SLA (service level agreement) tools are now moving from passive monitoring technology to "intelligent" products geared to helping network managers and outsourcers do application-level measurement and problem-solving. When, though, will the more fine-grained and "proactive" features get more deployment, particularly among service providers?
"SLAs have been around for a long time on the voice side. Now we're seeing them more and more on the data side, too," contends Todd Krautkremer, VP of marketing at Packeteer, one of the top vendors in the SLA tools space.
Many service providers have turned to SLAs to quantify the QoS (quality of service) they're supplying to customers. Network managers are doing much the same on internal networks. In corporate settings, SLAs are typically used to measure compliance with network policies, which, in turn, are often intertwined with a company's business objectives.
Initially, SLA tools have typically specified network performance issues such as uptime, latency, and packet loss, notes Jamie Warter, VP of marketing and business development for Brix Networks, another toolmaker.
Over the past couple of years, though, vendors have been adding capabilities in areas that include application-level analysis, automatic testing, realtime reporting, and remedies for noncompliance, to name a few.
Apparently, some administrators - although certainly not all -- haven't completely realized that SLAs and the associated technology are so multifaceted. In recent focus group studies by Sage Research, network managers rated guaranteed availability/uptime as the most important attribute of SLAs.
Results also showed, though, that while most organizations know whether they have SLAs with outside providers, they're often unclear about the specific attributes that are being measured. "When we gave them a clear blue sky, many (network managers) couldn't get beyond sheer uptime. That's definitely a start, however," points out Sage President Kathryn Korostoff.
Meanwhile, other administrators are running full speed ahead with the newer breed of "intelligent, proactive" SLA tools.
A.T. Kearney, for instance, has been implementing NetReality's application level analysis technology on its frame relay network. According to Kevin Rice, a network administrator at Kearney, reports generated by NetReality's WiseWAN showed that e-mail was taking up nearly half of all available bandwidth, due mainly to inter-company e-mailing of large file attachments.
Wuesthoff Health Systems in Bervard County, Florida, has been using Packeteer's PacketShaper to to manage medical images and patient records transmitted by more than 200 physicians and 2,000 staff members. According to David Barnhart, Wuesthoff's director of technology, PacketShaper has stopped traffic from "surging unpredictably" by allowing administrators to track and manage applications at each remote location.
Most vendors in the SLA arena produce separate product line-ups for enterprises and service providers. As one big factor behind the new features, companies point to the rise of IP networks.
"Network managers understand that the need for service levels gets much more complicated with outsourced IP services than with leased lines or private circuits," Warter says. "The more innovative service providers understand that (the backbone) is seldom where the problems are."
Adoption of newer SLA tools by service providers is now a matter of even more debate.
Brix Networks cites service provider customers that include Genuity; Fidelity Investments; ITC Deltacom; Net2Phone; Level 3 Communications; Virtela Communications; and VoIP provider iBasis, for instance.
NetReality has recently sold products to telcos that include Telia of Sweden, and Bezeq in Israel, according to Ilan Raab, CEO.
In the US telecom carrier market, though, Raab doesn't predict much improvement over the next year or two. "Those guys are hurting so much they can't really roll out new services," Raab predicts.
Packeteer's Krautkremer takes the middle ground. "We're on the cusp of significant change," according to Krautkremer. "On the service side, I believe we'll see more 'active, fix-it' SLA technology."
Further research by Sage tends to suggest that the day for more capable SLA tools is finally dawning among service providers. In one report, Sage found that the last time enterprises chose a service provider, only 16 percent reported that SLAs were mandatory for selection. The next time out, though, 41 percent will require SLAs.
"Given the current environment, this is not surprising. Enterprises must now manage numerous service providers - everything from ISPs, ASPs, NSPs, (to) other XSPs. This is becoming an increasingly tedious and time consuming task," according to the report.
Sage researchers view SLAs as a way for customers to set their expectations upfront, as well as to keep service providers in check. Meanwhile, SLAs can also be useful to outsourcers, by instilling confidence in customers, according to the analysts.
Observers are virtually unanimous that IP-based voice and video conferencing services will act as future drivers among service providers. Again, though, the question comes down to when.
As Brix Networks' Warter sees it, VoiP has now gained enough "critical mass" to reach the "early majority" stage. Videoconferencing, on the other hand, will still be mired in the "early adopter" phase for another year or so. "Service providers don't focus on the early adopters, because they need critical mass," Warter maintains.