Reaping the Benefits of Service Level Management

Management of IT performance for business results is within the reach of most organizations

As business computing moves from the back office to the front lines, the performance of information technology—system uptime, application responsiveness, and transaction speed—becomes increasingly vital to business performance. In the face of increasing costs, global competition, and rising customer expectations, innovations such as business process automation, e-commerce, and zero-latency transaction processing can boost profit margins and increase competitiveness. This dependence on IT creates both pressure and opportunity for the IT organization: pressure to ensure that IT infrastructure and performance support business goals, and opportunity to enhance IT's reputation and the company's success.

To meet this opportunity, many organizations are taking a new approach to IT, treating application and transaction capabilities as services provided by the IT organization to the business. To become service-oriented, companies are re-architecting their entire computing infrastructures to create what has been variously dubbed service-oriented architecture (SOA), the service-oriented enterprise (SOE), enterprise Services architecture (ESA), and other acronyms.

While service-oriented computing offers many benefits, there are no turnkey solutions today, and massive re-architecting doesn't fit the goals, needs, or budgets of most organizations. However, the ability to do service level management (SLM)—management of IT performance for business results—is within the reach of most companies. An evolutionary approach to SLM enables organizations at any stage of IT development to successfully implement SLM and begin contributing more to the bottom line.

Many IT organizations administer their systems at the component or process level, managing and monitoring discrete computers, networks, and applications. In a Gartner survey, only 12 percent of respondents reported that their companies were doing SLM—the end-to-end management of people, applications, and systems to ensure that IT performance is reliably and efficiently meeting the terms of service level agreements (SLAs). These SLAs define the service performance between business functions and the IT organization. One major deterrent for many businesses is the high financial and organizational price tag of monolithic service management solutions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months to implement. That need not be the case, as we’ll explain shortly.

SLM offers a number of benefits to the entire business and to the IT organization specifically. The business gains a close alignment between its IT investments and business goals, an alignment that can improve revenues and profit margins and support business growth. For IT, alignment with the business enables clear priorities and higher visibility for IT's contribution to the business, and SLM helps boost productivity and lower labor costs. Businesses are aware of these benefits. In a poll of IT management, Gartner reported that the top investment priority for availability and performance monitoring is tools for service level agreement monitoring and reporting.

In a recent poll we conducted at Nimsoft Inc., CIOs listed the top three problems of these solutions as being high cost, difficulty in using, and weak functionality. To properly manage a service, it's important to manage all the components on which the service depends, and different components have different forms of management that may not fit well with large, rigid business service management products. Changes in IT infrastructure can compound this challenge, further delaying or disrupting implementation of SLM.

SLM is within Reach

Implementing SLM doesn't have to involve high costs, long lead times, or business and IT disruption. Tools and methods are available today that enable companies to achieve SLM within a reasonable budget and time frame, placing SLM within reach for virtually all organizations.

The key to a fast SLM implementation (and fast ROI) is to focus on the critical business services, the components and interactions that most closely affect service quality, and that tools that plug into the existing infrastructure quickly and give the visibility and control needed to manage those critical services and components.

Start by choosing one or two critical services for SLM and expand your efforts. These simple steps are required to move from component management to end-to-end service management:

  • Build business/IT alignment. Develop a common language to identify service levels and define and prioritize the services critical to business performance.

  • Achieve visibility. Implement tools to monitor the end-user experience of critical services and the performance of all the components that contribute to each service.

  • Define SLAs. Define service level agreements with quality of service (QoS) metrics such as transaction speeds, responsiveness, and availability.

  • Define processes. Determine procedures for QoS reporting and review to identify and resolve problems before they affect business results.

The first step towards achieving SLM is to obtain a real-time, end-to-end status view of critical business services (the services identified by the joint IT/business task force). This includes monitoring the end-user's service-quality experience and the chain of interdependent infrastructure components that enable individual business services. Monitoring tools and processes should evolve from a technology-centric view of the IT infrastructure to a service-centric view. New monitoring and visualization tools can help to logically consolidate technology silos and their status data so that IT infrastructure components can be visualized and monitored as unified business services.

End-user experience is the definitive test of service quality. Use the probes and dashboards (interfaces) provided by management tools to quickly construct a picture of how services are performing from the end-user perspective. Although component performance is not the only predictor of the end-user service experience, it does contribute to that experience. When end users encounter problems, they need to be able to drill down on components to analyze the source(s) of the problems and how to address them.

The step from service level monitoring to SLAs should not be rushed. SLAs must be based on the business priorities identified in business/IT discussions and the service and system relationships discovered through new monitoring tools and processes. Once tool and process monitoring is in place, wait several months to let discoveries happen. Service quality commitments that support business objectives will be possible when key business/service/component relationships have been established and you’ve reliably and confidently made adjustments to service levels.

There is much to consider in crafting an SLA, of course. They must be written to specify service levels over different service hours (specifying service uptime and maintenance periods, for example), must account for different classes of service, and

Reaping the Benefits of SLM

SLM offers vast, immediate improvements in IT and business results, and greater benefits can be seen over time. The ongoing process of SLM will yield new insights into the relationships between IT infrastructure and business success, providing a powerful tool for continuous improvement in both areas.

To take advantage of SLM, organizations should:

  • Make a service level agreement a living contract, a powerful tool for continuous improvement of both the IT infrastructure and the business. Be sure to review and update SLAs regularly as business needs change.

  • Encourage IT administrators and service desk personnel to regularly analyze data from the SLM tools and to look for proactive ways to improve QoS.

  • Review IT infrastructure changes for possible impact on SLAs, as SLAs can be a powerful tool for validation and benchmarking of new systems.

  • SLM can be an on-ramp for other key IT process improvements such as configuration and change management.

  • As platform capabilities—such as virtualization and autonomic (self-configuring and "self-healing") systems—become more sophisticated and more widely available, SLM tools and processes can leverage these capabilities to make real-time adjustments that help ensure and improve service quality.

According to Forrester Research, the largest, most expensive system management vendors are far from providing turnkey SLM solutions. Turnkey solutions may be neither practical nor possible, since IT infrastructure is always evolving. The best SLM tools are those that fit within the specified budget, that can plug simply and easily into an existing infrastructure, taking advantage of the basic monitoring functions built into the software and hardware, and that give the right set of monitoring, visualization, analysis, and reporting tools.

Among the functions an SLM solution should perform are:

  • Incorporate and aggregate multiple types of metrics from multiple management disciplines and tools. At a minimum, the product must be able to integrate service desk metrics along with IT infrastructure availability and performance metrics.

  • Compare measured results to SLAs and calculate service level compliance using results collected over several reporting periods (one day, week, month, etc.).

  • Perform time-based calculations for SLAs, such as "no outage longer than 15 minutes" or "no more than 4 outages during the reporting period."

  • Measure results (either by direct monitoring or testing, or through an intermediate source) and stores them in a database or data warehouse for reporting and trend analysis.

Increasing business dependence on IT performance and reliability will ultimately drive most IT organizations to SLM. Given this trend and the benefits, there is no reason for IT organizations to delay implementing SLM in their operations processes. While there are no instant SLM solutions, achieving service level management doesn't have to take years or take up most of the IT budget. Simple, powerful, and affordable tools and methods can be implemented quickly, and SLM can pay for itself many times over in improved business results.

In fact, Forrester Research predicts that SLM through integrated IT management dashboards will enable IT management to reduce IT costs as much as 30 percent while realizing value increases of 10 to 15 percent in the first year. With this kind of return, SLM should be within reach of every business and IT organization.