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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

What is ITIL?

The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a library of volumes describing a framework of best practices for delivering IT services. The 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. The ITIL, currently ITIL v3, focuses on business and IT integration, and ITIL certifications can be earned at five levels. 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, the ITIL's credibility and utility became recognized, and in 2005 it’s 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. The most recent version of ITIL was released in 2011, under the Cabinet Office, bringing updates to the 2007 version published under OGC.

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:

  • Service Support
  • Service Delivery
  • Planning to Implement Service Management
  • ICT Infrastructure Management
  • Applications Management
  • Security Management
  • The Business Perspective

The subsequent 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 are very similar. In fact, those certified for ITIL 2007 version weren’t required to retake or redo ITIL certification exams or complete a bridge examination to ITIL 2011. Also, all prior ITIL V2 certifications remained valid, despite being phased out.

Each core book includes information on tools, recommending which processes make sense to automate, and suggesting criteria to use when selecting a tool.

The ITIL 2007 edition and ITIL 2011 contain five volumes, each covering different processes and stages in the service lifecycle. These include:

  • ITIL Service Strategy: Helps businesses develop organizational goals and objectives to prioritize customer needs.
    • Strategy management for IT services
    • Service portfolio management
    • Financial management for IT services
    • Demand management
    • Business relationship management
  • ITIL Service Design: Offers a strategy to build a plan to deliver on established business objectives using RACI matrix, which stands for responsible, accountable, consulted and informed.
    • Design Coordination
    • Service catalogue management
    • Service-level management
    • Capacity management
    • IT service continuity management
    • Security management
    • Supplier management
  • ITIL Service Transition: Focuses on the project development and operational use of services, setting it apart from day-to-day IT maintenance.
    • Transition planning and support
    • Change management
    • Service asset and configuration management
    • Release and deployment management
    • Service validation and testing
    • Change evaluation
    • Knowledge management
  • ITIL Service Operation: Offers best practices for meeting service expectations with end-users, balancing cost and finding any problems. This volume is broken into two sections – process and functions, each with their own subcategories.  
    • Processes
      • Event management
      • Access management
      • Request fulfilment
      • Problem management
      • Incident management
    • Functions
      • Service desk
      • Technical management
      • Application management
      • IT Operations management
    • ITIL Continual Service Improvement: achieves services incremental and large-scale improvements using a seven-step process. The seven steps include:
      • Identify the strategy for improvement
      • Define what you will measure
      • Gather the data
      • Process the data
      • Analyze the information and data
      • Present and use the information
      • Implement improvement

According to the official website, the changes to ITIL are as follows:

  • Where V2 talked about business and IT alignment, V3 emphasizes business and IT integration.
  • Where V2 talked about value chain management, V3 emphasizes value network integration.
  • Where V2 talked about linear service catalogues, V3 emphasizes dynamic service portfolios.
  • Where V2 talked about collection of integrated processes, V3 emphasizes holistic service management lifecycle.

ITIL V3 also provides much more "how-to" guidance to assist in using the best practices.

How do I put ITIL into practice?

The ITIL is a collection of 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 certification scheme includes five levels: Foundation, Practitioner, Intermediate, Expert and Master. Each level demonstrates a stronger depth of knowledge and understanding of ITIL.

ITIL certification, or at least the course of study leading to it, can prepare IT staff and management to use the practices described in the ITIL. It provides the basic vocabulary (a "problem" and an "incident" are two different things in ITIL-speak, for example) that enables staff to communicate accurately and to resolve issues more quickly.

The common vocabulary alone is often worth the price of admission. Think how often miscommunication delays or torpedoes solutions to problems when two parties — both convinced that they understand the same instructions — head off in opposite directions.

When, for example, you're merging IT departments and infrastructures after an acquisition or dealing with a foreign outsourcer, getting all staff to comprehend what you want — and to understand each other — is half the battle.

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.

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