What’s a Service? Who’s Responsible?

Abbott and Costello aside, one of the most charged, ambiguous, and overused terms in IT today is Service. At its most basic, a service is a function or operation that performs a task. For IT operations, a service is a function that is performed using a computing facility that performs a task for the organization. For software architecture, a service in the formal capital “S” form is a loosely coupled function or process that is designed to be abstracted from the software application, physical implementation, and the data source; as a more generic lower case “s,” service is a function that is performed by software. And if you look at the Wikipedia definition, a service can refer to processes that are performed down at the OS level.

Don’t worry, we’ll keep the discussion above OS level to stay relevant — and to stay awake.

So why are we getting hung up on this term? It’s because it was all over the rather varied day that we had today, having split our time at (1) HP’s annual IT analyst conference for its Technology Solutions Group (that’s the 1/3 of the company that’s not PCs or printers); (2) a meeting of the SOA Consortium; and (3) yet another meeting with MKS, an ALM vendor that just signed an interesting resale deal with BMC that starts with the integration of IT Service Desk with issue and defect management in the application lifecycle.

Services in each of its software and IT operations were all over our agenda today; we just couldn’t duck it. But more than just a coincidence of terminology, there is actually an underlying interdependency between the design and deployment of a software service, and the IT services that are required to run it.

It was core to the presentation that we delivered to the SOA Consortium today, as our belief is that you cannot manage a SOA or application lifecycle without adequate IT Service Management (ITSM, a discipline for running IT operations that is measured or tracked by the services. We drew a diagram that was deservedly torn apart by our colleagues on the call, Beth Gold-Bernstein and Todd Biske. UPDATE: Beth has a picture of the diagram in her blog. In our diagram, we showed how at run time, there is an intersection between the SOA life cycle and ITSM – or more specifically, ITIL version 3 (ITIL is the best known framework for implanting ITSM). Both maintained that interaction is necessary throughout the lifecycle; for instance, when the software development team is planning a service, they need to get ITO in the loop to brace for release of the service – especially if the service is likely to drastically ramp up demand on the infrastructure.

The result of our discussion was that, not simply that services are joined, figuratively, at the head and neck bone – the software and IT operations implementations – but that at the end of that day, somebody’s got to be accountable for ensuring that services are being developed and deployed responsibly. In other words, just making the business case for a service is not adequate if you can’t ensure that the infrastructure will be able to handle it. Lacking the second piece of the equation, you’d wind up with a scenario of the surgery being successful but the patient dies. With the functional silos that comprise most IT organizations today, that would mean dispersed responsibility of the software (or in some cases, enterprise) architect, and their equivalent(s) in IT Operations. In other words, everybody’s responsible, and nobody’s responsible.

The idea came up that maybe what’s needed is a service ownership role that transcends the usual definition (today, the service owner is typically the business stakeholder that sponsored development, and/or the architect that owns the design or software implementation). That is, a sort of uber role that ensures that the service (1) responds to a bona fide business need (2) is consistent with enterprise architectural standards and does not needlessly duplicate what is already in place, and (3) won’t break IT infrastructure or physical delivery (e.g., assure that ITO is adequately prepared).

While the last thing that the IT organizations needs is yet another layer of management, it may need another layer of responsibility.

UPDATE: Todd Biske has provided some more detail on what the role of a Service Manager would entail.