Business services is a general term that describes work that supports a business but does not produce a tangible commodity. Information technology (IT) is an important business service that supports many other business services such as procurement, shipping and finance.

Those of us within IT involved with operating or managing the availability and performance of business services have a big problem — a basic lack of understanding, or ability to explain, “What is a business service?”

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As one example, Stephen Mann, an analyst with Forrester, tweeted from the itSMF conference in Norway: “The whole room has been on ITIL training but less than 5% can describe what a service is.”

A quick search for “what is a business service,” turns up an IBM white paper that says:  “What, exactly, is a business service? One technical definition is that it is any customer, partner or user-facing group of applications, middleware, security, storage, networks and other supporting infrastructure that comes together to enable a comprehensive, end-to-end business process, transaction or exchange of information.”

Sorry, but that definition is not helping our cause.

Next on the search results list was a Wiki entry that offered the following:  “There is often confusion in IT organizations about what exactly is considered a business service: Business services are characterized by representing a direct value to customers, like e.g. the provision of e-mailing facilities and internet access.”

While these somewhat disparate definitions help guide us in our quest to understand business services, they are also clearly indicative of a larger problem. How can we deliver something when we don’t even know what it is? Perhaps the definitive source –ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library – could help. It has a pretty decent description:

Business Service – A service that is delivered to business customers by business units. For example, delivery of financial services to customers of a bank, or goods to the customers of a retail store. Successful delivery of business services often depends on one or more IT services. A business service may consist almost entirely of an IT service – for example, an online banking service or an external website where product orders can be placed by business customers.

Still, the root of the problem here is that we’re lacking a description of what a business service that any of us could easily understand and explain. And, that is probably why only 5% of an entire class in ITIL training can describe what a service is.

It seems we need something simple and practical, rather than academic. Here goes:

First of all, a business service is made up of components that can include, for example, applications, servers, network devices, and storage gear.

Next, defining the business service requires mapping, which involves building the associations for an application and the underlying components supporting that application. The mapping process results in an illustration which shows the connections between the application and the components including switches, routers, database servers, web servers, application servers, etc.

Through defining and mapping the business service, a model of the configuration topology is created which shows the underlying components and dependent relationships for the business service.

A good business service aligns IT assets with the needs of a company’s employees and customers and support business goals, facilitating the ability of the company to be profitable. Documenting the value that an IT department provides to the business often involves an audit of IT infrastructure processes, the creation or updating of an IT servicecatalog and/or the provisioning of an employee self-service portal to improve communication.