What exactly is a business service (and why should you care?)

Those of us within IT involved with operating or managing the availability and performance of business services have a big problem -- a basic lack of understanding, or ability to explain, “What is a business service?”

As one example, Stephen Mann, an analyst with Forrester, tweeted from the itSMF conference in Norway: “The whole room has been on ITIL training but less than 5% can describe what a service is.”

A quick search for “what is a business service,” turns up an IBM white paper that says:  “What, exactly, is a business service? One technical definition is that it is any customer, partner or user-facing group of applications, middleware, security, storage, networks and other supporting infrastructure that comes together to enable a comprehensive, end-to-end business process, transaction or exchange of information.”

Sorry, but that definition is not helping our cause.

Next on the search results list was a Wiki entry that offered the following:  “There is often confusion in IT organizations about what exactly is considered a business service: Business services are characterized by representing a direct value to customers, like e.g. the provision of e-mailing facilities and internet access.”

While these somewhat disparate definitions help guide us in our quest to understand business services, they are also clearly indicative of a larger problem. How can we deliver something when we don’t even know what it is? Perhaps the definitive source – ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library - could help. It has a pretty decent description:

Business Service - A service that is delivered to business customers by business units. For example, delivery of financial services to customers of a bank, or goods to the customers of a retail store. Successful delivery of business services often depends on one or more IT services. A business service may consist almost entirely of an IT service – for example, an online banking service or an external website where product orders can be placed by business customers.

Still, the root of the problem here is that we’re lacking a description of what a business service that any of us could easily understand and explain. And, that is probably why only 5% of an entire class in ITIL training can describe what a service is.

It seems we need something simple and practical, rather than academic. Here goes:

First of all, a business service is made up of components that can include, for example, applications, servers, network devices, and storage gear.

Next, defining the business service requires mapping, which involves building the associations for an application and the underlying components supporting that application. The mapping process results in an illustration which shows the connections between the application and the components including switches, routers, database servers, web servers, application servers, etc.

Through defining and mapping the business service, a model of the configuration topology is created which shows the underlying components and dependent relationships for the business service.

Now, let’s turn our focus to “what’s good” about a business service approach to IT operations management.

The ability to monitor the health of business services is a key advantage of having a “service-aligned” view of IT. Underpinning this service-aligned view is a concise, accurate, real-time mapping of applications, their supporting IT components, and their inter-relationships. Once these maps are bound to real-time data from IT service monitoring and event management systems, an accurate, always up-to-date measurement of the health of each business service is readily accessible, including the criticality and priority of incidents affecting service health. Ideally, this information is presented in an intuitive dashboard that lets IT staff see the health of business services across the enterprise at a glance.

More accurate and rapid problem isolation is one outcome of detailed service models integrated with monitored and event data, which display correlations that can be used to facilitate troubleshooting when those inevitable problems occur. Determining if a particular component is the root cause of a failure within an application flow is quick and simple with maps that are accurate and are kept always up‐to‐date.

Beyond better response to an incident after the fact, IT operations can be more proactive in analyzing the configuration of the service to identify single points of failure. The capability to view historical configuration information and changes is also provided so IT operations can trace outages to specific changes on specific components over a defined period of time. This is great news for challenged operations teams as we all know that maximizing service availability is one of the most critical IT objectives.

A simple way to think about the power of service models in relation to rapid problem isolation is that they reduce mean-time-to-know to zero. No more need for accusations flying in hastily arranged war-room meetings. With an accurate and always up-to-date service model, it is easy for an operations manager to assign work by service criticality – or, perhaps according to the service bringing in the most revenue.

The change management process is another area where a services approach brings a lot of positive benefits. The ability to compare current and previous configurations makes it easy to see newly added or modified applications, supporting infrastructure, and their respective interconnections. The Change Advisory Board (CAB) is empowered to understand the implications of proposed changes and to validate that the scope of proposed changes, and the ‘bleed’ from those changes, are well-understood.

When planning change, questions arise about who will be impacted by those changes. Which business services will be offline due to server or router maintenance? Who does the IT team need to notify about the impending maintenance, which business owners will be impacted? With a service-aligned approach, IT knows which business owners to alert ahead of time and to keep updated on status.

Last, business continuity and disaster recovery as well as data center migration projects receive invaluable data from accurate and always up-to-date service models. Comparing the configuration of existing business services to those created in their image for redundancy or migration purposes is easy. Understanding the configuration prior to initiating a project is also straight-forward.

So, now, hopefully you know what a business service is and the value of a services approach in IT operations.

Gartner’s maturity model shows that among Infrastructure & Operations personnel, the current ranking on the maturity scale (stages include: Awareness, Committed, Proactive, Service Aligned, Business Partner) is 2.35 out of a possible 5. That means that majority of IT organization have not yet achieved a service-aligned view of their operations.

The benefits of a service-aligned approach to IT operations seem obvious. With a shift in emphasis to a business services perspective, we as an industry can go much further so that IT delivers on the promise of partnering with the business, speaking the same language as the business, and becoming a real bottom-line contributor to business results.

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