Backup SLAs: The art of diplomacy


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What not to say

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Keep these points in mind when discussing service levels and service-level agreements:
  • Avoid denigrating names. No one buys a "small" coffee or travels in "steerage" anymore, and no one wants "class D" or "Tier-4" storage. Be like Starbucks and sell "big," "bigger" and "biggest," or "silver," "gold" and "platinum."
  • Focus on service. They're "customers," not "users."
  • Keep it positive. Focus on the ways in which the service will meet requirements rather than on what isn't included.
  • Be honest. Make sure customers are aware of the limitations of the service and are realistic about what to expect, especially in a disaster recovery situation.

Staff dedicated to backup
The single most critical requirement for good backup service is that it be given adequate resources and focus, no matter where it falls in the corporate hierarchy. Because backup isn't in the critical path, shared backup resources will always be distracted by production-impacting issues and can never be expected to deliver a high level of service. Therefore, the first requirement for backup SLAs is the assignment of dedicated backup management and staff.

At the turn of the last century, automobile manufacturers discovered that it was impossible to deliver a completely customized vehicle to all customers, so mass production with minimum customization was born. The same thought process applies to all IT services: A minimal set of standard infrastructure services must be defined to support end users. Think tiered storage and you're on the right track, but backup is slightly different. Instead of offering various technologies for backup, you'll offer various service levels. I'll describe the key service levels shortly, but the main point is that backup service offerings must be standardized as much as is practical.

For the service provider model to work, the backup service group must establish successful management practices and metrics to prove success. Backup is a highly repeatable discipline, much more so than most elements of storage management. Standard backup procedures must be uncomplicated; simply write down what your management team does on a good day, week or month, and attempt to follow these procedures every day thereafter. Once this documentation exists, fine-tuning can begin, which is an opportunity for everyone on the team to say how their job can be improved.

Although there's a wide variety of technical backup metrics, don't forget to create a set of key performance indicators for management processes. How quickly must you respond to user requests? How will you account for partial backup job success? Is a backup job completed outside the desired window still a success? Technical issues like these must be resolved, and the answers can vary widely depending on what end users expect from the service.

This was first published in September 2006

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