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IT service management: How IT tools and practices are evolving

Jennifer Zaino Freelance writer/editor, Independent

IT executives have high hopes for IT service management (ITSM) tools—and it's not just about the IT help desk anymore. The top ITSM tools offer automated capabilities for doing development, reducing errors, accelerating repairs, and speeding up deployment for IT operations. 

Ia recent survey from Forbes Insights, 57% of respondents said ITSM is extremely important to their digital transformation efforts, while 56% viewed the technology—also called service management automation—as extremely important (or close to it) for their cloud computing and big data initiatives.

Meanwhile, several trends are driving changes in ITSM, said Vesna Soraic, product manager for service management automation at Micro Focus. These include the move toward hybrid IT across the application and infrastructure stack, an acceleration of processes due to DevOps and BizOps methodologies, and the continued move to the digital enterprise, which exposes IT to the demands of market and consumer forces.

"These three interrelated trends are pushing the ITSM function in new directions that are open to disruption."
Vesna Soraic

And the technology is continually improving. It can be used to reduce mean-time-to-repair (MTTR) as well as errors that make it to production, which frees up IT to focus on other projects that deliver value-add to the business, said George Spalding, executive vice president at Pink Elephant, a provider of ITSM training and consulting services.

Here's how ITSM tools and IT best practices are evolving.

AI will cut costs, speed service

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will help ITSM resolve tickets faster on the service desk side, promising to improve service experiences while reducing costs. Predictable and repeatable tickets will be the initial proving grounds.

"[AI] does hold promise in helping to move skilled people back into more demanding positions while continuing to offer high-level service to internal customers," said Timothy C. Colwell, senior vice president at advisory firm AOTMP Research. His firm focuses on examining vendors and technologies, including ITSM, that enterprises use to manage their growing telecom, mobility, and technology estates.

The use of big data analytics and AI to identify negative patterns and provide an automated response will enable ITSM tools to continue to “learn” additional scenarios based on the human activity of the IT staff. That, in turn, will improve IT’s reactive response to incident and problem management, said Spalding. 

In many ways, AI can be seen as the next evolution of automation, following data center automation, ITSM-process workflow automation, and orchestration, according to the global ITSM Future Readiness Survey, conducted last year by ITSM.tools and ManageEngine. While traditional automation has done the heavy lifting for businesses, AI and machine learning will be doing the "heavy thinking," the report says.

By using AI and big data analytics to identify negative patterns and provide automated responses, ITSM tools will continue to “learn” additional scenarios based on the human activity of the IT staff, improving IT’s response to incident and problem management.

AI capabilities ​​​​will become primary differentiators within the next 12 months for ITSM vendors, said Andrew Hartwyk, senior research director at AOTMP. 

While some AI-infused tools that bring new capabilities to ITSM might work across several systems, others might be built on top of a specific ITSM platform. Either way, it will be up to organizations to build the supporting architecture and to apply analytics and machine learning to data collected by ITSM systems that can support business and IT decisions, said Anthony Orr, principal ITSM executive advisor at IT services firm DXC Technologies.

ITSM will extend its reach to the IoT

One area where the draw of ITSM could be irresistible is managing the Internet of Things (IoT).

At its core, ITSM is about automating service processes, and that extends to discovering IP-enabled configuration items and updating systems of record. Having a holistic view of network assets and the applications that map to them can add predictability to change and configuration management and help reduce service outages that disrupt business.

That becomes even more vital with the IoT, which notoriously is bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of new devices to networks. Manually tracking all of them is beyond the limits of humans to handle, Spalding said. In response, the demands on ITSM systems will expand to automatically discover, poll, and perform status checks on those devices. 

Natural-language processing will automate the user experience

Meanwhile, automation of all kinds will increase, including process and service automation as embedded support for natural-language processing, said Roy Atkinson, senior writer and analyst at HDI, the professional association created for the technical support industry.

As the prime interface to users, support channels will be expanded with natural-language smart assistance, said Micro Focus's Soraic.

"In the very near future, users will talk to virtual support agents and will receive the information back in any form the user wants: verbally or in written form. Speech recognition paired with machine learning and analytics will resolve the issue without hassle for the user."
—Vesna  Soraic

ITSM will play a bigger role in DevOps

In addition to ITSM's ever-increasing role in streamlining IT support, service automation in a DevOps world will also improve data sharing between IT operations management and developers, said Paul Buffington, principal solutions engineer for ITSM at Atlassian. 

IT Ops teams can better support the continuous release cycle, for example, he said, by enhancing incident management with ChatOps, which connects people, tools, process, and automation in a transparent workflow.

DXC's Orr encourages enterprises to incorporate DevOps tools and procedures when designing tools and procedures.

“DevOps as a practice is becoming more a part of ITSM when processes are designed that leverage data exchanges and technologies between ITSM and DevOps solutions.”
Anthony Orr

Particularly promising are process areas such as change, release, deployment, asset and configuration, and other transition processes, he said. 

Service automation will extend more deeply into the cloud 

Over the course of the next year, ITSM will forge further into managing and servicing cloud and hybrid cloud applications and environments, Pink Elephant's Spaulding said. The cloud can be something of a “black box,” he said—IT doesn't have a clear understanding of what’s going on inside and how to diagnose and address issues that affect enterprise workflows and services. 

Hybrid IT is driven by cost and flexibility requirements and is expanding beyond infrastructure into the application, platform, and service realms, said Micro Focus's Soraic. "It drives requirements for multiple deployment, consumption, and financing options in ITSM tooling, as well as in services offered by these tools."

SaaS-based ITSM tools have been steadily gaining share in the ITSM market, said Stephen Mann, principal analyst and content director at ITSM.tools. Customers like the ease of use of SaaS, the payment terms, the speed of updates, and the increased portability, he said.

Mainstream ITSM tools vendors typically support both cloud and on-premises delivery models. Some, he said, even "offer a hybrid approach and the ability for businesses to move between cloud and on-premises as their circumstances change. Most organizations will go one way or the other, though." 

Moving from on-premises to SaaS-based ITSM offerings makes sense for organizations seeking to focus on their businesses, Orr said, because the SaaS-based products' standardized and "out-of-the-box" service-provisioning processes let them worry less about the intricacies of service management. 

But Orr noted that the public cloud can bring challenges when it comes to managing things such as ITSM upgrades and customizations, for instance, or determining who owns data about IT assets and the business services that are stored in configuration management databases.

Buffington said larger enterprises can avoid some of the challenges by opting for a private cloud-based deployment, where they maintain control over their ITSM system but distribute it internally via an IaaS platform such as AWS or Microsoft Azure.  

Soraic noted that, given the cost and flexibility capabilities that are driving hybrid ITSM deployments, it's important for vendors to offer solutions that run on bare-metal environments, that can be installed in private or public clouds, and that can be consumed as a service via partnerships with vendors such as Amazon and its AWS Marketplace—potentially with licensed access to all models at the same time.

"That way, if IT strategy changes or a new CIO comes aboard with new requirements, the organization can quickly switch from one delivery model to another, without losing any data or having to redo any processes—and this is really done fast."
—Vesna Soraic

A tool for digital transformation

"IT" might not be the most important part of the ITSM acronym. Fifty-six percent of organizations are using ITSM tools outside of IT, according to the HDI survey. ITSM principles, best practices, and technologies are being shared across other lines of business beyond IT, including HR, facilities, and customer services, according to ITSM.tools' Mann. And tool vendors see an opportunity to integrate service management data for such things as asset and configuration management across business units, Spaulding said.

While improving end-user support and scaling service management across the organization to teams outside of IT is a top priority in many organizations, success will depend on having more agile ITSM service desk tools that offer “consumer-friendly portals, integrated knowledge, adaptable workflows, and the ability to quickly deploy new request offerings to the service catalog,” said Buffington.

“This approach places the IT organization in the driver's seat for helping teams outside IT join in the value of delivering self-service to the business.”
Paul Buffington

In the year ahead, vendors and customers will continue to focus on integration of external business systems, such as financial management, facilities, and HR applications, with ITSM software. Take, as an example, employee on-boarding processes, which must work across individual HR and facilities functions but also subscribe to higher-level IT service functions to ensure that system support processes take into account new users, system configuration, and other additions.

“This is a key reason many organizations want a platform solution versus just a point solution for ITSM,” said Orr. “Integration helps create single systems of record and trusted sources of collaborative data for better decisions and agility.” 

The drive to the digital economy has changed the way people work and the user experience they demand, Soraic said. Going forward, ITSM will be equally applicable to the consumers of services, as well as to back-end analysts and business users, she said.

"ITSM, as the face of IT, cannot hide behind a request catalog. The service experience it offers must be increasingly personalized and responsive, underpinned by the speed of automation, the insights provided by machine learning, the wow factor of predictive analytics, and the human intimacy of intelligent collaboration and ChatOps." 
—Vesna Soraic

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