Understanding IT Costs

The following is an extract from the 2009 OVUM Butler Group Managing Costs in IT Strategy Report …


In-house IT functions are increasingly tasked to both justify their expenditure on ‘keeping the lights on’ activities and demonstrate the value they provide to the organisation.


Business-as-usual costs are not inconsiderable, usually some three times the value of an organisation’s project-based IT spend, and hence IT functions must ensure that they understand how IT costs are driven and how changes in IT utilisation can affect both unit and total IT costs. The corporate focus on IT value and costs is often driven by the enterprise-wide mandate to ‘do more with less’ and by growing demands for compliance and governance-led transparency. Consequently, IT organisations need to understand, and closely control, the activities that drive IT costs and factors of demand and supply. It is only through the implementation of formal cost management activities that IT functions can deliver cost-effective IT service provision and maximise visibility into related cost structures.

  • IT organisations should leverage enterprise finance expertise to adopt a corporately accepted IT cost measurement.
  • IT and the business must agree the key IT cost metrics for both ongoing performance management and the assessment of service improvement opportunities.
  • An IT function should utilise benchmarking techniques to establish relative cost efficiency and identify opportunities for cost improvement.
  • IT managers need to understand their IT Financial Management processes’ relationships with, and importance to, other IT Service Management processes.


IT organisations should leverage enterprise finance expertise to adopt a corporately accepted IT cost measurement.

With IT expenditure having increased along with the corporate utilisation of, and dependency on, technology, there is now a requirement for more formal management control, methodologies, and particularly measurement of costs within the IT function. When faced with questions such as ‘what percentage of the IT budget is spent on operations and maintenance?’, or ‘what percentage of IT initiatives contribute directly to organisational goals?’, IT management must now be able to provide accurate answers in which they, senior executives, and stakeholders can have confidence.

The primary barrier to IT cost awareness is a lack of tools and methods for measuring IT costs and value, and presenting them from an organisational perspective. An IT management environment usually has plenty of tools for managing technology assets, methods for managing IT delivery, and frameworks to address IT and enterprise architecture, but very few that are capable of uniting the technology, enterprise, and financial aspects of IT. As a consequence IT often continues to be treated as a cost centre, rather than as a business unit, within many organisations.

To identify the costs of IT service provision, an IT organisation needs to create a framework within which all known costs can be recorded and allocated to specific IT services, customers, locations, or other activities. Only in building their IT ‘cost model’ is an IT function truly able to understand the costs incurred and how the costs are driven, and provide a robust foundation for IT chargeback. In creating a corporate IT cost model, IT should use enterprise finance expertise to systematically work up a logical overview of the IT costs incurred and associate these costs with the business’s chosen basis for cost allocation, e.g., by customer.

The cost identification process starts with the categorisation of relevant costs into cost types such as hardware costs, software costs, people costs, accommodation costs, external service costs, and transfer costs. Where external service costs are expenditure such as the procurement of an outsourced service, and transfer costs those that represent goods and services provided by other parts of the organisation. It is important not to miss the latter type of cost as they are both a ‘real’ cost to the organisation and part of the cost of providing the service. Cost types may also be broken down further, into cost elements, if more detail is required to apportion charges (particularly for service-based cost models).

The most common IT cost model, costs-by-customer, requires that these costs are then attributed to the customer that causes them (alternatively, a costs-by-service cost model attributes costs to the services that cause them). These will be direct costs, those clearly attributable to a single customer, and indirect costs, those incurred on behalf of two or more customers that need to be apportioned to multiple customers in an equitable manner. There is also a need to classify costs as either operational or capital expenditure – the distinction required to calculate the annual cost of a capital item as it depreciates over time.


IT and the business must agree the key IT cost metrics for both ongoing performance management and the assessment of service improvement opportunities.

As with any business function, there is a danger that a corporate entity that sets its own performance metrics in isolation, fails to deliver meaningful management information that can subsequently be used to add value to the business. Hence, IT functions need to create their cost-based metrics in conjunction with the business – ensuring that they are relevant and easily measurable; that there is a sufficient number, and type, to cover the breadth of IT service delivery; and that there is scope to improve on base-lined performance to deliver real cost and efficiency improvements.

There is no golden set of IT cost metrics – each organisation will have different strategic drivers, different goals, and different opinions on the metrics required for IT to demonstrate cost efficiency. There are, however, benefits to choosing metrics that can be compared across organisations and against industry standards. Such metrics, trended over time, will help identify both the achievement of efficient performance and opportunities for service (and cost) improvement.

Example cost- and efficiency-related metrics include:

  • IT costs as a percentage of total business operating costs.
  • The average IT cost per employee (or per user if numbers are radically different).
  • The cost of providing generic IT services, such as e-mail accounts, per user.
  • Per-seat application costs, by type.
  • PC and laptop Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).
  • Service Desk costs per user.
  • The average cost per incident handled by the Service Desk.
  • The percentage of incidents dealt with by first-line (Service Desk) operatives.
  • Service Level Management resource costs per IT service, by Service Level Agreement (SLA) type.
  • Percentage reduction in software costs through improved asset control.
  • Change Management resource costs per change, by change type.
  • The average time to diagnose and resolve (or provide a workaround for) problems.
  • Infrastructure utilisation percentages.
  • Percentage reduction in lost business productivity caused by capacity-related incidents.
  • Number, and consequential costs, of major incidents.

An IT function should utilise benchmarking techniques to establish relative cost efficiency and identify opportunities for cost improvement.

Technology plays a pivotal role in the running and evolution of most organisations, with IT systems now an integral part of the business environment. In the past, IT functions were just tasked with providing the required volumes of particular technologies and technology-based services. However, as IT costs have increased, businesses have demanded that the IT services provided by in-house, or outsourced, IT organisations demonstrate both efficient delivery and value for money. Many organisations now use benchmarking as one of their preferred methods of ensuring that the best possible value is being achieved from IT expenditure.

Benchmarking is the comparison of an organisation’s performance against standards of performance set in the enterprise’s sector, and other divisions in the same organisation, or by accepted leaders in the particular area being benchmarked. This is achieved by using standard measurements to compare performance with that of other organisations or industry benchmarks. Benchmarking activity can identify problem areas within the IT function, discover gaps in performance, or find where performance is below that of an organisation’s peers. Whilst it is important to identify areas for improvement, it is also valuable to learn how the better performing enterprises achieve improved effectiveness.

Benchmarking can provide a number of benefits. Most notably it can be a catalyst for improved organisational performance and deliverable quality. By identifying gaps in operational effectiveness, as compared with peers or leaders, more innovative ways of working can be enabled. Benchmarking can also lead to a marked improvement in the organisation’s ability to collect and analyse IT performance data as, before comparisons can be made, a good understanding of an organisation’s internal operation is required. If employed correctly, benchmarking can also lead to better collaboration between both internal personnel and other stakeholders.

At the end of 2008, a survey on ‘Business Improvement and Benchmarking’, conducted on behalf of the Global Benchmarking Network, reported a continued rise in benchmarking adoption. The 450 respondents, from over 40 countries, chose Informal Benchmarking as their third most used improvement tool (after Customer Surveys and SWOT Analysis). Additionally, the tools most likely to increase in popularity over the next three years were cited as Performance Benchmarking, Informal Benchmarking, SWOT Analysis, and Best Practice Benchmarking – with over 60% of organisations not currently using these tools likely to use them.

From an IT Service Management (ITSM) best practice perspective, IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) v3 espouses the benefits of benchmarking within its portfolio of Continual Service Improvement activities. ITIL’s Service Portfolio Management process also recognises that, by understanding the cost structures applied in the provisioning of a service, an organisation is able to benchmark that service cost against other providers. Or IT financial information, together with service demand and internal capability information, can be used to support decisions as to whether a certain service should be provisioned internally or not. Finally, for IT organisations wishing to benchmark their service management capabilities against a formal standard, ISO/IEC 20000 provides such a formal framework for both audit and certification.

IT managers need to understand their IT Financial Management processes’ relationships with, and importance to, other IT Service Management processes.

IT Financial Management interacts with most ITSM processes but has particular dependencies upon, and responsibilities to: Service Level Management, Capacity Management, and Configuration Management.

Within Service Level Management, the Service Level Agreement (SLA) details both customer expectations and IT function obligations for the relevant IT Service(s). During the creation of the SLA, the potential costs incurred to deliver against customer requirements play a pivotal role in determining the eventual (agreed) parameters of service delivery. In an IT organisation with mature Financial Management processes, the Service Level Manager will liaise with IT Finance to understand the costs of meeting existing and new business requirements and how charging policies (if in place) can affect customer and user behaviour.

By utilising this information, the Service Level Manager is able to create an SLA that best fits both customer and corporate needs – matching service levels to affordability, and supply to demand with the corporately desired level of efficiency. It is worth noting, however, that whilst finance-enabled Service Level Management allows for greater customer variation to service levels (and the associated benefits) it also places greater demands on IT budgeting, accounting, and charging.

Capacity Management is charged with planning and controlling the IT capacity requirements of an organisation. Cost information is a vital input to this process and without it Capacity Managers are unable to accurately estimate the costs of desired capacity or availability for a given system or IT service – and changes in capacity requirements inevitably lead to changes in costs. Capacity information also influences costs. Unit costs may increase because capacity has to be increased for greater levels of resilience or unit costs may fall as a result of improved infrastructure utilisation, of purchasing newer (better value) technology, of economies of scale, or of increased purchasing power.

Configuration Management is the process of providing a logical model of the IT infrastructure by identifying, controlling, maintaining, and verifying the versions of all configuration items. The configuration information, stored within the Configuration Management Database (CMDB), is used in the majority of IT decision-making processes; this includes financial details derived from the budgeting, accounting, and charging processes. Conversely, given that the aim of IT Financial Management is the effective stewardship of IT assets and resources, it is imperative that information from Configuration Management, and in particular from the CMDB, is readily available to IT Finance.

Republished from http://www.ovum.com


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