The Crowded SLA Market: Getting Your Money's Worth

by Jacqueline Emigh

As the Service Level Agreements market grows, it's getting hard to determine which vendor has the most to offer. Here's a look at some features to consider before catching this wave.

With billions of dollars at stake over the next few years, tools vendors are flocking to the SLA (service level agreement) management market. Many customers are already investing in vendors' products, but not all of them are getting their money's worth yet. Network administrators should be learning more about SLA management tools, analysts say.

Sales of SLA tools will amount to $4 billion over the the next three years, according to industry analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates. Vendors already active in the SLA arena include big names like Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard, IBM-Tivoli, and Cisco, together with a long list of smaller specialists: Micromuse; Mercury Interactive; Packeteer; Brix Networks; Net Reality; and Infovista, to name a few.

"We're finding deployment of SLA tools to be very widespread already," says Rick Sturm, founder and CEO of Enterprise Management Associates. Service providers use SLA tools to prove the service levels they're providing to customers. Enterprise network managers also implement tools internally, to show whether networks are complying with policies.

"You walk down the hallways of IT departments, and you see SLAs pinned to the walls of the cubicles," maintains Todd Krautkremer, VP of marketing at Packeteer.

"Network managers, though, aren't always using all the capabilities (of SLA tools)," Sturm adds. "Technical implementation issues are not a big barrier. Nor do we find economics to be a barrier. Instead, there is a lack of knowledge. There's uncertainty about costs, training required, and how service-level reports should be utilized."

Some customers are major exceptions. For instance, Rolls-Royce Commercial Marine (RRCM) is using NetReality's WiseWAN tools to manage Internet access, as well as connections to about 35 branch offices worldwide. Most of the branches are linked to RRCM's headquarters in Norway over frame relay, but a couple of them use Internet connections.

"On several of our Asian links, WiseWan showed us that the service provider wasn't giving us all the bandwidth that we bought. We were only getting 90 percent of the SLA on 64K (frame relay) links with 16K CIRs," according to Sigbjorn Pilskog, network administrator at RRCM.

Pilskog also suspected that RRCM's customer service site in Spain had outgrown its 64K frame relay link. "WiseWan provided the reports to back up my claim, and we're upgrading it to 256K."

Meanwhile, also through the use of WiseWan, Pilskog determined that two remote sites were using RRCM's ISP connection in Norway to download RealAudio files for musical entertainment. "We then decided to block the audio protocol for all our branches. These are expensive links, and we don't want them to be used for radio," Pilskog notes.

Many customers today, though, are using tools to address "only a piece of the SLA equation," according to Sturm. "When you're managing service-level agreements, you need to have tools for end-to-end administration."

In the increasingly crowded SLA market, administrators can have trouble deciding which products they need. Adding to the confusion, vendors continue to add new features.

How can administrators tell one product from another? One good place to start is to take a look at the vendor's core market. "Many vendors play in both the service provider and enterprise spaces. Usually, though, a vendor focuses on one of these two markets more than the other," notes Sturm.

Infovista, Quallaby, and Micromuse, for instance, are particularly active in the carrier market. Brix Networks, on the other hand, produces hardware-based appliances called Verifiers for flexible, end-to-end deployment at customer locations and/or Internet POPs.

For its part, Packeteer produces two product line-ups: one for enterprises; and another for service providers. Right now, though, enterprises constitute Packeteer's "core consumers," according to Krautkremer.

Which features are the most important? Although analysts vary on this point, many think that application-level tracking, comprehensive reports, and remedies for non-compliance should all be part of the picture.

"Application-level tracking will be key for SLA management tools because this is what the end user really wants-- a view of service, through the infrastructure, devoted to their application," says Earl Perkins, an analyst at the Meta Group.

Concurs Sturm: "A large percentage of companies make the mistake of focusing on technical metrics such as CPU utilization, disk/IO, and network faults. They might as well not be generating reports at all."

By and large, service-level reporting is getting more and more comprehensive. Over the past couple of years, vendors have been adding realtime reporting capabilities, as well as executive summary reports, for example.

"We've added reports for upper management due to customer request. A lot of (administrators) wanted to be able to show (business decision-makers) something pretty and concise to justify SLA management," maintains NetReality CEO Ilan Raab.

Non-compliance remedies tend to be a newer phenomenon, fueled by a growing recognition among network administrators that agreements with service providers aren't always what they're chalked up to be.

In focus group studies among network managers, Sage Research found that 43 percent of enterprise organizations have already disputed SLA compliance at least one time. Most of these disputes have revolved around Web hosting, IP VPN, and e-mail services.

Actions taken by customers including imposing the penalty built into the SLA (41 percent); withholding payment for services (38 percent); changing service providers (31 percent); and renegotiating the SLA (26 percent), for instance.

"One way to avoid costly SLA disputes is for the service provider and the customer to communicate effectively when building the SLA agreement," according to the report. "In order to further minimize SLA disputes, accurate monitoring and verification tools must be in place. The customer must be able to accurately monitor complex services in a realtime, regular, and user-friendly manner. Further, if customers are offered consistent access to the same SLA monitoring reports that service provider has access to, customers will feel that the provider has nothing to hide."

Some vendors, such as Packeteer and Brix, also offer APIs to back-end service provider billing systems, for automatic remedies in case of SLA non-compliance.

For companies deeply in doubt about SLA management tools, the good news is that outside training and consulting firms are available to help.

» See All Articles by Columnist Jacqueline Emigh

This article was originally published on Friday Jun 14th 2002