DevOps vs. ITIL 4 vs. SRE: Stop the arguments

DevOps vs. ITIL 4 vs. SRE: Stop the arguments

Which approach is right in the age of digital transformation? It’s not an either-or question. Let’s compare and contrast the approaches and benefits of these methodologies

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[ Editor's note: Stephen Thorne, site reliability engineer for Google; Jayne Groll, CEO of DevOps Institute; and Barclay Rae of Barclay Rae Consulting also contributed to this article. ]

With the recent introduction of ITIL 4 and the rising popularity of site reliability engineering (SRE), the argument of how different and how similar these best practices are has surfaced once again. 

Each of these frameworks or best practices has its place in adding value across your IT organization. But which one is right when you're managing services in the digital world? I would argue that’s not the right question to be asking. IT leaders should stop arguing over the merits of each. Instead, they should focus on how to best develop high-performing teams that both enable and accelerate their company’s digital strategy.

Each one of these frameworks or best practices has its place in adding value across your IT organization.

These three methodologies share some common goals, including:

  • The introduction of a collaborative and connected culture
  • Increased focus on delivering value with speed and quality for stakeholders 
  • The ability to rely on automation to reduce waste and errors made by humans

In DevOps Institute's 2019 survey on Upskilling DevOps, we learned that 66 percent of teams are adopting DevOps, 47 percent are applying ITIL as a best-practice framework, and 10 percent use (SRE) practices. Also, it’s important to note that many of the teams we surveyed were using all three.

[ Are you fighting skeptics? Read also: DevOps for doubters: How to deal with 9 kinds of people who push back. ] 

To guide your choices, here are a few important things to know. 

A high-level overview of ITIL 4, SRE, and DevOps 

Let’s start by breaking down each of the characters involved. 

ITIL 4 is the next evolution of the service management framework from Axelos. It introduces a new Service Value System (SVS) that’s supported by the guiding principles first developed and now taken further from the ITIL Practitioner Guidance publication. The framework eases into its alignment with DevOps and agile through an approach that retains many of the activities from previous versions, but acknowledges DevOps practices such as value streams and continuous delivery. 

All members of the IT organization are involved, working together to facilitate value creation through IT-enabled services. The key components of the ITIL 4 framework are wrapped around the service value chain, which is intended to deliver value upon demand or opportunity through guiding principles, governance, practices, and continual improvement. The stakeholders (customers) are receiving an IT-enabled service or product through demand or opportunity.

An example would be: “Salespeople spending more time interacting with customers” (stakeholder and opportunity); facilitated by “a remote access service that enables reliable access to corporate sales systems from salespeople’s laptops” (IT-enabled service with value). The focus is on service functionalities and non-functional requirements of availability, performance, security, and maintainability.

Site reliability engineering (SRE) is Google’s approach to service management, introduced in a book of the same name. It is a post-production set of practices for operating large systems at scale, with an engineering focus on operations. The key role is the SRE team, which is a defined job role within organizations. These team members are software engineers who are intended to perform operation functions instead of a dedicated operations team. The reliability of production systems, and therefore their users, are supported by an engineer who applies SRE site principles to manage availability, latency, performance, efficiency, change management, monitoring, emergency response, and capacity planning. They can also function as support engineers, leveraging monitoring, capacity, and optimization automation tools. Their focus is on non-functional requirements of availability, performance, security, and maintainability.

DevOps is the creation of multidisciplinary teams of Dev and Ops professionals to replace siloed development and operations work with shared, efficient practices and tools. The key members of a DevOps team are members from the development, operations, and security teams who are all working on the software lifecycle with each other to improve software quality and speed of software development and delivery with the goal to improve customer experience; focus is on speed and quality of functional (application features, etc.) and non-functional requirements of availability, performance, security, and maintainability.

What is the purpose of ITIL 4, SRE, and DevOps?

ITIL 4 emphasizes service quality and consistency and aims for improved stakeholder satisfaction through ensuring value from the perspective of the stakeholders. Its guiding principles are to support organizations in adding value to their stakeholders’ demands, regardless of whether those stakeholders are internal or external customers. It consists of 34 practices that are part of the service lifecycle. For more details, see https://www.axelos.com/welcome-to-itil-4.

SRE emphasizes the development of systems and software that increases the reliability and performance of applications and services. SREs also have on-call responsibilities, which means they need to be available in order to provide a service or support. For more details, see https://landing.google.com/sre.

DevOps integrates various teams and processes across the development and delivery of software. The purpose of DevOps is to achieve improved quality while managing adequate velocity of software and services for the line of business. The methodology aligns with lean principles and Agile. For more details, see http://www.jedi.be/blog/2012/05/12/codifying-devops-area-practices.

[ Read also: DevOps terms: 10 essential concepts, explained. ]

What similarities do ITIL 4, SRE, and DevOps share? 

All three address the key topic of change management. While ITIL 4 lobbies for change management governance, SRE uses the concept of an “error budget,” which allows changes to be made by the SRE team until the error budget is “spent.” DevOps teams are continually managing changes that typically are gradual in nature.  

The skills across these methodologies might vary, but essentially you’ll need a combination of automation and process skills, soft and functional skills, and business and technical skills. 

All three methodologies encourage collaboration among the different stakeholders across IT and with the business and/or product owners. Also, all methodologies are supported by a vast set of automation tools. Some tools claim to focus on DevOps; others automate key processes.  The automation tool landscape is complex and continually changing due to new entrants, technologies (AI, etc.), and mergers and acquisitions. Integrations are possible but can also be challenging. 

Each methodology also focuses on continuous learning and experimentation. The skills across these methodologies might vary, but essentially you’ll need a combination of automation and process skills, soft and functional skills, and business and technical skills. 

What are some differences between ITIL 4, SRE, and DevOps?

The key differences among the methodologies are in team topology, metrics and automation tools, and the methodology’s fundamental belief or adherence to a governance model.

ITIL 4 does not require the team members to be on one team. It also has many subprocesses that can be applied, and certifications are available at the foundation, managing professional, strategic leader, and master levels.  A key metric within ITIL 4 is the meeting of service level objectives. The framework provides solid governance for IT and enterprise service management process optimization and improvements for medium and large organizations. 

SRE is a defined role with a defined title. The key ownerships are as the title already includes: the reliability of applications and services, with a focus on service level objectives and service level indicators. Courses to learn and understand SRE are available from Google and others. The DevOps Institute will also offer SRE Foundation certifications.

[ Read also: Beware the dark side of agile project management ]

DevOps team topologies vary, but most effective DevOps teams are a single team with the same objectives and metrics. Among the key metrics for DevOps are deployment frequency and time to restore. DevOps certifications are available at the foundation and additional levels. The governance model is mostly done through self-organization. 

When should ITIL 4, SRE, and DevOps be used?

The adoption of ITIL 4 can take place anytime. No requirements of previous ITIL versions are necessary. A key trigger point is the overall approach to the creation of products and services with the design, development, and build stages. ITIL 4 introduces and governs common best practices and language to improve customer satisfaction, service availability, and financial efficiencies. ITIL 4 also addresses organizations and people, information and technology, partners and suppliers, and value streams and processes. 

SRE can be adopted via the introduction of an SRE engineer as a formal team member, either within a DevOps team or a Service Management team. SRE can also be adopted by organizations that don’t have any exposure to ITIL 4 or DevOps. SRE members are also stakeholders in the design of new systems as their knowledge of current services, products, and/or environment is leveraged when new systems are designed. Key usage is when reliability is a stated goal of the organization, and the system is undergoing any growth in users, complexity, and/or number of configuration items. A key benefit of SRE teams is the creation of self-service tools and automation scripts to address reliability and performance of applications and services which eliminate manual work. 

DevOps adoption can take place anytime. Key trigger points are demands of improved delivery speed and quality of software, products and/or services to its stakeholders. One key benefit is that DevOps brings cultural transformation, improving the speed and quality of how software is developed and delivered. It builds on Agile software development and service management techniques and encourages the use of automation to reduce manual work of skilled individuals to focus on more value-adding tasks and activities. DevOps highlights reliability, maintainability, and operability of software across all its team members. 

Let your needs drive your decision 

The development and management of software products needs agile techniques with a focus on value co-creation in a way that reduces waste. All three methodologies can coexist together to align teams, meet stakeholder demands, and improve the value delivered. 

No matter which methodology (or combination thereof) you choose, you’ll have the most success if you focus on:

 1) A common vision and a purpose

 2) Infusing and managing a culture of care

3) Making decisions and making them visible 

4) Defining metrics and measuring before you start, while continuing to prove the value of your efforts to your stakeholders

Because digital transformation is not achieved instantly across an organization, established companies should start with best practices and methodologies that are suited to their needs by starting small – then learn, build expertise, and scale up. 

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free Ebook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

2 comments, Add yours below

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If you are leveraging ITIL,

If you are leveraging ITIL, DevOps and SRE, I would love to connect with you. Would you send me a email? PLEASE I am at oehrliche@devopsinstitute.com. Thank you.

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Eveline Oehrlich is an industry analyst, author, speaker and business advisor focused on digital transformation. Eveline is the Chief Research Analyst at DevOps Institute where she leads the research and analysis for the Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skills Report and other research projects.

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