Service-level guarantees meet the 'Net

No matter what line of business your company is in, if it is planning to use the Internet to support employees, customers or business partners, then service-level agreements (SLA) are going to become increasingly relevant.

Getting an SLA from a phone company is one thing, but getting one from an ISP is another. Because the Internet isn't as predictable as, say, a frame relay network with fixed end points, it is far more difficult to get meaningful performance guarantees from an ISP.

But network predictability is exactly what companies need to have before putting their most important applications on the 'Net.

"In many ways, e-mail is the lifeblood of our organization's communications," says Joshua Norrid, directory of application development at Bristol Hotels and Resorts in Addison, Texas. "If our remote people can't access the network, then productivity is reduced," he says.

SLAs are intended for companies like Bristol. Typically, the agreements spell out the level of network performance a service provider will guarantee as well as the penalties the service provider will be forced to pay if it doesn't live up to its commitments. These penalties can include credits on your monthly service bill.

100% guaranteed

Today UUNET, MCI WorldCom's ISP division, is leading the SLA pack with guarantees of 100% network availability and maximum round-trip latency of 85 msec over its domestic network. UUNET's international customers get the 100% availability guarantee and a maximum round-trip latency of 120 msec.

However, Bristol has chosen to work with GTE Internetworking, an ISP that is customizing its SLAs to meet the hospitality firm's needs.

Bristol is using GTE's dial-up Internet access, dedicated T-1 Internet access and managed firewall services - each of which has its own SLA. For example, GTE credits Bristol's dial-up accounts whenever the dial-up network is unavailable for an extended period.

In working with Bristol in recent months, GTE has had to do a lot of network re- engineering to meet Bristol's needs, Norrid says. Initially, "GTE didn't effectively communicate what was happening, when it was happening or where," he says.

So Bristol added a provision to its SLA that requires GTE to notify Bristol prior to any scheduled outage, Norrid says. GTE is required to inform Bristol of what areas of the country will be affected and for how long, he says.

Bristol also has a network availability guarantee from GTE for dedicated T-1 Internet access services. Norrid says the SLA is fine for the time being, given that his company is not using the service for mission-critical traffic. But Bristol will need better guarantees once that changes, he says.

The company plans to move its payroll application to the Internet so all offices can access the application from encrypted dial-up or dedicated Internet access connections. But before the company brings payroll online, Norrid says GTE will need to show that it has a redundant network.

Bristol also subscribes to GTE's Site Patrol managed firewall service, which comes with its own set of guarantees. "If there is an intrusion, GTE is responsible for shutting down our site immediately," Norrid says. Then Bristol engineers work directly with GTE's network operations staff to determine how the break-in happened.

Custom-tailored SLAs

Norriid's top SLA tip for other IS professionals: Be sure your service provider understands your business. That's the only way a service provider will be able to shape SLAs to meet your needs, Norrid says.

Embarcadero Systems, a large container shipping company in San Francisco, is another firm paying close attention to SLAs.

The company is launching an application that will let its customers track the status of cargo shipments via the Web.

"It's similar to what Federal Express offers its customers but for much larger shipments," says John Montgomery, an IS executive at Embarcadero.

Embarcadero is in the process of migrating from a local ISP to Sprint and is making sure Sprint is clear on required service levels from the beginning.

"We have certain bandwidth requirements and need minimum latency guarantees," Montgomery explains.

Embarcadero is negotiating to have Sprint provide monitoring tools that will let Montgomery track usage, network availability and throughput, he says. Embarcadero will use the tools to help ensure that Sprint is meeting its performance guarantees.

While service providers can be convinced to offer solid SLAs, the onus is still largely on users to hold carriers to those agreements, says Gary Rohs, manager of data communications at Sappifine Papers in Portland, Maine.

"I'm seeing a lot of SLAs written around a lot of fluff in regard to performance metrics," Rohs says.

Sappifine recently switched from AT&T Global Network (formerly IBM Global Network) to UUNET, and the paper manufacturer company has been satisfied with UUNET's guarantees.

"We're getting weekly statistics, we know what our throughput is and UUNET has been upfront with that type of information," Rohs says. "What we will be looking at is historical uptime, throughput, things that show us [UUNET] has good network management practices in place."

Such statistics will play a key role in how Sappifine expands its Internet application rollout beyond e-mail and basic Web access, Rohs says.

This story, "Service-level guarantees meet the 'Net" was originally published by Network World.

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