Want the most from IT service levels? Be proactive!

Service level improvement should be the highest priority for any IT department, and proactive management is a must for the department to deliver.

Proactive IT service level management

The greatest challenge for IT management today is to effectively support the needs of the systems users –- the people who sell, service and build the business. Before making any changes to the IT infrastructure, enterprises need facts on how those changes will impact the overall business. Once the facts are available, investments can be made with confidence. Because of this, service level improvement should be the highest priority for any IT department. After all, the reason for an IT infrastructure is to deliver services to customers and employees.

As shown throughout many industries, organizational improvements happen reliably and continuously when two factors are present: a well-understood measurement of quality and a process whereby IT service delivery is increased based on those measurements. The closer these measurements align with customer expectations, the more impact the process has on the organization.

Service level management (SLM) is the process of ensuring that IT services are delivered when, where and how they are needed. Often, measurements provided by IT systems do not align with the services provided to the customers, which prevents an organization's ability to optimize its IT infrastructure and, in turn, its ability to serve its customers.

Industry standard best practices

As organizations realize the importance of measuring services, they need to think about IT service management and the interrelated activities required to optimize an IT service delivery infrastructure. An example of a proven service management methodology is the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

The de facto global standard of IT service management, ITIL is a disciplined approach to the delivery and support of IT service management. ITIL contains five disciplines that interoperate to deliver optimum IT service performance: service level management, capacity management, availability management, continuity management and financial management.

Organizations that chose to leverage ITIL are able to benefit from established processes that result in increased operational efficiencies.

SLM in dynamic IT service delivery environments

The goal of effective SLM in an IT service delivery framework is easy to understand: "Ensuring that IT services are delivered when and where they are supposed to."

As detailed under ITIL, it's not sufficient to measure service levels in technical terms, rather service level assessment must take into account the view of how consumers realize the benefits of that service.

This is an important distinction from how most IT executives think today. In many cases, service level agreements (SLAs) are for technical performance and don't model consumer experience. Remember, the only reason for an IT infrastructure is to deliver services that allow customers (internal and external) to do their jobs. In the end, effective SLM must start with assessing the consumers' experience; measuring the services' actual quality against customer expectations; and ensuring that the underlying IT infrastructure delivers.

Service level assessment provides an objective measurement of how well the infrastructure is meeting the needs of the users. This perspective is often difficult to see within the "IT box" and without effective service level assessment -- based on user-experience -- the organization cannot effectively improve its service levels. Service level assessment also enables an organization to benefit from organizational improvement, customer and management confidence and cost justification.

IT services and metrics defined

ITIL defines a service as a set of related components provided in support of business processes. Although the service may consist of a range of configuration item types, it is perceived by the customer as a self-contained entity.

In all cases, a unified metric needs to objectively describe the users' ability to accomplish their jobs. Also, the higher the level at which a service is defined, the more difficult it is to specify and measure. Therefore, enterprises should start with the lowest levels of service and work gradually toward the more complicated services.

Additionally, it is important to understand how many users are active on a service and from what point they access the network.

However, when first defining services, many organizations are surprised that they have little or no information on the number of users accessing each service. Gathering this information, although challenging, provides insight into the nature of the customer. Having this information in the future provides important demographics that will prove useful beyond the initial service assessment.

Reporting, distributing and using the results

The results from SLM must be compiled and made available to interested parties, since they are important in understanding trends and spotting anomalies.

By having access to these results, decision makers will begin to make changes within their scope of control. Examples include eliminating less reliable devices, product-lines or vendors; working with vendors to improve QoS; adding capacity to key servers; and strengthening reliability requirements for equipment.

Advice to the IT department

The most important responsibility of IT management is to maximize the delivery of IT services. Businesses have to measure before they can improve. With a SLM system in place, the energy, skill and creativity of the overall organization can be harnessed and optimized for success.

Ed Flannery is founder and CEO of Opticom Inc., an Andover, Mass.-based firm that sells service level management software.

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