Service Level Agreements. SLAs.

Three of the most contentious words, and most contentious acronym, in the technology sector. Arguments are had, suits are filed, and relationships broken and strained as a result of this single concept.

How can something seemingly simple as setting an agreed upon level of service delivery be so problematic and misunderstood?

The word agreement is the key to the problem. SLAs assume that all parties understand and agree of the level of service. And how that information is to be reported. And who is responsible for reporting the data. And how long you have to file grievances. And who handles problems. And…well, lawyers are involved.

As Guy Kawasaki states regarding the lies of venture capitalists: there is no such thing as a vanilla term sheet.

There is also no such thing as a vanilla SLA. A company that tries to present you with a standardized SLA is trying to pull something over on you.

Some rules about SLAs.

  1. The vendor does not define the SLA. If the vendor selling the product tells you, the customer, what your expected level of service is, then they don’t care about you. Find another vendor.
  2. The customer does not define the SLA. If the customer tells you that they cannot sign an SLA unless you, the vendor, agree to their conditions, walk away from the deal.
  3. An SLA is not an SLO. Service Level Objectives are the targets of success defined by both parties within the SLA. These numbers, however, are not the alpha and the omega of an SLA.
  4. A customer-initiated penalty condition is always in the vendors favor. If the vendor states that the client must initiate the SLA grievance conversation when SLOs are violated, then the vendor is assuming that you are not looking at the data.
  5. SLOs should never be based on single, aggregated metrics from the data. If some bozo tries to say that they provide 99% availability and 3 second average performance, walk away. That is not an SLO.
  6. SLAs are not set in stone. If something is not working, or if targets change, or anything changes, then the parties have to be willing to sit down on a schedule (defined in the SLA) and renegotiate their SLA.
  7. The vendor and the customer have transparent access to the data used for the SLO. If the ccustomer cannot see the data that the vendor is using in the SLO anytime it wants, there will always be a level of mistrust. If you like having all your customers mistrust you, this is a great strategy.
  8. The Problem and Issue Management processes are clearly defined. When something bad happens, or a change needs to be made, the customer and the vendor have to have very clearly defined roles in the process. Responsibility and trust. Do you have that in your current SLA?
  9. The customer and the vendor decide when a problem or issue is resolved. It is not up to one side in an SLA to decide when an issue or problem is resolved. As there are likely penalties involved the longer the abnormal state exists, the customer has a vested interest in quick resolution. As there is likely lost revenue on the table, the customer has the same interest. But the customer also has the seemingly unreasonable idea that this will never happen again, it will be clearly documented, and that getting the right solution is better than getting a solution.
  10. Communication is the key to a good SLA. In the 9 previous points, the emphasis is on communication, the sharing of information. Current SLAs seem to be designed to hide information from each side, and only release it under the most dire situation. People talk. The information will get out. You want your well-crafted brand to implode because you have a reputation as sneaky and untrustworthy?

I’ve likely missed many of the key points, but these are the ones that I see, from both sides of the field, on a pretty regular basis.

In the end, an SLA is not simple. It is not standardized. It is not defined by one side or the other. It is a negotiated treaty of behavior that, in the end, defines the daily operational relationship between two organizations. If you enter an SLA process with both sides trying to find the best way to work together in the long term, there is a good chance that the SLA will be easier than if you go in as stone-cold adversaries.