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In today's digital world, IT operations is a core function of virtually any business. Whether your company maintains its own internal IT department, outsources IT operations to a managed service provider, or uses a hybrid model that includes both in-house and outsourced solutions, having access to skilled IT operations personnel — along with the tools and platforms they need to do their jobs — is critical for business success.
This article explains what IT operations means, which skills and tools are at its core, and how IT operations fits within the modern business.
What Is IT Operations?
IT operations — or ITOps for short — is the process of managing, maintaining, and providing support for the information technology (IT) infrastructure of an organization. It covers a range of activities, including system administration, service management, security management, software and hardware deployment, and network operations. IT operations also focus on providing services that maximize the value of IT investments, such as cost savings, improved customer service, and improved agility.
In other words, IT operations is the function that allows businesses to make effective use of information technology. Because virtually every business today requires IT systems in multiple ways, IT operations is a core requirement for almost every modern organization.
IT operations vs. software development
Importantly, most definitions of IT operations do not include the software development function. Software development teams, who are responsible for designing and implementing any software applications that a business builds itself, are usually treated as a distinct entity from ITOps. IT operations is typically responsible for managing software that developers have built and deployed into production, but ITOps doesn't build the software.
For that reason, IT operations teams aren't expected to be experts in software engineering or coding — although they often do need a basic understanding of how software development works in order to collaborate efficiently with developers. IT operations teams may also need basic coding skills to write scripts or configure tools that they use for IT administration work.
IT Operations Responsibilities
The specific functions that IT operations teams perform can vary depending on which IT systems a business uses. But in general, core IT operations responsibilities include:
- Maintaining operational infrastructure: One of the primary responsibilities of ITOps teams at most organizations is maintaining the operational infrastructure — such as on-premises and cloud servers, applications, and data storage resources — that power IT systems.
- Coordinating and monitoring IT services: Most ITOps teams are responsible for tracking the availability and performance of IT services to ensure that they meet the business's requirements.
- Investigating and resolving IT issues: When a problem occurs with an IT resource, it falls to the IT operations team to investigate and remediate it. For example, if a server crashes or a cloud service becomes unresponsive, ITOps engineers have to figure out what went wrong and how to resolve the issue.
- Planning and managing IT investments: IT operations teams play a key role in determining which new IT systems to implement. They often perform this work in collaboration with stakeholders from departments like finance, which help to ensure that IT investments make fiscal sense for the business, and software developers, who can provide feedback on which IT systems complement their operations.
- Assessing and reporting on IT performance: IT operations teams are typically expected to provide periodic reports on the performance of IT systems to ensure that they continue to meet business requirements. Reports are also useful for planning new IT investments.
In all of these ways, IT operations helps to ensure that businesses make optimal use of the IT resources available to them.
Key IT Operations Roles
The specific roles that exist within an IT organization can also vary from one business to the next. But in general, you'll find the following ITOps roles at the typical organization:
A system administrator is a person responsible for the maintenance, configuration, and reliable operation of computer systems. A system administrator maintains the network and computer systems, installs and upgrades software, implements security measures, and monitors system performance. The sysadmin also troubleshoots issues and provides technical support.
In addition, system administrators are typically responsible for training users on the systems they manage. They may also be responsible for creating and managing user accounts, ensuring that users have the correct access to resources, and monitoring user activities.
Database administrators are responsible for the performance, integrity, and security of databases. They may develop, install, maintain, and upgrade the database systems that a business uses, as well as troubleshoot any issues that may arise. Database administrators also create backup and recovery plans and ensure databases are running efficiently. And they may be responsible for creating user accounts, granting permissions, and monitoring user access to data systems.
Since the data assets of modern businesses often extend beyond conventional databases to include systems like data lakes and data warehouses, as well as cloud-based data services, database administrators are often expected to be able to work with the latter types of data technologies in addition to traditional database platforms, like MySQL or Microsoft SQL Server.
A network administrator is responsible for managing, maintaining, and troubleshooting an organization’s computer networks. Network administrators must ensure all hardware, software, and networks are running correctly and efficiently. They are also responsible for keeping the networks secure and preventing unauthorized access.
Network administrators must be knowledgeable in a variety of operating systems, networking protocols, and hardware. To be effective in modern, cloud-centric organizations, network admins must also understand concepts like software-defined networking, cloud-native firewalls, and networking for distributed environments like Kubernetes.
An application administrator is responsible for managing the installation, configuration, and maintenance of business applications. This includes troubleshooting problems, providing technical support, and ensuring that the applications are properly integrated with other systems. The application administrator may also monitor the performance of the applications and manage user accounts for them.
A system integrator specializes in bringing together component subsystems into a whole and ensuring that those subsystems function together. They are responsible for designing, implementing, and managing complex IT infrastructures and business processes. They help businesses bridge the gap between their existing systems and the desired end state, as well as optimize their use of technology and streamline processes to increase efficiency and reduce costs.
Security administrators play a leading role in securing IT resources, including infrastructure and applications running on it. Larger businesses typically have dedicated cybersecurity teams, so security is not always treated as a function that falls under the umbrella of IT operations. But in smaller organizations, IT operations may be expected to handle security alongside other ITOps work.
Support technicians are responsible primarily for providing support to end users. Using tools like help desk platforms and ticketing systems, they respond to user requests for help troubleshooting IT systems or learning how to use them.
In IT operations, project managers are responsible for overseeing initiatives like the deployment of new IT resources or the overhaul of existing systems. Project managers coordinate with other members of the IT operations team, as well as any relevant external stakeholders, to develop project timelines and estimates of how many resources — in terms of time, money, and personnel — will be required to complete the projects. Then, they manage projects to ensure that they stick to their timelines and stay within budget.
As noted above, software development is usually treated as a separate function from IT operations, so you don't typically find software developers within IT operations teams. However, at smaller organizations that don't have stand-alone software development teams, software developers may work as part of the IT operations department, where they are responsible for designing and creating any software or integrations that the business needs to make optimal use of its IT resources.
To provide more context on what IT operations means and how it relates to other parts of a business, here are answers to commonly asked questions about ITOps:
What is the difference between DevOps and ITOps?
DevOps is a set of practices that combines software development and IT operations to shorten the life cycle of software from development to delivery. It focuses on automation, collaboration between developers and IT operations, and continuous delivery and integration of software.
ITOps, or IT operations, is a more traditional approach to managing IT systems, such as deploying and managing hardware, software, networks, and storage. It focuses on the day-to-day operations of IT systems, such as installation, monitoring, maintenance, and troubleshooting.
What is the difference between application management and IT operations?
Application management is the process of managing the development, deployment, and maintenance of applications and software. IT operations is the process of managing the technology infrastructure that supports the applications and software. Application management focuses on the development and deployment of applications, while IT operations focuses on the hardware and software that supports the applications.
Thus, depending on how broadly you define IT operations, you could view application management as one part of ITOps. But you could also treat it as a separate function, since application management focuses on a relatively narrow facet of a business's overall IT needs.
What are outsourced IT operations?
Outsourced IT operations is the use of an external service provider to deliver ITOps services, as opposed to relying on an in-house IT team. Smaller and medium-sized businesses often use outsourced IT operations to meet at least some of their IT requirements. In some cases, outsourced ITOps can be more cost-effective, as well as simpler to manage, than building an in-house IT department.
What are some IT operations best practices?
The best IT operations practices will vary depending on the specific types of IT resources a team administers and what the business's goals are. But in general, common ITOps best practices include:
- Establish standard operating procedures and documentation.
- Automate processes wherever possible.
- Implement change control processes to ensure that IT resources can be updated in a systematic, reliable way.
- Use systematic configuration management processes, such as policy-based configurations, to reduce risk when setting up resources.
- Leverage capacity planning to ensure that IT systems are configured with the right level of resources to meet their performance requirements, but without allocating excess resources (which leads to wasted costs).
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.