A meaningful dissection of Service Level Agreements in the ever-changing telecom landscape Featured

2:31pm EDT October 12, 2011

Smart Business spoke to Ken Moss, Director of Data Operations at Call One, about leveraging Service Level Agreements to mitigate downtime and maximize your business’s potential.

The Service Level Agreement (SLA) is the defining document that outlines how an access line will perform. In some cases, the SLA will define what recourse the customer has when a line is underperforming, or suffers from recurring issues and outages. The SLA has historically been an important variable for companies when they select different types of access lines. Access lines support critical corporate communications and can act as the lifeblood of a company. As the telecommunications industry continues to evolve with bigger bandwidth products, the SLA has become an even more important component to consider.

SLAs – What they are, what they are not

The SLA is casually understood by many to be a realistic expectation of what happens should service fail due to network outages or line cuts. In most instances, nothing could be further from the truth. Mean time to restore (MTTR) is the true statement that defines customer expectations should an outage occur. SLA normally defines the time it takes to have an engineer actually pick up the issue and work toward resolution. Over the years, the two terms SLA and MTTR have become interchangeable, and the lines have become blurred.

The meat and potatoes of the modern SLA revolves more around network performance with defined categories of uptime, network latency and packet loss, and the VoIP sensitive category of “jitter.” These factors are critical — especially with real-time sensitive applications such as voice and video.

Different SLAs for different product sets

All SLAs are not created equal. Carriers have the luxury to define the SLA as they see fit. Be aware that SLAs are normally defined and written from the “POP” or Carrier Network perspective. Frequently, these SLAs don’t account for last mile connectivity elements (or the element that is usually of most importance to an end user of service). Last mile connectivity is, more often than not, the element that fails, causing downtime — which is a critical component in the grand scheme of things.

In some cases, such as big bandwidth Ethernet over Copper (EoCu) solutions, carriers will frequently market network SLAs that exclude local access circuits. Knowing that SLA and MTTR are frequently and ambiguously interchangeable, understand the technology you are purchasing before your enterprise services depend on them, not after. Ask questions about the underlying last mile transport from your service provider. Get that component’s SLA. You might be surprised to find out that sometimes it does not even have one.

Selection of service based on SLA

Service levels are more encompassing that ever before. As VoIP becomes mainstream, factors such as latency and jitter are now even more important considerations. Be mindful of what expectations are outlined based on requirements from hosted VoIP providers. Develop a clear understanding of how latency and jitter can be affected by bandwidth utilization. Know your bandwidth requirements going into the conversations about new network connectivity, not at the tail end only after the solution is deployed.

Another component to consider is equipment. Is your Telco providing routers, switches or the VoIP PBX? Are they covered in an SLA? Gather all information during the proposal process to accurately compare different providers in their service offerings.

DS1 and above

Clearly the legacy Telco provided DS1 on up (including NxDS1, DS3 and native Ethernet offerings such as fiber) bring the historically strongest combination of SLA expectations along with MTTR. While competing services such as coaxial cable modem, next generation xDSLs, EoCu, or fixed wireless offer better bandwidth bang for the buck, consider all possibilities of what could happen during an outage. As these newer products grow towards maturity, their SLAs and MTTRs will continue to evolve to be more competitive.

Best of both worlds

So what is a network admin to do? Applications are getting more bandwidth hungry by the day. Inexpensive big bandwidth options such xDSL, EoCu and cable modems can work well combined with legacy SLA-driven technologies such as DS1. Why not consider the best of both worlds? Load balance the inexpensive big bandwidth product with the DS1 and enjoy the benefits of both technologies while not sacrificing bandwidth for SLA. As bandwidth prices continue to get more aggressive in the marketplace, this becomes a viable solution for small to medium-sized businesses.

Understand the components at play; take time to learn their SLAs and MTTRs. Weigh all the factors against the importance of maximizing uptime for today’s critical enterprise systems. In today’s competitive environment, downtime equals lost revenue. Leverage the SLA and MTTR to maximize results.

Ken Moss, Director of Data Operations at Call One, has worked for Call One in Chicago, Illlinois, since 2002. He holds an MBA from Benedictine University and is a member of Sigma Beta Delta Business Honors Society. Reach him at kmoss@callone.com. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.