How to transform IT operations with service assurance

Managing IT in silos is a thing of the past; a service-centric strategy will guarantee better IT service performance and more satisfied end users and customers.
Written by Denise Dubie,, Contributor
Commentary - Industry watchers have long prophesied about the end of IT management as we know it. They predicted the dominance of high-tech silos, futile finger-pointing sessions and poor application performance would drive IT operations managers to evolve their practices to focus squarely on the service to the end user or customer. Now technologies such as virtualization, cloud computing and mobility are compelling IT executives to quickly transform from antiquated approaches to an agile, service assurance strategy.

“Cloud seems to be launching more conversations around becoming service-centric, and our research reveals there is a growing number of organizations establishing cross-domain, service support and service management teams,” says Jim Frey, Managing Research Director with Enterprise Management Associates (EMA).

IT operations managers certainly expected this day to come. They knew the time when managing IT domains independent of other technology areas would become counterproductive. With dynamic technologies such as virtualization (a key underpinning component to most cloud environments) and the consumerization of IT (which highlights end-user expectations of on-demand IT services), many IT departments today find themselves struggling to stay ahead of performance problems and maintain their relevance to the business.

“Most IT operations teams spend an inordinate proportion of their time hunting down the various root causes to these issues, largely because chaotic practices, weak or weakly enforced processes, and insufficient technology assistance obscure the clues to resolution,” reads Forrester Research Inc.’s June 30, 2011 report “Enhance Service Visibility to Reduce MTTR.”

Now savvy high-tech professionals realize changing their approach is no longer a choice, but a mandate from the business. Still some of these IT veterans may not understand exactly how to effectively evolve their current method of managing myriad components across sophisticated environments into an IT management strategy that focuses on the transaction, the service and ultimately, the end-user experience.

“There is no end to the number of times IT has been mandated to align with the business. And the only way to effectively do that is with a truly service-oriented approach,” EMA’s Frey says.

Here industry experts will detail the steps needed to get on the path away from frustrating, ad hoc IT management approaches to a service assurance strategy that promises efficient operations, optimized application performance and satisfied end users and customers.

Changing minds to advance IT
As with most IT projects, the initial step involves a change in thinking or a cultural shift. If an IT department wants to move past element and device management to a unified service assurance strategy, it will have to first alter the mindset of the team, the organization and the company it serves.

“For IT organizations that have been happily running the data center, keeping the lights on, the first place to start is in the way they think,” says Jeff Cobb, Senior Vice President of Business Unit Strategy at CA Technologies. “IT organizations need to move away from thinking about the elements and start looking at the outcomes. If you compare it to manufacturing which looks at the end product, IT needs to look at the end-user experience with the IT service. It is the fundamental currency; go to the end results and measure from there.”

For many in IT, the outcome previously could have been measured by server response time or network uptime statistics, depending on the domain. In today’s dynamic environment, the outcome must be measured by the end-user (or customer) experience with the delivered IT service. That means IT needs to monitor the individual components comprising the overall service, but focus the attention not necessarily on the individual details but on how those elements support the service and how that service fulfills the customer need.

“First you have to adopt the service-oriented mindset, and the next step is integrating the service management lifecycle and the monitoring tools perspective,” Frey says. “Bringing together what have historically been separate tools and aligning them all as relevant to service objectives is a big challenge technologically. Not all toolsets can easily make the transition to the service assurance model when IT organizations make this choice.”

All eyes on end-user experience
Adopting a service assurance approach to IT management won’t resemble a one-off IT project. It will be an ongoing process that delivers incremental returns along the way, and IT operations managers must decide from where they want to begin. If the ultimate desired result is an improved end-user experience, IT departments must define what that means to their organization.

Depending on the environment, IT organizations can decide to kick off the transformation from within the underlying components or they could start by modeling critical business services and drilling down to find the infrastructure related to them. Either way will involve a few political battles and technology challenges, but both should enable IT to move toward measuring IT in a way that is relevant to the business.

“The business is tired of hearing about technical matters that they don’t really understand. They want metrics and measurements, but in terms they care about – the customer experience,” says Ken Blackwell, Distinguished Engineer at CA Technologies. “Many large enterprises start with the network and infrastructure management tools already in place and grow them to incorporate end-user experience, and others choose to start with the customer and back track to the underlying infrastructure.”

To transition from monitoring IT elements to managing business services, IT operations will have to identify services and model those services in such a way that any changes to the underlying application and infrastructure components supporting the services are automatically updated in near real-time. If services can be adequately modeled and an accurate inventory of supporting IT components maintained, IT operations can more easily track down the source or problems and reduce downtime, improving the end-user experience.

“Nobody can comprehend the full extent of detail in any business service. Instead, construct a hierarchical set of models for each abstracted layer of information. Services are built of subservices, which are built from other subservices, and so on until this series of abstractions reaches the bottom – usually the physical infrastructure level,” reads Forrester Research Inc.’s June 30, 2011 report “Enhance Service Visibility to Reduce MTTR.” “Each level of this service chain has its own details, with those above and those below hidden from view. Such a divide-and-conquer method allows those responsible at each level to more effectively manage their narrower view of the world. If necessary, they can more easily navigate up and down the service chain without distractions from the sea of unrelated details.”

The industry term for managing IT services from the perspective of the business, or business service management, doesn’t exactly do justice to what IT departments are going to want to accomplish with service assurance. The difference is that IT departments today can’t keep up with the dynamic nature of all the business services they support. They need to evolve the entire management environment, and not just a few monitoring tools, to work in support of all IT services, which demands service models updated in near real time and workflows and other actions triggered via automation technology by pre-defined policies and priorities.

“Putting service-oriented metrics in place gets IT departments to a point where they can be more proactive about reducing the impact of any number of degradations or problems on the business,” EMA’s Frey says. “IT departments want to get to this point of understanding what the end user sees and experiences. This puts the IT organization in a position to be much more cost-effective and proactive.”

Managing what matters
The transformation toward service assurance is not only an IT endeavor that provides returns in its own right, the updated approach to IT service delivery and management will also enable IT organizations to become an agile entity, almost anticipating the business’ needs. Adopting a service assurance model for IT management will give IT organizations the tools they need via such a dynamic infrastructure to more quickly adapt to changing technologies and increase end-user demand for IT services.

For instance, today technologies such as virtualization, cloud computing and mobility challenge IT organizations to stay ahead of business demand. Proper management of the complex, sophisticated environments supporting and delivering these technologies lets IT stay relevant to the business now. But who’s to say what the next in-demand technology will be? Perhaps the consumerization of IT will drive more tablet PCs into the enterprise, causing IT organizations to manage a more diverse set of end-user devices? Or maybe as applications move to the cloud, the metrics that require in-house management will change from server response time to service-level agreement (SLA) compliance? Any number of scenarios is possible in the ever-changing world of technology – which is exactly why IT organizations need to be able to quickly adapt to manage what matters, when it matters to the end user or customer.

“IT organizations could start to consider metrics such as, ‘How much money is lost if we make this infrastructure change?’ or ‘How does this operations incident put my SLA compliance at risk?’” Blackwell from CA Technologies explains. “It is easy for customers in this virtual world to switch to another service, and IT will need to be able to identify the metrics that mean the most to their business and ensure they minimize operational as well as reputational risk.”

For most companies in today’s economy, technology underpins their most critical services to customers. Managing the technology that supports these key business services requires a new approach that focuses on the end-user perspective. While the IT-domain specific metrics will continue to matter, they can only matter in the context of the customer experience. Service assurance enables IT to gain visibility into this critical perspective across infrastructure, application and service components.

“With today’s dynamic, sophisticated environments, IT needs to manage the right thing, and the right thing to manage now is the transaction because that is what most often touches the end user or customer,” says Mike Sargent, General Manager, Service Assurance, CA Technologies.

Denise Dubie is the new media principal at CA Technologies. Follow Denise on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/#!/ddubie.

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