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Often maligned (but more often misunderstood), the ITIL framework can help transform your storage environment into an efficient storage service organization.

Often maligned (but more often misunderstood), the ITIL framework can help transform your storage environment into an efficient storage service organization.

By Thomas Woods

If your a data storage management professional, odds are that at some point you'll be asked to help align your IT organization with the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) service management framework. But before your eyes glaze over and you think it's just another one of those theoretical approaches to managing IT, think again: ITIL can make your job, and your life, a lot easier.

ITIL is a set of British best practices that provide guidance on how to implement IT service management (ITSM), a framework specifically designed to confront and reduce IT organizational complexity. As a storage professional, you could benefit greatly from an ITIL implementation if you think you're currently spending too much time on any -- or all -- of the following tasks:

  • Working on non-storage issues
  • Reworking storage implementations because of design flaws
  • Phone support
  • Maintaining non-storage-specific tracking tools (home-grown change, incident or request tools)
  • Creating one-off reports with little notice
  • Tracking assets
  • Coordinating work with other teams
  • Working on projects that don't fully meet end-user requirements or maximize return on investment
  • Responding to storage outages
  • Not sharpening your storage skills

Storage management doesn't happen in a vacuum. Storage teams have a long list of other corporate groups they have to work with directly or indirectly: end users, help desks, call centers, first- and second-line operations support, as well as monitoring, server, security, asset, auditing, configuration, architecture, engineering planning and finance teams. If all that interfacing isn't enough, the storage team also has to provide meaningful reports to all levels of management to ensure operational objectives are being met. From a storage management perspective, the goal of ITSM isn't to direct storage administrators on how to do their jobs, but to focus more on:

  • Aligning storage teams to work better with other teams to achieve organizational goals
  • Leveraging and automating common processes and tools when possible

From an ITIL perspective, storage management is classified as a "technical management function," and as such, ITIL directs storage management teams to:

  • Maintain storage technical skills, and support documentation and maintenance schedules
  • Write procedures and train front-line service desk, call center and operational support teams
  • Own relationships with data storage vendors
  • Design and maintain storage systems
  • Act as an escalation point for incident and problem management involving storage subsystems
  • Be fully engaged in all five defined phases of the ITIL service lifecycle

The service concept

Working with multiple teams that may have many different systems for change control, problem management, incident management and customer communications places a huge burden on the typical enterprise storage function. But that's where ITIL excels because it provides a framework on how best to coordinate storage management work with other teams. ITIL's main mechanism to address organizational complexity is through the concept of a service, which is defined as follows by ITIL v3: "A 'service' is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks."

ITIL v3 breaks service management into five distinct phases (with corresponding publications):

  • Service strategy
  • Service design
  • Service transition
  • Service operation
  • Continual service improvement

Storage functions are required to participate fully in all phases of the service lifecycle. The ITIL v3 service operations guide (sections 5.3.2, 5.6, 6.5 and 6.6) outlines what storage and archive are responsible for. Read those sections, but don't be disappointed with the lack of detailed information. Don't expect ITIL to be delivered to your storage team; as a storage "technical function," you're expected to create services and service components that deliver value to your customers. To achieve that, ITIL attempts to ensure that no single IT process, function or technology is working against the greater good. ITIL provides a framework to ensure that important storage functional decisions affecting storage architectures and processes are deployed in a way that best supports the organization.

Service strategy: The goal of developing a service strategy is to create service-level requirements that are then delivered to the service design phase. The first and most basic step is to determine what services will be offered to which user communities. After a set of services is defined, the next step is to define important attributes for the service. In addition to base functionality, there are many other service attributes that are important to the service's end users and customers, including availability, cost, security policies, performance and time to deliver. The storage function plays a critical role in service strategy by verifying that storage design assumptions are in line with anticipated service offering functionality and costs.

During the service strategy phase, service architects will determine whether there will be a separate storage service or if the storage functionality be offered as a component of a more comprehensive service. There are a number of factors that need to be considered when deciding to create a separate storage service, including:

  • Organizational size. Organizations that have large storage environments may benefit from a separate storage service consisting of NAS, SAN and/or backup components that clearly defines the storage service offering and tracks service compliance via service metrics.
  • Organization breadth. Organizations with a broad application base that use repeatable or very similar storage solutions may benefit from a consistent and measurable storage service offering.
  • Organizational agility. Organizations that operate in turbulent or fast-paced markets, in which storage is an important part of their product delivery, may benefit from a separate storage service offering. For example, an email service provider may provide free storage as part of its offering. To support the consumer-facing email service, an internal storage service may be created to ensure that the storage infrastructure is properly aligned and updated with new capabilities at a speed required by the marketplace.

When creating a storage service, the first step is to decide on what entries the service catalog should include based on customer requirements (see "A sample storage service catalog," below). The service catalog is usually divided into two parts: internal catalog entries that are viewable and available to order by internal IT groups, and external catalog entries that are for groups outside of IT.

Click here to get a PDF of the Sample Storage Service Catalog.

Service-level requirements should specify what's required from the service, the availability of the service and security levels; the time to deliver objectives should also be included. For a storage service that includes backup, NAS, SAN and data archiving, attributes that are important to the service customer are time to deliver, performance, recovery point objectives (RPOs), recovery time objectives (RTOs) and cost; all should be detailed in a catalog for the service. The storage function should play a major role in helping to define these attributes.

The majority of the service catalog won't be available to the end users, but will be used by other services. For example, a server hosting service may include SAN options for an end user requiring large amounts of storage. The designer of the hosting service needs to be aware of how storage service attributes such as availability, RPO, RTO and performance affect the hosting service attributes.

Service design: The storage function also plays an important role in the service design phase of the service lifecycle. Based on service-level requirements, the storage function is required to create the plans on how storage-specific requirements will be achieved. The results of the service design phase are a service design package that should include details on the end state of the storage solution. Guidance on how to transition the storage service components to operations should be a part of the service-level design package.

Service transition: In the service transition phase, the service design package is implemented and set into operation. Following proper change management and deployment principles, the storage function prepares service desk and level-1 and level-2 storage support teams with proper diagnostics and maintenance schedule procedures. The storage team also maintains the service and technical documentation that supports the storage components. The team will take the lead in coordinating storage system changes as dictated by the service design package, while also owning the relationships with the outside storage vendors and service providers.

Another focus of ITIL is process and service commonality. ITIL describes the attributes of change, request fulfillment, capacity, event, availability, problem, incident, and configuration and asset management processes, as well as the attributes of a service. An important part of moving to a service model is mapping the various processes and service roles to the storage functional teams.

Service operations and continual service improvement: Storage technical management plays a direct role in technical operations. As stewards of data storage technology, this team is responsible for planning storage technology and technology upgrades, evaluating technologies and maintaining storage skills. The storage function must also monitor operations, and implement and oversee service improvements during the continual service improvement phase. The storage function will train front-line operations and request fulfillment teams to perform repeatable, low-risk storage management tasks such as rerunning a backup, provisioning and exporting a file system, and presenting a LUN. High-risk tasks, such as partitioning an array, SAN configuration and filer policy setup, should be performed by high-level storage management rather than general operations teams.

Real-world implementation issues

In all but the simplest ITIL implementations, there will be tension created by the extra work placed on the storage function to implement ITIL vs. the expected enterprise benefits. Implementing the ITIL framework, especially at the beginning of an ITIL project, may sometimes appear to add work with little benefit. This may be because not all of the services or all storage environments will be a part of the initial ITIL release. During the transitional period a storage functional team may therefore be required to support legacy tools and the new enterprise tools, thus increasing the number of interfaces the storage teams have to maintain and monitor. Hopefully, it will only be a temporary condition. Most of the time the ITIL processes are more rigorous in addressing change and risks, and they tend to split activities into multiple tasks. For example, before an ITIL implementation, an on-call person might have simply received a page or other alert and then addressed the issue. With ITIL processes in place, this simple act may be divided into an "event," "incident," "RFC" (request for change) and a "problem" -- with each of these put into a different tracking database and requiring a different set of actions and roles.

But at the macro-enterprise level, ITIL benefits are more apparent:

  • Improved coordination. Cross-functional process teams work together to implement policies in a standardized way, using common tools and a common language to help reduce the level of organizational confusion or misunderstanding. Because of the benefits of scale, an ITIL implementation may cost-justify process automation opportunities that previously weren't justified at a storage-function-only level.
  • Reduced complexity. ITIL should help reduce or eliminate redundant processes, tools, technologies, queues and interfaces that the storage team has to work with.
  • Increased transparency. Service- and enterprise process-level reporting will provide management and auditors better quality and more actionable reports.
  • More successful releases. Introduction of new functionality and updates will have a better chance of being successful and maximizing return on investment.
  • Reduced outages. Better process-handoff definitions will result in fewer outages. Most causes of operational outages that involve storage subsystems aren't a direct result of a storage administrator error or storage subsystem failures; root causes of storage outages usually involve a handoff error, such as:
    • Incorrect server name provided for a LUN deletion
    • Cold backup scheduled during production window
    • Scheduled NAS filer outage impacted production servers inadvertently

Efficiency and sustainability

The main goal of using the ITIL framework is to ensure the IT organization delivers value to the organization in an efficient and sustainable way. ITIL provides a framework that helps align the organization so it's better positioned to achieve the overall objectives of IT and the organization. This should be incentive enough to fully support your ITIL program, but as a storage professional you have an extra incentive: ITIL compliance will allow you to spend more time working on storage-specific projects and architectures which, in turn, will allow you to better maintain, sharpen and expand your storage skill set.

BIO: Tom Woods is currently global ITIL services transition manager at Ford Motor Company. At Ford, Tom has held storage operations, engineering and architecture positions, and has supervised the backup and NAS teams.

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