What Is ITIL®? The IT Services Framework Explained

Simply put, ITIL is a library of universally applicable guidelines and best practices for IT. ITIL stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, and this library, like most libraries, is composed of books.

There are five main volumes that comprise ITIL. Each volume corresponds to a “ITIL Lifecycle Phase.”

The most basic answer to the question "what is ITIL?" is that the Information Technology Infrastructure Library is a set of five manuals that cover the administration of the ITIL framwork.
The ITIL framework is divided into five separate volumes, with each one corresponding to an ITIL Lifecycle Phase.

These formal ITIL books can be ordered through a company called AXELOS. AXELOS is a public-private joint venture set up in 2014 between the British Government (“HMG”) and a British public limited company called Capita.

AXELOS is currently responsible for the licensing of ITIL’s intellectual property: books, presentations, courses, training programs, etc.

The five ITIL books are long and dense, not to mention expensive.

If you’re looking for a more simplified, beginner-friendly walk-through of ITIL, then consider ClydeBank Media’s ITIL for Beginners. ITIL for Beginners is licensed by Axelos and is considerably less expensive than buying the five-volume ITIL set.

The global character of ITIL, despite being heavily British in origin, it is recognized worldwide as an important standard-bearer for IT best practices.

IT professionals are often eager to strengthen their résumés with various ITIL certifications in hopes of making themselves more valuable to employers. And certainly, many employers view ITIL literacy with favor. There are several ITIL certifications available through AXELOS and countless third-party affiliate training organizations.

Each of the five ITIL lifecycle phases has corresponding certifications, and these five courses are really just the beginning.

There are several other certifications that integrate multiple lifecycles into a single curriculum. The most popular ITIL certification is the ITIL Foundation Level Certification, which is the equivalent of an ITIL survey course and requires only a basic understanding of all ITIL Service Lifecycle Phases.

For a comprehensive look at ITIL certifications, check out my breakdown on the topic.

The Need for ITIL®

ITIL was born in the UK, technically authored in part by the British government, but it has since emerged to become a global standard for IT best practices.

This didn’t happen overnight.

The origins of ITIL date back to the early 1980s, a time when companies and government bureaus were first beginning to decentralize their data centers.

Instead of having one major data hub, government and commercial organizations began to deploy multiple IT departments to oversee data hubs across many different locations.

The assumption at the time was that IT departments under one organizational umbrella would remain similar in nature from location to location.

So much so that an IT specialist from London, England, could take a blueprint for a new IT service to another data hub—one in Leeds, England, perhaps—and expect to find similar technological frameworks, capacities, and systems in place.

However, it was soon discovered that IT departments had an unruly tendency to resist standardization, a phenomenon that would limit opportunities for hub-to-hub cooperation.

Even more problematic was IT’s growing inability to directly respond to and support the central service needs of businesses and government agencies.

IT was becoming a universe unto itself—complete with its own arcane language, procedures, and priorities.

And while the world within the IT bubble was inclined to support the development of bigger, better, and more “IT systems,” it was sluggish and clumsy when it came to responding to the needs of the business. As a result, business managers, contractors, and customers were left frustrated and in need of a solution.

From Systems to Service

The underlying premise of ITIL is the economical conversion of IT Systems into IT Services.

ITIL is a descriptive framework, not a prescriptive one, which means that it doesn’t mandate adherence to particular technologies, hardware, software, or systems.

“IT Systems” refers to a collection of component parts that combine and work with one another to achieve an objective. Examples of IT Systems might include the following:

  • Databases
  • Software
  • Hard disk farms
  • Programming languages
  • Servers
  • Middleware
  • Data analysis tools
  • Security systems
  • Firewalls
  • Phone systems
  • Computer systems
  • Auditing systems

“IT Services” refers to the actual products used by customers. Following are examples of IT Services:

  • Email
  • Word processing
  • Storing and playing music
  • Cloud computing
  • Package tracking
  • Social networking
  • E-Commerce
  • Accounting
  • Virus protection

Imagine ITIL as a sophisticated filter that uses IT Systems as its raw material and produces IT Services that are at once cost-effective, reliable, and always responsive to the changing needs of business.

How It All Fits Together

In order for ITIL to be effective, all of the best practices it enshrines must be applied toward the development of IT services.

The ITIL Service Lifecycle depicts how the key component pieces of ITIL fit together.

The ITIL Service Lifecycle is a bird's eye view of the ITIL framework in action.

Service Strategy

At the core of the ITIL Service Lifecycle is the Service Strategy lifecycle phase.

It is here that business goals are identified and IT department resources are marshaled together and scaled to the tasks at hand. Service Strategy is the launch pad for nearly all ITIL-based renovations, transitions, or new IT projects.

During this phase, IT resources are analyzed within the context of one or more service objectives.

The goal of the service strategy volume phase is to allow IT service management to be handled as a strategic asset, not just a technological one. Service strategy also provides guidance for the ways IT departments can position themselves for healthy long-term growth.

Service Design

Once Service Strategy is defined, it's time to work on Service Design.

During this ITIL lifecycle phase, the defined business needs and relevant resources identified in the Service Strategy phase are incorporated into a plan that can operate within the business's technical and service delivery infrastructure. The processes identified in the Service Design phase should be sustainable and should provide value to customers throughout the life cycle.

If Service Strategy is responsible for defining what needs to be done, then Service Design is offering a theoretically feasible means to those ends. True to the overarching principles of ITIL, the Service Design lifecycle phase aims to provide solutions that are integral and intelligible to the needs of business.

Service Transition

I consider Service Transition the most exciting ITIL lifecycle phase.

Service Transition is where the objectives identified in the Service Strategy phase and subsequent approaches created in the Service Design phase are put into action.

Service Transition does not necessarily entail a swapping of one service for another.

Service Transition may encompass the expansion of an existing service. It may also encompass the origin of a new service where previously there was none. Or it may entail the removal of an existing service, even if no alternative service is set to be established in its place.

A successful Service Transition phase will ensure that changes in services are executed in a manner that is well-coordinated, meets established expectations, and provides a near-seamless experience for the customers who rely on (or will rely on) the service.

Once complete, the Service Transition phase will yield useful feedback back that will further inform and optimize the Service Lifecycle.

Service Operation

The Service Operation phase of the ITIL Service Lifecycle involves maintaining a real-time service in a live environment that fulfills its purposed business applications.

Among the areas governed by the Service Operation phase are fulfilling user requests, resolving errors, and carrying out routine operational tasks.

The Service Operation lifecycle phase begins after the Service Transition is fully implemented and functioning. The principal concern of Service Operation is the extent to which the new IT service is sufficiently addressing the business objectives established during the Service Strategy phase of the lifecycle.

Any major divergences between Service Operation and Service Strategy are identified and used to inform a new round of Service Design.

Continual Service Improvement (CSI)

The Continual Service Improvement phase of the ITIL Service Lifecycle introduces another level of monitoring and cyclical process improvement.

Continual Service Improvement may use a variety of means to evaluate the business value of the IT service, such as customer surveys, financial reports, or the ITIL-specific “service review report.” These evaluations are used to define IT campaigns known as CSI initiatives, which are aimed at further refining the IT service to accommodate the needs of business.

ITIL Challenges and Criticisms

A common criticism of ITIL is that the formal ITIL volumes are too lengthy and costly for smaller businesses; we advise considering abridged reference titles written with beginners in mind. These beginner-level titles are perfect especially if you’re just getting started with ITIL.

Another criticism that has cropped up stems from the fact that ITIL newcomers and veteran users may find unique challenges in combining ITIL with other IT management structures, such as DevOps.

Finding creative and flexible paths to compatibility can often produce good results for your organization.

The Bottom Line

The ITIL framework is a globally recognized system for delivering world class service. While each volume (and it's corresponding service lifecycle) is intentionally sparse on technical instruction, they make up for it in proven descriptive language.

The ITIL framework is not without its criticism, but for proof of it's robust qualities and established track record, one not need look further than the truly worldwide rate of adoption ITIL enjoys.

Service providers that serve internal customers (as well as external customers) can find guidance in Clydebank Media’s ITIL® and ITSM QuickStart Guides or other similarly instructive and accredited publications. Approved by AXELOS, ITIL For Beginners is a comprehensive introduction to the ITIL framework proven to deliver world-class service.

The next steps to take:

  1. If you found this post helpful, take a moment to share it. Even better, tell us in the comments!
  2. Continue exploring the world of ITIL and IT excellence with these helpful posts:

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