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4 ways to marry ITSM and DevOps

Ericka Chickowski Freelance writer

Many early adopters of DevOps practices and principles were reacting against the red tape that old-school IT service management (ITSM) bureaucracy fostered within organizations. But companies shouldn't abandon ITSM quite yet.

Troy Vetter, COO of Coda Global, makes this plea:

"Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. ITSM got very heavy, and that heaviness became a severe roadblock to its adoption in many IT organizations."
Troy Vetter

Instead of resolving the clogs in the process, many "new-school" companies got rid of ITSM altogether. This may seem like a huge relief at first, but it actually prevents the company from being able to grow and scale their people and processes, Vetter said.

Here's why the marriage of DevOps and ITSM is needed—and four ways to make that happen in your organization.

Why you need both

The truth is that, while both DevOps and ITSM focus on delivering value to IT customers and use similar language about elevating customer experience, they have very different focuses. So said Donna Knapp, a longtime IT pro, a curriculum development manager at the ITSM Academy, and the author of the DevOps Institute's course on ITSM for DevOps.

DevOps tends to focus on the software delivery lifecycle and on building and delivering software, she said. For its part, ITSM tends to have a broader focus; it's really looking at all aspects of customer engagement, from fulfilling standard services to ongoing support and operations activities. So ITSM is "almost like the left and right ends of DevOps," Knapp explained.

This is why, if enterprises are going to grow quickly and maintain the discipline and organization required to deliver IT services at scale, they're going to need to balance the process controls of ITSM with the speed of DevOps, said Sachin Agarwal, DevOps engineer and solution architect for Mantra Labs.

"DevOps redefines IT agility and flexibility, and ITSM rules the processes to ensure that they meet all the requirements for secure and successful deployment. Both in harmony will increase efficiency and reduce the blame game within the organization."
Sachin Agarwal

Keep shared objectives in mind

Contrary to what some cynics might say about the compatibility of ITSM and DevOps, many experts believe it is possible to bring them together effectively.

"They absolutely can play nice together; it's just very much an odd-couple kind of nice," said Andi Mann, chief technology advocate for Splunk. "The idea is that these are very, very different approaches to delivering customer interaction and customer engagement."

To properly integrate ITSM and DevOps, hardliners on either side of the spectrum are going to need to realize that there's no one right way to achieve objectives.

DevOps practitioners who thrive on flexibility still need to understand that controls are necessary in huge and regulated environments—DevOps simply can't exist in the enterprise without some level of formalized process. Meanwhile, longtime ITSM practitioners must realize that they can't stay trapped in traditional ITSM practices.

"The way we've implemented ITSM traditionally doesn't work for DevOps.The core principles are still really important, but we're going to have to break from how we've delivered those principles in the past if we want to get at the heart of what DevOps is trying to change in IT."
Andi Mann

So how do organizations start moving forward to bridge the gap between the cultures of these two tribes? Start by looking at mutual values, such as objectives. 

David Ratcliffe, president of Pink Elephant, an early player in ITSM and the ITIL standard, said the most important thing was keeping in mind the common understanding of why they all have to work together.

"What are the objectives? What are we trying to do together? That's the most important thing, because if you lose sight of that, you're now in the weeds and you're just another nerd who's only interested or only preoccupied with your little area."
David Ratcliffe

Remembering this can help both camps keep minds open enough to learn about each other's approach, which is also critical to harmonization, Ratcliffe said. Proper training to help DevOps professionals gain understanding of ITSM, and vice versa, will help both teams find points of integration—not just in technology, but in process as well.

Marry change management with automation

One of ITSM's strongest suits is its disciplined approach to change management, said —Jeff Fry, Senior Business Development Engineer at CloudBees.

"DevOps can benefit from using these practices to manage rapid software changes and deliver better-quality software. Issues and outages due to software changes will occur. Change management is needed to gate delivery to critical customer-facing systems and provide change analysis to investigate issues."

—Jeff Fry

However, the trauma of dealing with slow change-approval boards was often one of the triggers that drove former adherents of ITIL to their current DevOps preference.

But what if you could do automation around change approval? "The change-approval board was a manual effort at allowing through known, good change. So let's meld them together," Mann said.

Find ways to automate the implementation of known, good changes to allow for agility, iteration, and innovation, Mann said. At the same time, hold back high-risk, high-impact changes that might need more than just an individual contributor to sign off on before they make it in front of a customer.

Integrate ITSM tools within the DevOps toolchain

A lot of the skepticism around using ITSM to support DevOps comes from preconceived notions about what ITSM is. Companies have a historical viewpoint that ITSM requires manual inputs through a monolithic ticketing system, by telephone or data entry, said Coda Global's Vetter.

"This may have been the main way those of us in IT interacted with ITSM in the '90s and the aughts. But these days, ITSM doesn’t have to be the entry point to getting things done." 
—Troy Vetter

Self-service requests, automation flows, and IT orchestration are now "our front door to actions, and IT service management can—and should—be happening in the background, automagically created, maintained, and measured by our DevOps tools," Vetter said. "But it does still need to happen."

Unfortunately, at many organizations, rigid silos still exist between ITSM and DevOps tools. It's still common, for instance, for developers to have their own bug-tracking or product-backlog management tools—and then a completely separate tool for ITSM to track incidents and capture problems—without any meaningful way for those tools to talk to each other, Knapp said

"So what you end up doing is forcing developers to use some process that's outside of their norm in order to address issues," she added, explaining that ITSM professionals need to technologically bridge that gap to enable the speed of DevOps.

The good news is that many of the latest ITSM tools have a ton of integration points to make that possible. The bad news is that organizations often depend on old versions of those tools, that don't have those add-ons.

Organizations often heavily customize their ITSM tools. "They're now two, three, four, five releases back from where the vendor actually is," Knapp said.

Agile service management can deliver flexible ITSM

Given how many organizations are greatly behind on keeping their internal ITSM tools up to date, it may be time for service management organizations to eat the DevOps dog food. This starts with them iterating quickly to improve their internal tools to integrate with the DevOps tool chain.

But it's actually much bigger than that. Knap said that a practice called "agile service management" is often the secret sauce for instituting a more flexible and nimble ITSM function that supports DevOps in the enterprise.

Agile service management aims to take agile values and apply Scrum-like development practices to process design and improvement, she said. "So we take an iterative approach. We aim to make more frequent changes" rather than design and implement a total end-to-end process in the traditional way.  

This iteration can come in different forms, whether it is finding small ways to streamline a process or discovering an area where the process can be automated and then building out that automation in an incremental way.

"Over time, we then end up being able to marry together IT service management and DevOps practices," Knapp said.

ITSM is vital for supporting DevOps

ITSM is a crucial part of building and maintaining a platform for sound DevOps practices. As Ratcliffe put it, ITSM makes up one of the three major pillars of IT implementation: people, process, and technology.

"ITSM brings the processes, DevOps brings the automated technology, and they both bring people."
—David Ratcliffe

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