Service Level Agreements A service level agreement (SLA) is a contract between a service provider and a company. It specifies the level of service expected during its term: network availability, data delivery ratios, response times, mean (average) time to resolve problems, speed of installation, amount/availability of technical support, and so forth. SLAs can range from being very general to being extremely detailed. Many questions surround service level agreements, such as How much information must be included? Which are the best practices in defining SLAs? Some industry analysts suggest that a SLA should not be a complex set of agreements. Instead, it should be a clear record of vendor promises. The SLA should include a specific definition of the services the provider will offer, including stated minimum service levels for each service. In addition, SLAs should clearly specify service level performance measures. For example, it could be misleading for a long-distance provider to report the performance of their own networks, but not the impact of other providers/partners in their networks that customers must go through in order to gain access to the long-distance provider’s network. For example, customers might be enticed to sign up for Sprint’s 100 percent reliable long-distance services, even though local phone companies may not have enough capacity to ensure that Sprint subscribers can connect to the Sprint network 100 percent of the time. In general, the SLA should cover the entire network, including those sections operated by other carriers. Otherwise, different SLAs should be created for each provider. Customers should also develop their own processes to track the network’s performance. In this way, customers can convene monthly or quarterly meetings to review the performance according to the SLA’s standards. A growing number of vendors are offering products that make it possible to monitor the extent to which service delivery actually conforms to the promises contained in service level agreements. For example, Keynote Systems has a program installed in several U.S. cities that is capable of testing the availability network services and the round-trip response time of Web-based applications. ADC software has a program that interprets the network data and even provides a Web report capability that displays service departures from the levels specified in the SLA. Some customers are incorporating metrics derived from third-party performance monitoring companies into the SLAs they sign with network services companies. Global Sports, for example, has signed SLAs that guarantee user response time and application availability through metrics provided by the Red Alert service from Keynote Systems. This service level guarantee has allowed Global Sports to gain the trust of several major companies, including Kmart, which selected Global Sports to run its BlueLight Web site. Additionally, SLAs should define the types of specific skills of the technical support staff of network service providers. Many agreements require the service provider to provide the names and numbers of senior officials to be contacted in case of problems. This information is important because the degree to which a service provider guarantees a level of service is directly related to the technical ability of the staff that is responsible for ensuring the availability of network services for customers. Although the SLA cannot guarantee the continuity of all vendors’ technicians, it can set a standard for the people assigned to provide service for particular customers. The SLA should also include penalties, like “fines” or reimbursements, in case the service provider does not meet the required service levels. In general, penalties are calculated as a percentage of the monthly service charge, depending on the type of problem. Penalties are important not only because they ensure payment reductions if something goes wrong. They also help to ensure that the service provider pays attention to customer needs. Business continuation and transition clauses are also essential parts of the SLA. A transition clause establishes criteria for a smooth termination of the contractual relationship. This clause is important because companies must have the ability not only to finish an agreement for any reason, but also to ensure an efficient transition of services, software (licenses), and equipment to another provider. A business continuation clause gives customers the right to continue receiving services for a specified time period after the contract expires. It usually provides a way to maintain previously negotiated pricing structures and service levels.