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The History of ITIL: Everything You Need to Know

ITIL was originally just a physical library containing information on how to best manage an IT department. Today, the acronym refers to an IT service management (ITSM) phenomenon that helps facilitate digital transformations for businesses around the world.

Jump to the main takeaways:

 Defining ITIL, DevOps and Agile
 The 1980s: The Birth of ITIL
 1990-1999: ITIL v1
 2000-2006: ITIL v2
 2007-2018: ITIL v3
 2019 (and Beyond): ITIL v4 is Here


ITIL, formerly the acronym for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, is a set of conceptual guidelines for ITSM best practices. It ensures that an organization’s IT services operate in harmony with its business needs.

With technological solutions evolving more rapidly than ever, the scope of an IT team’s influence on an organization’s bottom line has also grown exponentially, especially during the past decade. In fact, if history has taught us anything, it’s that the global impact of ITIL’s framework will only continue to increase as software solutions become even more intricate.

In this blog post, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at the history of ITIL as a concept, as well as the key changes in ITIL’s fabric over the years, including some of the criticism that it has withstood.


Defining Important Terms: ITIL vs. DevOps vs. Agile

Before we can examine the history of ITIL as a conceptual framework, it's important that several key terms, such as DevOps and Agile, be defined and put into context.

As I stated earlier, ITIL typically refers to guidelines that are specific to IT services and how they’re run within an organization. On the other side of the aisle are a company’s software developers, who are likely operating within an Agile framework that’s been fine-tuned to the needs and preferences of the business.

Historically, IT services and software developers had been relegated to their respective silos, which led to instances of toxic dysfunction. As a result, DevOps was created to automate the intersecting processes between IT teams and developers, allowing companies to build, test and release software (and any updates) far more efficiently and peacefully.

Now that we’ve defined our terms, let’s dive into a detailed history of ITIL and its evolution:


The 1980s: The Birthplace of ITIL

To accurately trace the origins of ITIL, you need to go back to the decade of MTV, feathered hair, the Rubik's Cube, and the earliest days of IT as a profession.

To accurately trace the origins of ITIL, you need to go back to the earliest days of IT as a profession.

The story begins in 1972, when IBM was researching Information Systems Management Architecture (ISMA). This is back when computers had less an a megabyte of RAM, 2.5 MHz of processing speed, and, today, could probably only store a handful of photos on its 233 MB hard drive.

Concepts around IT service management were similarly underdeveloped, as Mathias Sallé described in a 2004 report for HP Laboratories:

“From the 1970s to the 1980s, IT management lived its dark ages. The focus was on IT operations and the notion of management of IT systems was not yet on the radar scope. By the end of this period, as systems became more and more complex and interconnected, management of the IT infrastructure started to attract attention.”

In 1980, Edward A. Van Shaik published the first of several volumes detailing IBM’s ISMA, titled “A Management System for the Information Business.” Shaik’s initial publication “defined generic IT business processes and methods for evaluating the effectiveness of an IT management system.” It was a crucial first step that laid the groundwork for what we now know as ITIL.

Later that decade, a British organization called the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) took a deeper look at the skeleton of ITIL after UK government officials felt the level of IT services they were receiving were both costly and inefficient. This led to the first incarnation of an ITIL framework, known then as Government Information Technology Infrastructure Management (GITIM).

In 1989, GITIM was officially re-dubbed ITIL and the first informational volume on this subject was published, establishing much-needed ITSM structure in both the public and private sectors in the UK.


1990-1999: ITIL v1 Sets Wider IT Best Practice Standards

The next chapter in ITIL's story takes place in the 1990s. Boy bands ruled the charts, "Friends" and "Seinfeld" ruled the airwaves, and IT best practices took another important step in terms of its overall growth.

The dawn of the 1990s gave IT professions ITIL v1. A monstrous 30-volume framework cataloging IT best practices, its adoption was as swift as it was widespread. This included volumes centered around problem management, configuration management and cost management for IT services.

With the British government setting the tone, adherence to ITIL quickly started becoming commonplace across Europe.

As the world crept closer to the turn of the millennium and the information technology industry evolved, ITIL adoption began to seep into the everyday IT operations of businesses in the United States and Canada. It wasn’t long before Microsoft developed their own framework dubbed the Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF).

Here’s the company describing MOF in official company documentation from 2009:

“First released in 1999, [MOF] is Microsoft’s structured approach to helping its customers achieve operational excellence across the entire IT service lifecycle. MOF was originally created to give IT professionals the knowledge and processes required to align their work in managing Microsoft platforms cost-effectively and to achieve high reliability and security [...]”

The same document also outlined the key differences between ITIL and MOF, some of which were the latter’s attempt to respond to consumer criticism of the former. These practical gaps included:

  • Cost. Back then, ITIL was only available in a set of 5 core books that were sold through various (potentially hard to come by) channels, while MOF had always been available for free online.
  • Lifecycle construction. ITIL used five elements for its lifecycle: Strategy, Design, Transition, Operation, and Continual Improvement. MOF’s lifecycle was made up of only three phases: Plan, Deliver, and Operate.
  • Governance. Both frameworks illustrate the difference between governance and management. ITIL highlighted governance theory and best practices in the Strategy and Continual Improvement phases of its lifecycle, while MOF explicitly documented accountability and responsibility in all of its lifecycle phases.

With more than just one option at their disposal, MOF’s inception was one of the major factors that kickstarted the next stage of ITIL’s evolution.


2000-2006: ITIL v2 Becomes More Accessible, Less Formidable for Users

Following MOF's insertion into the marketplace, ITIL v2 was the first major framework overhaul of the new millennium. It aimed to streamline the knowledge library and make it easier to obtain from a consumer point of view.

Released in 2001, the second iteration of ITIL (ITIL v2) was the first major revamp of the IT framework since its inception more than a decade earlier. This coincided with the CCTA becoming fully integrated with the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

The main objective behind the creation of ITIL v2 was to make the framework and information about IT service management more accessible to users who. This included shrinking the original 30-volume library into a more concise collection of 7 titles that were laid out in a more logical manner.

With this streamlined repository of knowledge came a new level of affordability for IT professionals that hadn’t been able to adopt ITIL before this point. Not surprisingly, this version of the framework soon became the most widely-used IT service management system with a best practice approach.

This was reflected in ITIL adoption numbers in medium and large organization around this time. Sallé again from his 2004 report:

“[Examination] statistics indicate rapid [IT certification] growth – a 27% increase in 2003 and a forecast increase of 33% in 2004. In a survey conducted by TechRepublic over 1800 respondents, 24.1% of IT managers at large organizations are familiar with ITIL standards, compared to 17.4% of IT managers at small and medium-sized organizations [...] Many high-profile U.S. organizations have adopted the best practices described in ITIL.”

Sallé also lists several major American and multinational corporations, such as Procter and Gamble, IBM, Shell Oil, Boeing, and more who reported “significant operational cost savings” because of their widespread ITSM adoption.


2007-2018: ITIL v3 Adopts a Lifecycle Approach to IT Business Integration

ITIL v3 brought several improvements to the existing IT service management framework, including a more compact volume collection, a shift towards a lifecycle approach, and a much bigger emphasis on business integration.

The third version of ITIL was first published in 2007. Also called the “ITIL Refresh Project,” it was an even more compact 5-volume edition that took on more of a lifecycle approach to service management process.

In addition to that, ITIL v3 also put a far greater emphasis on IT business integration. The five different module titles reflected this shift:

  • Service Strategy
  • Service Design
  • Service Transition
  • Service Operation
  • Continual Service Improvement

Other big changes between ITIL v2 and ITIL v3, as outlined by BMC’s blog, included a hub-and-spoke structure for added operational flexibility, better-defined roles and responsibilities, and a deeper investigation into the “how” question–as in, “How should we do this?”

It’s also interesting to note that, because of its top-to-bottom conceptual refresh, ITIL v3 was actually far heftier than ITIL v2 from a sheer size perspective, clocking in at 1,400 pages of key publication material as opposed to 700 in its previous incarnation.

In July 2011, AXELOS released another update to the existing ITIL v3 framework. No new concepts were added, with its goal being to “resolve errors and inconsistencies in the text and diagrams across the whole suite.”

The 2011 release also consisted of five modules, with module improvements that focused on the clarification of overarching principles that continued to make the information more straightforward and digestible for professionals looking to implement them.


2019 (and Beyond): ITIL v4 Arrives to Meet Complex Modern Demands

Today, ITIL v4 is the latest standard in the IT best practice firmament, revamped to meet the complex, interconnected nature of globalized business and the needs IT professionals who play a major role in the success of different organizations.

The most recent version is the fourth iteration of ITIL. Also known as ITIL 4, its mission is to provide “a practical and flexible basis to support organizations on their digital journey.” It made significant shifts linguistically (moving from “processes” to “practices”) and offered up several guiding principles:

  • Focus on value
  • Start where you are
  • Progress iteratively with feedback
  • Collaborate and promote visibility
  • Think and work holistically
  • Keep it simple and practical
  • Optimize and automate

ITIL v4 also marked a new chapter in the framework’s ownership history. Since July 2013, AXELOS, a joint venture company created by the Cabinet Office on behalf of the British government, has owned ITIL. The organization licenses the ITIL intellectual property, provides accreditation to testing institutions, and oversees all ITIL updates.

ITIL v4 strives to support organizations as they navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a movement dominated by rapid technological change and a continually evolving internet of global IT systems. One of the biggest changes in this regard was the redefinition of the term “service.”

Here’s ITIL Ambassador Akshay Anand on their reasoning behind this change:

“A fundamental change that is needed in service management: value is co-created, not delivered. In other words, the activities that a service provider undertakes do not create value by themselves. Value is realized only when the consumer engages with the service provider through the means of a service relationship."


While there’s no clear-cut vision of what the future holds for ITIL, there’s a sense that an organization's IT services, and how intricately it connects with various business needs, will only continue to grow more complex as we march into the next decade.

With technology set to underpin even more daily operations for every company, regardless of industry, the future of ITIL and how it can enhance productivity is an exhilarating one. To read more about ITIL and how it relates to Jira Service Desk and Insight, check out our blog!

Originally published Jun 13, 2019 11:50:00 AM

Topics: ITIL