Service-level agreement (SLA) negotiation: Defining service-level objectives

Learn how to negotiate a service-level agreement (SLA) and define service-level objectives, the importance of metrics and how a cloud storage service-level agreement works.

Service-level agreement (SLA) negotiation with an enterprise data storage vendor can be a crucial factor in the success of any new technology in your infrastructure. However, the effectiveness of an SLA comes down to ensuring that the terms of the agreement actually meet your storage needs and requirements.

In this podcast, Tony Asaro, founder and senior analyst at The INI Group LLC, discusses the importance of an SLA when purchasing a data storage product. Learn about defining service-level objectives, storage technologies that should be given specific considerations in an SLA and how a cloud storage service-level agreement works.

You can read the transcript below or listen to the interview as an MP3.

SearchStorage.com: What is the value of entering a service-level agreement with an enterprise data storage vendor?

Asaro: Service-level agreements with storage vendors allow customers to get an idea of whether they're dealing with tier 1 or tier 2 storage. In many cases that line is very blurry.

When investing in tier 1 or tier 2 storage, customers can have expectations of what the uptime is going to be and what the performance is going to be. Customers can then view those expectations as a metric for their environments and their applications to reach.

SearchStorage.com: What would be the recourse for a customer entering a service-level agreement with an enterprise data storage vendor?

Asaro: It really comes down to support more than service-level agreements. It's not as if there's some sort of financial guarantee for not meeting SLAs that entitles customers to their money back. And if a storage vendor does promise a certain amount of money back for downtime, there are going to be a lot of variables involved. If I'm the vendor, I'm going to go look at the supporting environment and say, 'Well, you didn't follow our best practices; there was this variable and that variable that we couldn't predict, and this wasn't really our fault, maybe it was the network, etc.'

SLAs provide a measure of what users can expect from a vendor, and it really comes down to support and how good the support organization is. SLAs also depend on how big the opportunity is for the vendor, because it is a business.

Support levels will vary by the size of the storage environment and will depend on the vendor, company and visibility. A multimillion-dollar customer is realistically going to have a lot more recourse than a customer who is spending $50,000 because they can wave a competitor in front of vendor.

SearchStorage.com: What is the importance of entering an SLA before purchasing a product?

Asaro: What is important for customers is having an expectation of what the storage system is going to do, and there are a lot of things to look at before purchasing a system. This is why a lot of people go to the leading storage vendors thinking that if this thing is in tens of thousands of environments then it must be OK in my environment as well.

In this case, there's the implication that quantity does mean quality. So the SLAs are really more of a measuring stick of the storage system and the expectations that are around it.

SearchStorage.com: What considerations should customers give specific storage technologies such as solid-state drives (SSDs), tiered storage tools and thin provisioning, and how do they impact SLAs?

Asaro: This is important because the storage landscape is changing and introducing new capabilities, such as thin provisioning and virtualizing storage volumes, that basically trick an application into telling users it has a lot more capacity than it actually does. So there are metrics to be aware of so that customers don't run out of capacity when an application needs it.

Users are now also performing more granular and intelligent tiered storage, resulting in stretching storage volumes so that part of the volume might be on Fibre Channel (FC) or SSDs, and the other part might be on SATA. Ten percent of the volume may be on faster storage and 90% may be on slower storage. So there's a lot of automation that has to occur.

The storage system has to start making decisions for customers, and there are a lot of system administrators that might feel uncomfortable with that. But when it starts becoming commonplace for environments to have hundreds of terabytes and tens of petabytes, customers have to let the storage systems perform more storage automation tasks.

This is where SLAs will become more important. If you're going to trust systems without being in the decision process, then you need certain guarantees. The landscape is changing and customers have to be more concerned about reporting and analysis so there are no surprises affecting the business on a day-to-day basis.

SearchStorage.com: Finally, can you discuss how SLAs work with cloud storage providers?

Asaro: Right now there's a lot of cynicism around cloud storage, especially public cloud storage from providers like Amazon, Iron Mountain and Nirvanax Inc. And while the attraction so far has been this notion of cost savings, trust is a big factor. If data being placed in the cloud is going to evolve to be a part of the core business, then SLAs will absolutely be a necessary part of the contractual relationship between the service provider and the customer.

For IT professionals to take the cloud seriously, there will have to be some level of SLA out there, but we have nothing of that sort now.

There are plenty of companies that provide enterprise-class off-site services, but these are actually more hosting services than they are cloud services. The line gets blurry when trying to figure out the difference between cloud and hosting services. With the cloud, it really comes down to the fact that the provider owns the entire infrastructure. So multi-tenancies, scalability and the economy become very important.

With hosting, the customer is paying for the infrastructure, which just happens to be living at the vendor's premise. In those cases you will have SLAs. But with the evolution of public cloud storage, we need providers to utilize SLAs before IT professionals view the cloud seriously as a part of their core business infrastructure.

This was first published in April 2010

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