Updated January 18, 2023
By Eveline Oehrlich, DevOps Institute
With the recent introduction of ITIL 4 and the gaining popularity of Site Reliability Engineering (SRE), the argument of how different and how similar these best practices are is surfacing once again.
Each of these frameworks or best practices has its place in adding value across your IT value chain. But which one is right when faced with 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 of these three methodologies shares some common goals, including:
- The introduction of a collaborative and connected culture
- Increased focus on delivering value with speed and quality for stakeholders
- And the ability to rely on automation to reduce waste and errors made by humans
Each one of these frameworks or best practices has its place in adding value across your IT value chain. In our 2022 Upskilling IT Global report, we learned that 58% have adopted DevOps, 37% are applying ITIL as a best-practice framework and 18% use SRE practices. Also, it’s important to note that many of the teams we surveyed were using all three.
To guide you 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 and work 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 is “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). Focus is on service functionalities and non-functional requirements of availability, performance, security and maintainability.
SRE is Google’s approach to service management
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 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 to replace siloed Development and Operations that work together with shared and efficient practices and tools.
The key members of a DevOps team are members from the development, operations and security team who all are working on the software lifecycle in conjunction 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 stakeholders’ satisfaction by 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 here: https://www.axelos.com/welcome-to-itil-4
SRE emphasizes the development of systems and software that increase 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 here: 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 here: https://www.jedi.be/blog/2012/05/12/codifying-devops-area-practices/
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, which typically are gradual in nature.
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, while 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 some 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 its fundamental belief or adherence to a governance model. ITIL 4 does not require 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.
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 an 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 within 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 are the creation of self-service tools and automation scripts to address reliability and performance of applications and services which eliminates 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 it brings cultural transformation, improves speed and quality on 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.
The development and management of software products need Agile techniques with a focus on value co-creation in a way that reduces waste. All three methodologies can co-exist together to align teams, meet stakeholders’ demands, and improve the value delivered.
No matter which methodology (or a combination thereof) you choose, you’ll have the most success if you focus on:
- A common vision and a purpose,
- Infusing and managing a culture of care
- Making decisions and making them visible
- Defining metrics and measures 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.