Applying ITIL best practices to storage explained

More and more storage managers are embracing the ITIL framework of best practices.

As the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) – a framework of best practices for delivering IT services – gains momentum, it will have greater impact on storage managers and the processes they use for incident management, problem management, change management and capacity management.

Membership in the IT Services Management Forum (ITSMF) USA, the U.S. chapter of the organization that promotes ITIL, has grown from about 200 members in 1999 to nearly 9,000 this year, according to operations director Phyllis Drucker. Attendance at the group's annual convention has soared as well, from about 100 people six years ago to some 2,000 this year, she said.

At EMC's recent customer council meeting of high-level IT managers, ITIL was a more prominent topic of discussion than ever before in the resource management sessions. "Last year, we didn't have that many people in the storage area specifically focused on or with a deep understanding of ITIL," said Kevin Gray, manager of enterprise product marketing at EMC. "Now people seem to get it."

Developed in the 1980s by a U.K. government agency, ITIL best practices are documented in books available through ITSMF Web sites. The latest edition, ITIL Version 3, which was released last year, consists of five volumes: service strategy, service design, service transition, service operation and continual service improvement.

"You implement ITIL processes, and the result is IT service management," said David Moskowitz, a principal consultant at Productivity Solutions, a consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "Version 3 explicitly defines service management as a set of specialized organizational capabilities for providing value to customers in the form of services."

Last year, we didn't have that many people in the storage area focused on ITIL. Now people seem to get it.
Kevin Gray
manager of enterprise product marketingEMC
Since ITIL concepts are intended to provide guidance that can be applied across the breadth of the IT infrastructure, the books generally do not address specific technology areas. But the service operation volume does include a brief section titled "storage and archive."

Under "common service operation activities," Section 5.6 notes that a separate team or department may be needed to manage data storage technology, which requires the management of both the infrastructure components and the "policies to where data is stored, for how long, in what form and who may access it." It lists many specific responsibilities, such as "file storage naming conventions, hierarchy and placement decisions" and "design, sizing, selection, procurement, configuration and operation of all data storage infrastructure."

"A lot of it is common sense," said Andrew Reichman, a Forrester Research Inc. storage analyst who received the ITIL practitioner certification in 2004. "You don't have to do it according to everything that the book says. Doing something that's effective is the most important thing."

Processes for managing storage environments

Reichman said that storage is so complex and expensive, and data availability so critical, that it would be wise for a storage team to adopt consistent processes to manage the environment, even if the full IT organization isn't doing anything with ITIL. In storage, he said, the most helpful process disciplines tend to be capacity management, incident management, problem management, change management and release management.

"It doesn't have to be rocket science," Reichman added, cautioning that a company need not spend millions of dollars on process experts. He suggested designating one staff member to shepherd the ITIL initiative.

That's what Drucker did while she was a director of IT at a major automotive dealership. As ITIL champion, she tackled the work in pieces. Project management took about a year, and then the effort extended to program management, with Drucker working in consort with a senior development engineer.

Drucker said they ultimately became heroes to the storage folks, who were suffering the consequences of developers who built applications without informing them in advance. One type that could be especially problematic involved the storage of scanned documents. "With ITIL, we fixed the problem," she said.

Companies that achieve the most effective results implement ITIL across their entire IT organizations in communication with the business, Drucker said. They identify the business services along with the IT elements that enable them. Once they understand each service, including the storage space consumed, they can compute the percentage of each IT component necessary to deliver it. The figures can then be used to charge back the cost to the department that wants the service or to simply justify the expense.

IT like 'a black hole'

"What ITIL boils down to is service management best practices that align IT with the business," Drucker said. "For a business, IT is like a black hole. [It] throws money there and doesn't know where it's going. This is where they get to know where it's going."

Organizations that implement ITIL most often cite improving the quality of service as their primary goal, according to Ed Holub, an analyst at Gartner. Improving speed and agility placed second, and reducing cost was third in surveys done at Gartner events.

For a business, IT is like a black hole. It throws money there and doesn't know where it's going. [ITIL] is where they get to know where it's going.
Phyllis Drucker
operations directorIT Services Management Forum USA
Holub said that the vast majority of clients with whom he speaks start their ITIL initiatives by focusing on one to three processes, the most popular being incident management, problem management and change management. Holub also sees increased interest in capacity management as the use of virtualization technology soars and in the release management process.

Documentation is important, and one of the first steps that many organizations focus on is building a configuration management system with detailed information about the IT environment. The system consists of a configuration management database (CMDB), or multiple federated CMDBs, plus additional information about the services offered. The service definition includes information about storage.

Various vendors sell CMDBs and tools to help keep the information up to date about what's in the data center and how the environment is configured.

"One of the hardest things is defining what services you're actually running," said Matt Schvimmer, a senior director of products for IT service management at Hewlett-Packard. "Customers use dependency and discovery mapping. We have one tool that automates the discovery of the business services ... but you're not going to discover everything. You [might] say you're going to discover the top 10 services or manually model what a service looks like."

Populating CMDBs was one of the pain points cited by attendees at EMC's customer council, according to Gray. Like other vendors, EMC offers a CMDB product and tools, such as its Application Discovery Manager and ControlCenter SAN Advisor to help users understand how changes to the environment will affect the infrastructure.

"At the end of the day, if you don't have an understanding of what you're going to try to accomplish, and you don't have the people trained on those processes, you won't get the maximum benefit out of the tools," Gray said.

Reichman said he would hate to see the CMDB hurdle deter an organization from ITIL best practices. "Don't hold out for perfection," he advised.

ITIL challenges

For its 2008 IT Service and Infrastructure Management survey, published in March, research firm Enterprise Strategy Group polled 602 decision-makers. Among the 352 respondents who indicated they were implementing ITIL, the top three challenges they cited were cost/time to implement enabling technologies, lack of time/cost of training requirements and cultural resistance within IT.

Despite increasing interest in ITIL, there are still many companies that have not pursued it. Among the 250 respondents who said that their organizations have no plans to implement ITIL best practices, 40% cited the top reason as "insufficient staff resources to tackle this." A quarter said they were "using internally developed best practices."

"People are so busy fighting day-to-day fires that it's hard to make the investment," said Bob Laliberte, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Until it's something that's mandated by the executive team, it's probably unlikely to happen."

This was first published in November 2008
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