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"Help Desk" vs "Service Desk" vs "ITSM"

by Alex Yumashev · Updated Jul 2 2021

The IT industry is overwhelmed with abbreviations. ITSM vs ITIL vs SaaS vs DevOPS... Sometimes even technical journalists get lost, confusing "ITSM" with a "helpdesk"... So here is how IT guys (are supposed to) see it:

Help desk

Helpdesk or "IT help desk service" is an organizational unit/process, that resolves issues using the "break/fix" concept, usually with the aid of internal IT help desk software. This is often called "incident management" or "problem management". If something goes down - let's go fix it. In other words an IT ticketing system is a "tactical", not "strategic".

The core help desk principles are

Service desk

Help desk is a subset of a "service desk". While "help desk" provides "help", "service desk" provides a "service" (which in turn includes "help" of course). To put it simple, "service desk" is a more "strategic" term than "help desk". It's not just about fixing stuff, but also about adding new services and maintaining the existing ones.

"Service desk" is a more broad term than just a "help desk". It looks at the company/enterprise needs as a whole rather than being focused on dealing with end-user problems and takes the broader business context into account. The ITIL 3 definition the Service Desk describes it as "the Single Point of Contact between the Service Provider and the Service Consumer".


ITSM stands for "IT Service Management" and "ITSM Service Desk" is a part of it. But ITSM is not not just about a "desk" any more, ITSM unites the entirety of all the IT-related activities in an organization. Including planning and designing new IT services, not just delivering and supporting those services. The complexity is increasing, so are the challenges, so are the... abbreviations.

Helpdesk vs Service vs ITSM diagram

But what is ITIL in plain English?

Since we're talking ITSM and stuff anyway, we thought it'd be a good idea to explain what ITIL is in plain English.

ITIL is a set of rules and best practises for ITSM. The set is huge, most recent release consisting of 5 books each covering one stage in the ITSM lifecycle: strategy, design, transition, operation and continual imrovement.

Bonus chart - how people refer to a Support Center

HDI has performed a survey, where repondents were asked to select the closest match to their support center's title. Truns out everyone names their support center a bit differently.