SLM/SLA: Setting High Marks and Solving Problems

Businesses worldwide are demanding that IT organizations support negotiated service levels for computer networks, systems support and applications. To NT managers at IT organizations drowning in a flood of user requests, these demands are like pouring buckets of water over their heads.

But a new generation of service level management (SLM) technology should turn the downpour into a sprinkle. When properly applied, SLM technology can help NT managers more efficiently support IT service levels. The technology also empowers IT organizations by helping them develop intelligent, informed negotiating practices based on concise reporting about the service levels provided. As SLM technology matures, it may become the most effective tool for helping businesses balance IT availability with cost.

Service level management is a discipline that combines an organization’s expected levels of service from given IT resources with monitoring and reporting tools that measure the service provided and technologies that analyze and solve problems that obstruct sites from getting the service they require.

For example, the county of Henrico, Va., used an SLM product from Empirical Software (www.empirical.com) to identify a challenging service problem area. The county -- which supports Oracle8 databases that handle municipal utilities, police, schools and personnel activities -- used the product to identify the source of a response time problem, says Brian Seal, database administrator for the county.

Empirical's product pegged two statements running in the application that performed a full-table scan over nearly half a million records. Using an Oracle optimizer tool, Seal was added an index and reduced a three-minute response time to three seconds.

The SLA Connection

SLM may be new to distributed computing, but it has been a staple of mainframe shops for years. The technology is commonly used to support service level agreements (SLAs), which translate business objectives into network performance parameters. SLAs can be expressed as formally written agreements or informal tacit understandings between IT organizations and the user community about the availability, responsiveness or performance of computer-related systems.

But SLAs are not yet a common practice for most IT organizations, and formal SLAs are even more scarce. "CIOs are walking around with a bag of anxieties over their shoulders," says Rick Sturm, principal of research firm Enterprise Management Associates (www.enterprisemanagement.com). "They know they should be using SLAs, but they aren’t."

In his report, "Service Level Management: Market Research Study," Sturm found that only 22 of the 67 companies surveyed are performing service level monitoring. Yet 60 percent of the respondents -- up from 40m percent in a study 18 months earlier -- said they have a strategy for monitoring service levels.

Sturm says the change is due to increased press coverage of the technology, which has raised the consciousness of IT managers, although most do not understand SLM well. The rapid pace of vendor activity has also contributed to the awareness, with about 70 vendors offering SLM products today.

The market for SLM may be growing for another reason: It is often championed by CIOs. SLM is being driven by visionary CIOs who understand the potential benefits, says Bob Cramer, vice president of marketing and business development at FirstSense Software Inc. (www.firstsense.com).

SLM Today

By definition, SLM products manage the IT infrastructure to meet specific service objectives, as dictated by SLAs. First-generation SLM products typically create a snapshot of one piece of the network, monitoring and reporting on discrete measurements such as performance, dropped packets or hardware uptime. Violations of promised service levels are reported, but they require outside intervention to isolate problems and correct faults.

Newer products monitor service levels, but also incorporate tools that can determine the source of problems. For example, if a user complains of slow response time, the current generation of SLM products can help determine whether the problem is caused by a transient or a device failure. Because the tools are integrated, identifying problems and finding solutions can be faster.

At a Fortune 50 wood products company in the Northwest, a consulting firm used an SLM product from Optimal Networks Corp. (www.optimal.com) to retool and refine the corporate network for deployment of enterprise-scale applications. Nexus Consulting (www.nexusconsulting.com) was charged with ensuring that the corporation’s 375 sites had acceptable response time, even at locations where link speeds were slower than desired, says Mark Stokes, data communications architect at Nexus Consulting.

Nexus used Optimal's product to test nearly 300 IT scenarios to recreate the customer environment, identify potential bottlenecks and refine the network for better service levels. Nexus used the results of these tests to reconfigure the network from a geographically structured architecture to a business-linked model. The new network design "homed" users to specific data centers and delivered a 300-millisecond response time.

On the horizon are SLM products that help IT groups to proactively manage enterprise-wide systems by enforcing the service level guarantees. These products are expected to handle traffic shaping, quality of service and automatically perform tasks such as dynamic bandwidth adjustment. "[The new technology] will create a proactive system that strives -- based on policies -- to meet service level commitments without operator intervention," explains Todd Krautkremer, vice president of strategic marketing at Sync Research (www.sync.com).

View from the Application

For many IT managers, SLM products that monitor and report on pieces of the network are only a first step toward meeting today’s service commitments. With end users increasing their demand for improved performance and availability, the focus is shifting to providing application-level SLM.

"Sites need to have an end-to-end perspective in reporting," Sturm says. "That’s the end user’s view. They only care whether the service is available, and if so, whether it is doing what it is supposed to do, and whether they can afford it." Metrics, such as dropped packets, are useless to these users, he says.

For this reason, some vendors are introducing SLM products designed to optimize and manage service levels for specific enterprise-class applications, such as SAP R/3. Organizations using these applications tend to be more willing to establish formal SLAs and giving IT the task of delivering specified service levels to ensure peak business efficiency.

Dow Corning Corp. (www.dowcorning.com) invested in SLM technology to run its 9,000-user SAP R/3 implementation more efficiently, says Jeff Duly, SAP basis specialist at Dow Corning. While rolling out R/3 to new sites, the IT staff was frequently slowed by a high volume of service level requests. "I can spend two days researching an individual question about performance at the expense of the next [R/3] implementation," Duly says.

Three IT staff members now rely on an SLM product from Luminate Software Corp. (www.luminate.com) to monitor the network, which supports all Dow Corning applications across 84 sites internationally. The Luminate product enables the staff to pinpoint problem areas using an impartial third-party tool. This is important, Duly says, because the tool offers an objectivity that users often do not associate with IT staff. Service level issues "can get very emotional for users," he says. "[My word] wouldn’t always be trusted [that a problem was fixed] without this tool."

Choosing Carefully

With the SLM market gathering steam, NT managers must be careful to make informed buying decisions. Not all the pieces are there yet to provide a complete SLM solution, even though some vendors are marketing their products as end-to-end solutions, warns Mike Cookish, product line manager for 3Com Corp.’s Network Management Division (www.3com.com).

Some tools provide only monitoring, and others report only on performance. Only a few are beginning to offer integrated capabilities with expanding reach across the network.

Monitoring and reporting products is important because they help managers understand where their systems are now, but the tools needed to measure the end user experience are probably several years away, Cookish says.

But with education and careful evaluation, savvy IT managers can turn SLA/SLM solutions into a distinct advantage for their departments as well as their organizations. SLM displays the value of the IT investment, claims Greg Coticchia, vice president of marketing at System Management ARTS Inc. (www.smarts.com). Now more than ever, users appreciate IT technology and are aware of its critical role in business transactions. A necessary byproduct of this awareness is a need to have the service measured and held up to standards.

This is a positive development, Coticchia says. When talking about SLM, he adds "you’re talking about the highest level of the organization and relating technology to the most meaningful business proposition and planning where the systems are going. It’s the single most exciting area in systems management."

Also See:
The Power of SLM
Managing Service Level Agreements with Automated Tools