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Is DevOps the Future of ITSM and ITIL?

Since the latter half of the 20th century, ITSM and ITIL have been reliable IT industry staples. That all changed once DevOps began to supplant them in some circles as the best way to manage your IT services and assets. But is DevOps the way of the future?

Jump to the main takeaways:

 DevOps: A Meteoric Rise into the ITSM Mainstream
 DevOps vs ITSM vs ITIL vs Agile: What’s the Difference?
 The Future of DevOps (and ITSM and ITIL)


More widespread adoption of DevOps also coincides with an increased emphasis on lean software development and agile project management. Despite its trendy nature, just because DevOps has been working tirelessly to force waterfall-style processes out the door doesn’t necessarily mean it has also rendered ITSM and ITIL meaningless.

But is this scenario our present or our future? Is DevOps, the shinier newcomer, going to swallow up established frameworks and principles? Or will ITSM and ITIL continue to have a place alongside its supporters in a modern technology firmament?

In this blog post, I’m going to explore this question by getting into a brief overview of DevOps’ history, how it differs from ITSM and ITIL (if at all), and how they can potentially combine to offer modern businesses an even brighter future when investing in IT.

Let’s get started!


DevOps: A Meteoric Rise into the ITSM Mainstream

DevOps stepped into the public IT sphere with a bang in 2009 when John Allspaw and John Hammond of Flickr gave a presentation titled “10+ Deploys per Day: Dev and Ops Cooperation at Flickr” at the O’Reilly Velocity Conference.

Their now-famous dramatization of the finger-pointing between developers and operations ("it's your code" vs. "it's your machines) made a strong case for seamless, integrated practices. The presentation inspired Patrick Debois, who later formed his own conference, Devopsdays.

Fast-forward to right now and, as of this writing, there are more than 30 Devopsdays events scheduled in countries all around the world in 2020. It’s clear that DevOps has permanently entered the lexicon.

Our friends at Atlassian define DevOps as “a set of practices that automates the processes between software development and IT teams, in order that they can build, test, and release software faster and more reliably.” However, they also underline the term as being representative of a culture-centric philosophy:

“The concept of DevOps is founded on building a culture of collaboration between teams that historically functioned in relative siloes. The promised benefits include increased trust, faster software releases, the ability to solve critical issues quickly, and better manage unplanned work [...] At its essence, DevOps is a culture, a movement, a philosophy. It's a firm handshake between development and operations that emphasizes a shift in mindset, better collaboration, and tighter integration.”

DevOps has been touted as the glue that holds agile, continuous delivery, automation processes together, all in the interests of innovation–the very same theoretical backbone that underpins both ITSM and ITIL.

The question then becomes: Aren’t all three concepts basically speaking the same language?


DevOps vs ITSM vs ITIL vs Agile: What’s the Difference?

To answer the above question, let’s first try and pin down a more concrete definition of DevOps. Take this one from Gartner, which traffics in the same territory as Atlassian's:

“DevOps represents a change in IT culture, focusing on rapid IT service delivery through the adoption of agile, lean practices in the context of a system-oriented approach. DevOps emphasizes people (and culture), and it seeks to improve collaboration between operations and development teams."

Here’s a more succinct version from Damon Edwards:

“DevOps is, in many ways, an umbrella concept that refers to anything that smoothes out the interaction between development and operations.”

If we take the highlights from the first definition (rapid service delivery, ameliorated collaboration, and leveraging automation streamline one’s infrastructure), it’s easy to see how they lead to the “smooth interactions” described in the second.

Broadly speaking, those same components also power efficient ITSM practices, a collection of processes that also draws from the ITIL framework in areas such as risk management and cost reduction.

Ultimately, DevOps, ITSM, and ITIL are all about enhancing the customer experience. However, there are many IT professionals who believe DevOps can replace ITSM altogether since it’s ostensibly all about continuous improvement and integration.

That sounds great on paper, but this view also skews too far to the Dev side of DevOps. It glosses over the fact that service management is an essential business function. Instead, ITSM and ITIL detractors prefer to categorize them as burdensome methodologies plagued by documentation and too many “rules.

Unfortunately, this reasoning feels off the mark too, since truly agile development and ITSM are centered around the idea of sustainable processes and clear, actionable communication. In short, DevOps can’t replace everything ITSM does.

At the end of the day, it’s not surprising that DevOps has, perhaps intentionally, avoided defining itself in strict terms. By keeping its concepts and wide range of IT-based applications as broad as possible, repurposing several ITSM and ITIL philosophies is inevitable.


The Future of DevOps (and ITSM and ITIL): The Same, But Different

If DevOps purports itself to be the sleeker, more efficient version of ITSM and/or ITIL, then the ideological future of IT represents more a relabelling than a restructuring.

Since the value of ITSM is co-created when consumer engagement takes place, DevOps is arguably in the same boat. Continuous improvement and iterative development rely heavily on customer feedback and other usage metrics.

In that equation, it's not hard to see how the shoot-first-ask-questions-later nature of DevOps processes–ones that are supposed to “replace” ITSM and ITIL–will crumble under the weight of its own self-importance.

How DevOps is adopted at an enterprise-level scale will also require retooling. Businesses will continue to dive headlong into cloud-based IT services and, if project-based silos continue to be reinforced instead of torn down, the ROI for IT departments could plummet.

Here’s Forbes’ Bob Davis with more:

“For many organizations, DevOps is liberally sprinkled across enterprise development teams, projects and processes and has evolved into silos that can become a chaotic influence on a business's wider development strategy. Imagine an enterprise with development teams working on dozens of applications at a time. In this context, with multiple processes making management difficult to predict, DevOps risks creating stress between those pieces of the portfolio that are agile and others that are non-agile and non-DevOps.”

Davis also takes note of the cultural riddle that continues to hold DevOps growth back for many companies:

“As DevOps ramps up, anyone at the head of a development project is going to shudder at their inability to apply governance. Even if they understand the need to evolve, it requires significant change to the organization [...] By its nature, DevOps pushes the control out to the developers and provides metrics for insight. As a result, a prerequisite for successfully adopting DevOps is to move from a controlling culture to a trust-but-verify approach.”

In that same vein, stepping away from waterfall-style (micro)management also means making more of an effort to bridge the existing gaps between DevOps, ITSM, and ITIL. Organizations must stop pitting the two concepts against each other and start thinking creatively about how they can fit together as complementary pieces of a larger puzzle.

Therefore, the future of ITSM and ITIL isn’t DevOps, nor is it the other way around. The utopian version of the IT world’s next chapter is one where they can all coexist harmoniously.



Comparing and contrasting DevOps, ITSM, and ITIL typically leads professionals on a long and winding road that, if you cut through the semantics, ultimately leads you back to the same starting point.

To be sure, none of those three concepts is perfect, nor are they able to stand sufficiently on their own without incurring lots of technical debt in the process. As Barclay Rae, CEO of ITSMF UK, puts it in this Atlassian blog post, an organization’s core practices should take a “best of both worlds” approach:

“[We] need the key elements that are found in both ITSM and DevOps - whether we use these explicitly or not. DevOps is much more than just automated development; it involves collaboration and a blame-free culture. As well, ITSM/ITIL shouldn't be pigeonholed as an administrative burden, but rather used in an agile way. ITIL in particular isn’t perfect and needs a more modern veneer -- but the core practices are sound and proven.”

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Originally published Nov 26, 2019 3:00:00 AM

Topics: ITSM