Don’t get Screwed by Stupid SLAs

There is nothing stupid about the Service Level Agreement itself, it’s the people that trust them that are stupid.

I have been in the SLA industry for more than a decade and it never stopped suppressing me how obsessed some customers are about the SLA document. The only reason to obsess about a document named SLA is if you don’t understand the service that will be provided to you.

If you see IT services as woo-do or pure magic, you can only trust the SLA. If you understand a little bit about IT services, never trust an SLA; you will get screwed for sure.

Why do you really need an SLA?

While physical services are easy to understand, IT services seem to create a lot more headache for lawyers.

I have never seen a legal team inspecting an SLA for a hotel before a hotel room is ordered nor an SLA for an airline before the ticket is purchased. However, I have seen a company asking their lawyer to review an SLA before purchasing a web hosting service for USD 3 per month!

There are only two reasons why you will ever need an SLA:

  • You do not trust the provider
  • You want to cover your own ass

Both of them are common but stupid reasons why you may want an SLA agreement. When buying an IT service, you are buying peace of mind. If you don’t trust your provider go get another one, and if you need to cover your own ass, you might be better off in a different job.

Most IT services are much like hotels ; you rent a small part of the provider’s asset for a period of time. You pay according to how much of the asset you are using and your main goal is to have a good night’s sleep.

What to ask for?

Any IT service will be unavailable at some point; true, 100% availability does not exist (even though the SLA says so) and the more complex a service offer, the less reliable it will be.

1. Redundancy – It might take your service down

Always ask questions about anything that has to do with redundancy, fail-over and other fancy terms for resilience in the infrastructure.

Resilience makes any IT service more complex and, contrary to what you might think, this will often make the service less reliable.

2. Ignore historical availability

Never put any value to statements like: “historically, our service has 99.9999999999999998% availability”. There are two reasons why this doesn’t mean anything for your purchasing decision:

  1. It’s impossible to proof or control from your side of the table; the provider can make up any number he wants to.
  2. In IT, it’s stupid to build any logic on decision on the premises that the future will be like the past.

If a provider proudly evangelizes about its availability track record, you should counter with a response like “so you don’t do much maintenance, I guess there will be more downtime in the future”.

3. Ask to talk with a client that experienced a problem recently

This is the reference that no IT service provider will ever want to give you. They are scared to death that their image of perfect availability will be slammed to the ground with a simple phone call.

Your intention should not be to prove the provider’s wrong but rather to find out how well the client was treated and if he was taken seriously right away. Service providers don’t like to give references that had problems recently since service interruption often becomes a very emotional experience where the emotions fade away over time.

I recommend to speak with a client that has been experiencing a problem within the last 2 weeks. If the client still gives a good reference it shows that the company was treating him well and they will most likely do the same with you.

Be Reasonable

When I’m creating SLAs for services like MailGrupo, I try to be reasonable with our clients. The SLA needs to reflect the reality and give the client the correct expectation about what’s our responsibility and what’s outside our control.

If you are working in a larger company, you might have a legal department that provides the SLA and the provider has to comply with your conditions. Some providers might accept this type of agreement, either because they are new and don’t have much to lose anyway or because they simply need your business.

In situations like that, it’s important to remember that your legal department most likely is not reasonable against your provider. You might have good intentions, but your legal department does not. Let me give you an example:

Some years ago, while IT services were still kinda woo-do, a prospect came to me with a 200 page SLA written by their legal team. The SLA stated that we, as providers, would be responsible for all type of “subjective unavailability”.

You might want to stop here for a moment and think about what this actually means. If the client’s office does not have electricity, this can be considered as “subjective unavailability”.

Would like to hear what your experience is and how you value SLA documents when deciding about what service to purchase. Please use the comment field.

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