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Three steps to plan a self-service IT portal that actually works

There's no point to a self-service IT portal if the offerings are out of touch with how its users conduct business or the instant builds are on hold while additional capacity spins up.

The move from manual IT operations to an effective automated self-service IT platform to satisfy business needs won't be easy -- for anyone. But it's worth it for everyone.

The ability to deploy an entire application stack with just a few clicks is a game-changer in IT. Large companies already see that their self-service IT portals save significant amounts of time and resources. So much so that, when the process changes from heavily manual to fully automated, it is either an opportunity or a threat, depending on your outlook as an IT administrator.

The admin and management must put in effort to make self-service work, and they must jointly manage expectations. A successful realignment of IT services around automation requires buy-in and support from the ground up, including all the implementers and decision-makers.

Self-service IT workflows change more than the IT software, and potentially hardware. The automation for these workflows uproots the business, business logic and processes that sometimes have gone unchanged for many years. You can increase the chances of success with a self-service IT portal by dedicating time and thought to each step.

Formulate a plan

What do you, or the business as a whole, want to achieve from self-service IT? That decision is where a lot of companies fail. Without a clear and well-defined aim, the project has lower chances of success.

Once the parties involved agree upon and document that main set of goals, break down the goals into manageable phases. Each phase needs its own specific, measurable and achievable goal. Specificity is difficult: Self-service is surely one of the goals, but each component of the plan requires a more detailed, narrow focus.

What does the self-service IT workflow look like? Who approves requests? What does the build process look like? What functionality do you want to serve up through self-service IT workflows? What capabilities do you want to include?

A well-written plan serves as a roadmap that can be referenced when direction is lost.

Any good plan will specifically detail the requirements. Self-service for VMs is easy enough, for example, but the plan should also account for ancillary, critical services to automate those processes. Configuration management databases (CMDBs) are a prime example. CMDBs are a way to keep track of the resources used, ownership and other important details.

All the resources that complement the build process need to be provisioned upfront. Any automation solution needs to embrace the business requirements. Assess the tools that are used, and renew that tool set where necessary. Yesterday's tools use yesterday's methodologies. Evaluate the top tools for that job, but don't assume that you need to rip and replace everything currently in use. That is a sure failure in action.

From the start, documentation is key. A well-written plan serves as a roadmap that can be referenced when direction is lost.

Take action

Document each process that will be included in the self-service IT portal, including the interconnections and all dependencies. Starting with simpler ones, examine how the process can be reengineered using automation and self-service. VM delivery to end users is a prime example: The legacy process is disjointed, spreadsheet-laden and takes a long time, with errors lurking everywhere. Self-service VM provisioning removes these obstacles with clear ROI.

Rather than swapping out the old for the new, develop the automated process in parallel with the existing one. There's less risk involved during the changes than with an abrupt switchover, and running both processes side by side provides a mechanism to fine-tune and tweak the new offering. It could take months for the self-service IT portal offering to attain certified, production-ready status.

There will be issues and problems. IT will get more leeway with the performance of self-service offerings if they are initially part of a nonproduction environment. Outages are less disruptive, and expectations are not as demanding as for production systems because issues won't impact business.

Keep both systems independent of each other, and over time, depreciate the old infrastructure and grow the new self-service IT portal.

A company with a mature business model based on solid processes must retool significantly to take advantage of IT service automation and learn a new approach. Spend the money, and create what is needed to run a system in parallel -- these are changes that should not be done live.

Generate a paper trail once the system is up and running. When users provision IT systems via a self-service portal, traditional methods to track ownership and assets won't suffice. Capture all relevant paperwork (digital, of course) via the portal. A CMDB should track who requested what, when the request was processed and the details of the server or services that they required.

Support the portal with ample capacity

You don't want to be the one to tell business users that, despite this fancy, new IT portal with instant output, they'll have to wait while IT provisions more hardware to support the services. Manage the infrastructure and growth from the ease of self-service. In a public cloud hosted deployment, hardware availability is not an issue, but the company does have to pay for all the resources it uses. So, capacity control is vital here as well.

Some companies do manual forecasting of IT utilization, requiring user groups to submit expected growth per quarter. However, most large management platforms have built-in capacity management technology that, over time, becomes accurate at forecasting future consumption trends. IT management tools are expensive, but the ability to appropriately size resource pools and meet service-level agreements with appropriate capacity offsets the cost for modern organizations.

Approach the transition to a self-service IT portal with caution. It has the power to transform how a business operates. But there is no quick fix, and mistakes will happen. Invest the time to define desired outcomes, retool as needed and dissect business processes, then actively mature the portal. Only then are you ready for production.

This was last published in March 2018

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