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What is ITIL?

This practical guide to ITIL aims to answer questions including: What is ITIL? What does ITIL stand for? What is an ITIL process, and the ITIL Framework? Read on to discover the meaning of ITIL and more…

Why and What is ITIL?

When it comes to buying and deploying strategically important applications such as an ITSM software package, there are many and varied ways you can go about the business of evaluating and choosing the final software - and how you plan to then use it.

Obviously, this can prove to be a complex and difficult process and mistakes are made. For this reason, often you will find that some public or private IT body creates a set of guidelines or even a complete A-Z methodology, maybe including a conformance exercise, in an attempt to assist would-be users in getting their decision-making right. In the world of ITSM, that “helping hand” started in the ‘80’s when the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), (which became the Office of Government Commerce or OGC and latterly Cabinet Office) was tasked with developing a framework for efficient and financially responsible use of IT resources within the British government and the private sector. What started out as GITIM (Government Information Technology Infrastructure Management) effectively morphed into ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) – a set of guidelines for deploying a service management/helpdesk solution. Now in the hands of a hybrid public/private venture Axelos, ITIL has since seen a further three major revisions, and is currently standing at v4, released in early 2019.

Each iteration of ITIL has seen significant changes and additions to both its structure and the nature in which the guidelines are formed. ITIL has always been dynamic - evolving over time to reflect changes to the way IT organisations work, incorporating new service management concepts and the industry’s evolving understanding of the different capabilities required to deliver value.

ITIL Framework v1 - v3

ITIL is the most commonly used framework to deliver ITSM and has found its place over the years, a guiding set of best practices and principles that improve the impact of services on the organisation, while allowing for each to find their own way.

ITIL v1 essentially defined the basic processes of service support and delivery, focusing on a number of areas, all of which are at least as relevant today as back then:

  • Helpdesk
  • Change management
  • Software distribution
  • Capacity management
  • Contingency planning
  • Availability
  • Cost management

Adoption really started in earnest in the early ‘90s; enterprise and government itself were two early adopters. Microsoft, tellingly, also based its own MOF (Microsoft Operations Framework) on ITIL. Of course, IT doesn’t stand still, it moves with the, and so ITIL guidelines had to move with the times too. Version 2 was introduced in 2001. Rather than completely reinvent the first version, it focused on improving the consistency and eliminating any duplication between subjects included. Importantly, it added a number of focus areas, all of which essentially form the bedrock of current day ITSM:

  • Problem management
  • Release management
  • Incident management
  • IT asset lifetime management
  • Security management
  • Service continuity

With the new focus areas, ITIL v2 also looked at how these might be supported, creating the concept of three different help desk types: local, central and virtual, as well as identifying the roll of the call centre. In the following years, ITIL became the most widely accepted IT service management adopted by organisations.  So, what originally started as a simple set of guidelines, intended for a limited audience, became a world-wide source of what was considered to be “best practice” when implementing ITSM strategies and deploying products. This was further in evidence when v3 appeared in 2007. The primary focus of this update was to incorporate IT business into the fold, to create an integrated view and adopt a lifecycle approach to ITSM. Known as the “ITIL Refresh Project”, it also aimed to make the overall definition more compacted, with five primary modules:

  • Service strategy
  • Service design
  • Service transition
  • Service operation
  • Continual service improvement

The document itself, however, was enormously long; those five modules consisted of 26 processes and functions, basically triple the number from v2 while also massively expanding the scope of ITIL. As part of that lifecycle approach, for example, v3 suggested adopting a hub and spoke structure for the operation, with better-defined roles and responsibilities between the different ITSM human elements. In other words, it was looking to move beyond basic area guidelines and instead relating those guidelines directly to the company operations.

There was a long gap between versions three and four, though v3 was updated in 2011 (known as ‘ITIL 2011’) with the current incarnation finally arriving early 2019. ITIL v4 expanded on previous versions by aiming to guide companies through the journey of digital transformation, looking to provide an end-to-end operating model for the delivery and operation of technology through both products and services. In so doing, this idea is to incorporate IT within the broader business strategy.

ITIL v4 Certification

A fundamental stepping stone of ITIL v4 is the ITIL 4 Foundation – designed as an introduction to the new version where ITSM is viewed through an end-to-end operating model for the creation, delivery and ongoing optimisation of IT within a company.

Axelos actually offers four levels of ITIL certification:

  • ITIL Foundation
  • ITIL Managing Professional
  • ITIL Strategic Leader
  • ITIL Master

Moving on from ITIL Foundation, the Managing Professional level focuses on managing IT projects, through teams and workflows and is aimed at IT individuals working within both technology and digital teams across businesses. The next level – Strategic Leader – expands on the value of ITIL beyond IT operations to all digitally-enabled services.

Top of the tree is the Master certification which defines the ability for an individual to validate selection and application of a range of knowledge, principles, methods and techniques from ITIL and supporting management capabilities, to achieve successful business outcomes.

ITIL v4 is therefore best seen as an evolution of the ongoing framework, rather than a rewrite, taking many of the building blocks of its predecessor. In terms of key differences between ITIL v3 and v4, a big question remains what is  ITIL v4 and what's important? In answer, v4  has a focus on the key concepts of service management, looking at value creation and defining this through four dimensions of service management:

  • Organisations and people
  • Information and technology
  • Partners and suppliers
  • Value streams and processes

In contrast, v3 introduced service management as a ‘systems approach’ with related assets and service components, but did not apply it to the end-to-end service value systems concept (see below) which v4 defines. In other words, what were ‘processes’ in v3 are now described as value streams, where value can be created for customers and users. It’s a far more pro-active approach to ITSM.

At the heart of the v4 approach is what is defined as the Service Value System (SVS). This defines how each component and activity interacts in order to enable value creation, with five key components defined as:

  • Guiding principles
  • Governance
  • Service value chain
  • Management practices
  • Continual improvement.

Axelos notes that each organisation’s SVS has interfaces with other organisations, forming an ecosystem that can, in turn, facilitate value for those organisations, their customers, and other stakeholders. This value chain is defined as starting with “plan”, moving through “improve”, “engage”, “design and transition” and “obtain/build” to “deliver and support”. Each activity is designed to transform inputs into outputs. These inputs can be demand from outside the value chain or outputs of other activities. So, all activities are interconnected, with each activity receiving and providing triggers for further action.

At the heart of ITIL v4 then is a borrowing of general management practices and adopting them for service management. Technical management practices have been adapted from technology management domains for service management purposes by expanding or shifting their focus from technology solutions to IT services, defined as 17 individual management practices – a major expansion of the original definitions in ITIL v1!

ITIL v4 – The Service Management Practices

  • Availability management
  • Business analysis
  • Capacity and performance management
  • Change control
  • Incident management
  • IT asset management
  • Monitoring and event management
  • Problem management
  • Release management
  • Service catalogue management
  • Service configuration management
  • Service continuity management
  • Service design
  • Service desk
  • Service level management
  • Service request management
  • Service validation and testing

ITIL And ITSM – Getting The Balance Right

While ITIL in v4 format provides an excellent source of background information and guidelines, not simply in relation to IT practices but also general business practices, it is still a set of guidelines, not a set of legal requirements.

Of course, peer pressure in terms of software companies showing ITIL compliance has created a lot of noise in the ITSM world for decades now, some relevant, some less so, but adhering to ITIL “to a degree that works with your company” is the golden rule of thumb. So, while it is possible – in theory at least – to base an entire ITSM strategy upon ITIL, in practice, every company will have different priorities in terms of getting the balance right between ITIL and ITSM  - which elements of their chosen ITSM platform (and ITIL guidelines) are most relevant and important to them.

So, there are clearly defined limits to the practicalities or otherwise of basing an entire ITSM software strategy – from procurement to deployment – upon ITIL guidelines. Even where an ITSM product appears to satisfy what requirements ITIL can recommend, there is still the issue of how that solution works in practice – interaction and integration between different modules, performance and, not least, flexibility. While ITIL has certainly moved on significantly from v1 to v4, many of the basic premises are still at its foundations and these are as relevant as ever. However, ITIL is not a one-size fits all set of guidelines. Every company is different, even if only marginally, and therefore the relationship between a company’s service management strategy and ITIL is not a rigid 1:1 format.

Equally, not all ‘ITIL-compliant’ software solutions are the same. Conformance standards abound throughout IT, but it doesn’t mean all products are created equal. No set of guidelines can truly hope to be either totally comprehensive or up to date. There will always be a set of features and functionality that a particular customer is looking for that may be only offered by one vendor, for example. Putting this into everyday practice, it might be one or two specific features of one ITSM platform – and not necessarily the same ones from one customer to another - that seals the decision for that particular customer.

So, it is important to understand the difference between a rigid conformance exercise and a set of tools that actually provide your company with what you need. And, of course, ITIL is not the only standard or framework out there. The most closely aligned to ITIL out there is probably ISO 20000, for which there are also certification courses and a direct relationship to ITSM. Moreover, there are additional strands of IT that could be considered too, not least the DevOps movement and the concept of “Agile IT”. Ultimately, therefore, it’s a fine balancing act between defining an ITSM strategy and aligning it with ITIL and other guidelines and contemporary IT directions and directives.

ITIL to ITSM in Action


See a short demo video of Sunrise Service Desk software in action.




Bidfood case study on ITIL adoption with ITSM software.

Bidfood’s Head of IT Services says that ITIL is not a recipe that is necessarily followed to the letter. Speaking honestly, he says it can also be a ‘distraction’ if adhered to too rigidly. “If we see a trend and think there’s an issue, sometimes intuition and being pragmatic must override process.” There are undoubtedly positive outcomes to applying the ITIL framework though – Change management being one ‘big win’. 

"We’re not rigidly ITIL based so the vanilla framework for incident, problem and change management which we can ‘tweak’ to meet our needs has been really empowering,” said Bidfood’s Head of IT Services.


Making a success of ITIL Service Management is a combination of people, planning, mindset and of course technology. 


Most important of all is to have an ITSM platform that provides the flexibility required to allow whatever level of alignment you feel is correct for your company, while adding as much value to the business as is possible. Here is certainly where the revised focus of ITIL V4 makes the most sense – looking at company-wide benefits, rather than simply IT-related instances. Creating an ITSM strategy and finding the correct tools to optimize that strategy will always ultimately be more important than slavishly following a set of generic – however comprehensive – guidelines.

We hope this guide to ITIL has provided a useful path to understand more of what can be involved; Sunrise is always here to discuss your ITSM requirements whenever you’re ready. 

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