The Crowded SLA Market: Getting Your Money’s Worth

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

“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

“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

“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

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

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