Can DevOps and ITIL co-exist? A story of two IT service philosophies

Is ITIL, first formulated more than two decades ago to promote service-thinking within IT ranks, a good fit within emerging DevOps cultures?

Can ITIL and DevOps co-exist?

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

That's the question recently put forth by Gareth Daine, who quizzed some 25 industry experts and observers on whether the two methodologies clash, or are compatible. ITIL, originally known as Information Technology Infrastructure Library, is a set of best practices which recognize and certify that IT functions are delivered as tangible services to organizations. DevOps seeks to align the output of development shops with the teams charged with putting software into production, thereby assuring continuous releases as businesses need them.

The argument against peaceful co-existence suggests that ITIL, first launched in the late 1980s, may not be current enough for the realities of the 2016 organization, which requires a DevOps culture to be responsive in hyper-competitive markets. Terminology has changed, and, as Daine posits, "there's a lot of planning and documenting involved in the various processes outlined throughout the ITIL framework, with little mention, if any, of iterative or agile/lean thinking and approaches."

However, perusing the various views Daine gathered in his post, the general consensus appears to be yes, while there is a tension between the two approaches, the worst-case scenario is they don't interfere with one another, and many suggest the two need each other in the long run. (I was one of those who contributed thoughts to this question.)

"I absolutely believe that ITIL and DevOps are compatible," said Karen Ferris, director and IT Service Management Expert at Macanta Consulting, reflecting the views of many. "Since day one of conception, ITIL has stated that it needs to be 'adopted and adapted' and in the world of DevOps that is still the case. The language used may be different but the outcomes are the same - delivering value to the business where it is needed."

Others point out that while ITIL and DevOps come from two different parts of the brain, both serve to keep IT aligned with the business, which is ultimately all that matters, "ITIL, a service management framework, is not the same as Agile," says Roy Atkinson - support and service industry analyst, writer and speaker with HDI. "If we go back to the Agile Manifesto, some elements appear to completely contradict tenets of ITIL, such as valuing 'responding to change over following a plan.'" Still, he adds, "Agile methodologies do not advocate for knee-jerk responses and Wild West behavior; the goal is always to produce value through iteration and focus. A well-tended service management road, leveled by responsive change management practices, can help to expedite the goals of Agile methods."

Steve Whelan, ITIL expert and trainer at Purple Griffon, feels that DevOps is an actual extension of ITIL-based thinking. "As far as processes go DevOps is really a subset of ITIL, so which processes map well - all of them that DevOps actually talks about. There basically isn't anything in DevOps which isn't in ITIL. DevOps is basically more about how-to-do, ITIL more about what-to-do."

Julian Simpson, software engineer at Neo Technology, says the interplay between ITIL and DevOps depends on what type of organization you have. "Not following ITIL at all would have very few consequences in a two-person start-up that writes mobile apps. That same decision could have terrible consequences for a 1000-person insurance company," he observes. Ultimately, in any organization of any size or type, "what matters is that the organization is designed in such a way that all the departments and groups have aligned goals, and that there's trust between people."

Daniel Breston, chief of DevOps transformation at Ranger4 Limited, suggests that ITIL and DevOps should be brought together -- a hybrid "AgileITSM" that actively promotes cultures of collaboration, communication, metrics, and, yes, fun.

Ultimately, the focus is on the customer -- internal or external -- and both ITIL and DevOps help IT shops maintain that focus, says Kaimar Karu, head of ITSM at Axelos. "The trick with getting the most out of ITIL is to make sure the service management mindset is adopted, and the guidance itself is adapted to the specific needs of the organisation. DevOps helps to make it happen and provides additional support for the 'how' on the core concepts of service management -- creating value through collaboration, with a focus on the customer."

The observation I added to the mix is that every business is becoming a software business, and thus will be looking to move solutions, updates and capabilities to internal and external customers quickly and with the highest possible quality. DevOps paves the way, but it takes a radical re-thinking of IT workflows and management. ITIL opened the doors to such a re-alignment.

Of course, both philosophies often get more lip service than actuial results, Atkinson states. "DevOps and ITIL can dwell in the same house, but the commitment must be to producing value, not advancing an adopted philosophy. Too often, we see organizations wrap themselves in the name but follow neither the spirit nor the letter."

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