IT organisations have historically struggled to harmonise the functions of the IT backroom with the business processes they serve. But as core business operations have become ever more dependent on the IT infrastructure, that has had to change - and change radically.
No longer is it simply enough to know that the infrastructure is coping by monitoring computing resources such as disk capacity, cpu performance and backup progress. As the business units and the organisation as a whole have realised that their ability to perform effectively is linked directly to the reliable delivery of IT services, such groups have demanded guarantees in the form service level agreements (SLA). And a whole host of tools have emerged to relate how well systems, networks and applications meet those.
But that is still an IT-centric view of the world, based in on metrics like percentage uptime, application response times and transactions processed. What users really want is a way for them to know how well their IT-supported business processes are running - for IT metrics to be translated directly into business terms. And the flip of that coin is that IT needs to know how each resource affects the applications and business processes it supports.
So a marketing executive organising a large email campaign does not need to know that overnight systems are running at 50% capacity; he or she needs to know that the mail out will be complete by 6am, irrespective of other demands on the infrastructure. Similarly, a manager of field service agents needs to know that everyone in the field has received their daily schedules via the wireless network, not that the network was only down for an SLA compliant 10 minutes in the past 24 hours.
That demand for IT services to be closely aligned with business processes has spawned a whole new segment of the systems and applications management software sector - business service management (BSM) - with many established vendors evolving their existing portfolios to create broad BSM offerings, and specialist suppliers building standalone BSM 'overlays' that draw on the underlying systems data generated by multiple vendors' tools.
WHAT IS BSM?
The term business service management encompasses a whole range of technologies and functions. It involves many of the technologies used in service level management (see box), but the way service level metrics are related to business processes varies across vendors. This means business service management is perhaps best defined by the operational objectives it seeks to achieve, rather than the technology it employs.
Analysts at market research group Gartner identify the principle benefits to business service management as:
° Visual representation of the dependencies between business processes, business applications and the IT infrastructure (servers, storage, networks, middleware and databases).
° Reduced downtime and shorter problem resolution time because IT support focuses on solving the business-relevant issues.
° Operational efficiency because operators can use a single console for viewing the status of business services as well as for displaying IT infrastructure views.
° Business service views can be customised and enabled for viewing by business users, giving them line of a better understanding of how the IT infrastructure is performing.
° The IT operations group gains greater credibility within the business by demonstrating its understanding of how it supports business processes and by improving communications.
Vendors try to meet these objectives with a variety of product approaches - some pooling their existing tools under the BSM banner, others providing specialist software.
A good case in point is IBM. Its systems management software arm, Tivoli, puts more than thirty different products under the BSM heading, ranging from an availability management console and service level advisor through to a web site analyser and transaction time measurement tool.
One of IBM's rivals in systems management, BMC, has a slightly more focused approach, identifying nine separate components that underpin BSM:
With its Formula product line, for example, Managed Objects emphasises the importance of being able to see just how the systems will stand up to the pressures of various business processes by comparing their current status with the historical state of the service.
From SLM to BSM
Service level management (SLM) is certainly a precursor to any notion of business service management (BSM). Service level management, in which IT services are measured and managed to meet predetermined service level agreements, is in widespread use today.
Its popularity represents the recognition of the impact IT can have on the business - both negative and positive.
"The reason why SLM has got so much traction is because business people do understand the impact of technology not being available," explains Michael Allen, performance solutions director at applications management and development software vendor Compuware.
While many of the foundations of business service management are laid in SLM implementations, the capability to capture a description of a business process that is a key requirement of BSM products sets them apart in terms of sophistication, cost and, according to some analysts, difficulty of implementation.
This distinction means that while the SLM market is dominated by the established infrastructure management tool vendors, the market for BSM has room for innovators and niche providers.
Some analysts even argue that only businesses with large and complex IT infrastructures can justify significant spending on BSM. "You do have to have at least 15 to 20 sites to justify business service management," says Thomas Mendel, an analyst at IT industry advisor Forrester Research.
And he suggests that until the market for BSM matures, service level management, properly implemented, may suffice for many organisations.
Aside form the scope of such products, there are three other key differentiators that will determine the success of vendors in the BSM market. One is way in which BSM products interact with existing systems, applications and network management packages. Another factor is how well the vendors' products can model and work with customers' business processes, an area that will become more crucial with the development of automatic business process mapping capabilities. A further differentiator will be the degree to which vendors deliver BSM that fits closely with the needs of specific industries.
METRICS AND MAPS
A significant distinction between BSM software vendors relates to how their products communicate with the rest of the systems management portfolio. The enterprise management vendors, such as IBM and HP, offer products that rely on their own, proprietary infrastructure data collectors, but include the technology to interact with other data collection programs.
The niche, exclusively BSM-focused providers, such as Managed Objects, offer products that have the capability to use the data collectors of any of the major systems management systems. Indeed, Managed Objects tailors its products for use as a top layer that can be placed above any existing infrastructure management system, through such innovations as a virtual configuration management database (CMDB), which automatically logs information relating to all infrastructure processes.
The successful implementation of business service management software requires a detailed map of the enterprise's relevant business processes, and the IT resources they depend on. The accuracy of this map will determine the efficacy of the BSM project.
"If you don't understand a business service flow, you can't do BSM," says Dale Powers, consultant at technology integration specialists Morse.
This means that BSM implementations are especially dependent upon the expertise and experience of the providers and their implementation partners.
Today, the mapping of business processes to IT services is largely a consultancy effort; but that is about to change. The key technology that will revolutionise the BSM market, say several analysts that track this sector, will be automatic business process discovery. This is an area that all vendors are pursuing, although few have released products that include automatic discovery.
"One of the main challenges facing BSM is the ease of implementation," explains Alan Smith, UK managing director at BMC. The recent acquisition by BMC of software developer Marimba marks a move towards establishing an automated discovery capability. "The more automated that process is, the simpler it will be."
Some smaller vendors have already achieved an impressive degree of automated business application mapping. Of greatest note is SMARTS, a company that sprang from an IBM R&D lab in 1993 and was recently acquired by storage leader EMC.
Process discovery is also related to a third key differentiator - verticalisation. With the focus on business processes, vendors will need to tailor their products for the requirements of specific industries.
"I expect verticalisation across the board," says Thomas Mendel, an analyst at IT industry advisor, Forrester Research. "All the major vendors will make solutions for all the appropriate industries."
Managed Objects, for example, has done a particularly good job of targeting the financial services market, he says.
Beyond predicting service outages before they happen and helping to ensure the smooth running of IT-based business processes, BSM plays an important part in translating the significance of IT operations to business executives.
"The IT shops that are riding the BSM wave have the opportunity to elevate themselves," explains Compuware's Michael Allen. "By benchmarking themselves in this way, they have the evidence to protect themselves against the outsourcing of IT.
"This might not be reason in itself to invest in an expensive BSM implementation, but the ideology of closely aligning IT resources with business processes will enable IT managers to make better decisions about which resources are high priority and which are not, depending on the importance of the business processes they support.
In that way, BSM enhances 'IT governance'. "The need for greater governance and regulation of IT can be reduced if the IT department ensures that IT service metrics are defined, aligned with overall business objectives, and measured for service quality on an on-going basis," observes Forrester's Mendel.
So while a BSM implementation may involve considerable consultation and demand a business process-driven outlook of the IT staff, the operational benefits of these interventions might afford the IT shop more recognition for its work.
The technology - and the philosophy - that will underpin BSM is already gaining traction. "There is an awareness of business service management in the mainstream already," says Dale Powers at Morse. "For a lot of the large enterprises, it will be tabled for the next 12 months."
Others concur. "Out of the top 500 companies," says BMC's Alan Smith, "490 will have business service management in their thinking already."
As that thinking turns to buying, systems management will have attained the level of abstraction that it has sought for more than a decade - from a focus on low-level systems metrics to the measurement of service provision, and, ultimately, to the establishment of its role in the fulfilment of core business processes.
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