ITIL: What businesses need to know

Bringing information technology into line with the needs of the business is frequently a problem. ITIL – originally known as Information Technology Infrastructure Library – is aimed at resolving this by establishing a set of rules for IT service management (ITSM).

The ITIL framework is geared to standardising the choosing, planning, delivery and support of business IT services. The intention is to deliver greater efficiency and predictable service levels.

Published as a series of five core volumes, each of which covers a part of the ITSM lifecycle, the current version of ITIL (ITIL v3) first appeared in 2007 and received revisions in 2011. Its origins though date back to the 1980s when the UK government initiated the ITIL project as a way of recognising the importance of IT and ensuring that consistent practices were adopted across the industry.

While earlier versions had their focus on specific activities, v3 takes a holistic approach, looking at the entire IT services lifecycle from the IT organisation itself to the components used to deliver services to the end user. It’s often used as the basis for obtaining ISO/IEC 20000 service management standard certification.

Responsibility for ITIL now rests with Axelos, a joint-venture company created by the UK government’s Cabinet Office and Capita PLC. Axelos offers a recognised certification process for ITIL that individuals can use to demonstrate their skill levels to employers.

The five volumes

As noted above, ITIL consists of five volumes setting out best practices for the various phases of the IT lifecycle, these are: Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service Improvement. We’ll take a brief look at what each of these volumes covers.

Service Strategy

The first volume focusses on understanding the objectives of the organisation and the needs of the customer. This is at the core of the ITSM lifecycle and it covers topics such as business-case development, service value definition, service assets, market analysis and types of service provider.

This volume also governs processes including financial management, service portfolio management and business relationship management.

Service Design

As you might expect, this volume offers guidance on the design of IT services, processes, and other aspects of service management. It looks at how the service solution will interact with the technical environment and the business at large, as well as the systems that are required to support the service itself.  Within the ITIL framework, design for an IT service is aggregated into a single Service Design Package (SDP). These SDPs, along with other information about services, are managed using service catalogues.

Processes covered in this volume include service level and security management, availability and capacity management, and IT continuity management.

Service Transition

This volume is about the transition of services into live, operational use. It’s therefore concerned with project management processes such as change management, asset and configuration management, release and deployment and the development of knowledge bases.

It aims to ensure standardisation of the methods and procedures used to handle changes and to ensure minimal disruption in the roll out of services. It covers the distribution of hardware and software as well as the management of licensing, plus quality control during the release process.

Service Operation

This volume covers best practices for delivering service levels to customers and end users. It’s aim is to ensure effective operation of systems and good value. Functions covered here include service desk operation, technical and IT operations management, and application management.

This section also looks at the processes required for incident and problem management as well as access control and request fulfilment. One of the key functions here is the management if incidents to minimise the impact they have on the organisation and prevent them from recurring.

Continual Service Improvement

The final ITIL volume is aimed at ensuring that IT processes remain up to date and in step with the needs of the wider business. It relies on measuring key performance indicators to check on the efficiency of the operation. Information from these measurements can then be used to plan and implement improvements.


ITIL is a series of best practices rather than a solution and of course there are limitations to what it can do. Mainly these lie in the fact that – unless it’s been enshrined in an ISO/IEC 20000 certification – it isn’t enforceable.

It’s up to service providers, whether internal or external, and customers to work out how things are going to operate on a day-to-day basis. While ITIL says that there should be service agreements and performance measurements, for example, it gives no guidance on how those levels should be set and what should be measured.

If companies stick rigidly to the principles of ITIL it can lead to a very complex set of requirements for implementing and controlling IT. This in turn can result in a bureaucracy which slows down the development and deployment process and makes it harder for IT to keep up with the changing needs of the organisation.

Is ITIL right for you?

ITIL is mostly used by larger enterprises looking to control their internal IT services and by major managed services providers like IBM, Microsoft and HP. For other businesses it may seem to have less relevance, but it can be a useful way of assessing the suitability of service providers when considering outsourcing IT services. It’s common for big companies and public sector organisations to include a requirement in their tender documents for suppliers to have some level of ITIL experience.

Perhaps the biggest advantage ITIL has is that it ensures everyone is speaking the same language. By clearly defining what constitutes an ‘incident’ for example it can help to avoid disputes about how and when things are fixed.

Overall ITIL gives businesses a road map of best practices, it is not an off-the-shelf solution to problems. It tells you what you should be doing but it doesn’t tell you in any detail how it should be done. Implemented correctly it can lead to smoother operation of IT services and reduced costs. However, it isn’t a magic solution, you need to ask yourself what benefits your business is going to gain from implementing ITIL and decide whether it’s worth the effort.

That said, if you’re providing IT services to others or managing IT in a large organisation and considering outsourcing, having an understanding of ITIL and employing staff who are have ITIL certifications is likely to pay dividends.