintenance contracts and recognized a 10 percent gain in operational stability thanks to ITIL.

Without buy-in and cooperation from IT staff, however, any implementation is bound to fail. Bringing best practices into an organization is as much a PR job as it is a technical exercise.

Other criticisms include the fact that it’s impossible to plan for every failure, event or incident so it’s not an exact science. In reality, you won’t know the exact ROI on ITIL until you implement it within your organization and use it effectively. Ultimately, since ITIL is a framework, it can only be as successful as corporate buy-in allows. Embracing certifications, training and investing in the shift will help increase the chances of success and savings.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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