Defining Mission Critical

— July 01, 2006

They say the devil is in the details, and one of the devilish little details of mobile deployments that can potentially cause a lot of headaches is the service level agreement (SLA). Conversely, a well-crafted SLA can reduce the total cost of ownership and improve the ROI for your mobile technology expenditures.

At first blush this may seem to be simply an IT issue. However, business unit managers and end users themselves have a role to play in defining an effective SLA.

There are many types of SLAs, and organizations of all sizes within every commercial, nonprofit and government sector rely on them. Simply defined, an SLA is a contract that binds the provider of software, hardware, data services and telecommunications services to specified levels of performance, reliability and terms of redress or compensation if something malfunctions.

SLAs are critical tools in the world of mobile workforce computing. First, mobile executives' and workers' tasks are becoming increasingly (if not already) mission critical to an organization's profitability. Second, job-halting problems that occur in the field are logistically much more difficult and time-consuming to resolve than when similar problems hit office workers.

Boosting the Bottom Line

A good SLA is one in which the vendor or service provider tries to keep every mobile user operating as close as possible to 100 percent of their work day every day. For hardware and software vendors, this means delivering products that keep operating as advertised for a reasonable number of years and are repaired or replaced ASAP when necessary. For service providers, a good SLA addresses the availability, speed and quality of their networks. SLAs, however, are variable in nature and reflect the role that these products and services play inside customers' businesses. "If, when a device is down, I significantly and measurably lose productivity, increase financial risk or decrease my ability to service customers appropriately, that device is mission critical," states Mike Wills, VP of global services and RFID technologies for Intermec. "Therefore, the SLA has to be framed to avoid situations like this."

On the other hand, devices aren't mission critical if a user can continue to service customers and otherwise go about their jobs. "Maybe I have backup paper systems I can use," continues Wills. "Then you design your SLA around this scenario. The more rigid your requirements and the more mission critical the devices, the more this SLA is going to cost you." Herein is the crux of how you define a good SLA for your specific business. Does it enhance productivity, and subsequently ROI, without creating a negative hit on your total cost of ownership? Executives and business managers have a major role in answering this question.

What Managers Need to Know

Bill Rose is the executive director of the Service and Support Professionals Association, which provides technical support services for several laptop manufacturers.

"Know the equipment in question and users' day-to-day needs. Is the equipment critical? How quickly does it need to be back in working order? Should there be spares in the field? Know what environments the equipment will be used in. Managers who've had bad prior experiences with vendors' acknowledge time or fix time will require provisions such as that the vendor must respond within an hour."

Involve the business side in the early negotiations of SLA terms because they are in the best position to balance the financial impact of higher service levels against the resulting increased cost of those provisions. Dave Croteau, manager of InTouch (customer support) at Toshiba America Medical Systems, is both a provider and consumer of SLAs. He asks, "If someone guarantees 98 percent uptime and you're a 24/7 trauma center, what happens if you get 96 percent? That 2 percent means a lot to a critical business operation and is worth the extra cost. The people working in the imaging lab 9:00 to 5:00 Monday to Friday may be OK with 96 percent."

As the SLA development process moves from needs assessment to negotiation and the discussion becomes more technical, business managers still should be part of the process. Because managers and end users will be the ones calling for service, they need to understand the limitations on a vendor's ability to fulfill certain types of SLA provisions.

Managing SLA Expectations

Rose observes that many organizations have different vendors' devices, and from an end-user perspective these devices are commodities that can all be serviced the same way in the same amount of time. "I don't care whose device it is. As soon as the service provider opens the cover to fix the machine, it stops being a commodity. Users typically don't understand the different challenges each vendor's system represents."

The real challenge is with organizations that have products older than three years, but want the same SLA terms that newer products receive. For example, some ruggedized laptops that perform the same basic functions year after year can last five or six years. When failure to deliver service quickly occurs, it's often because parts are not available, particularly with devices that have a retail shelf life of less than a year.

On the software side, it's usually easier to meet these SLA agreements, so you can be a little more demanding. Croteau states that "up time and all that is still critical, but vendors have redundancy systems in place to maximize availability. Most support services are dependent on remote access of some sort, and you don't have to worry about stocking parts."

Wireless data networks require SLA expectation management with end users. Those just now getting mobile applications may expect these networks to deliver the same quality of service they get with their desktops. Besides commercial entities, governments deploying municipal networks must address expectations. Wireless Philadelphia Project Manager Varinia Robinson believes that "muni networks should be treated as any other mission-critical network. Users expect the same level of support they get from DSL providers."

Whether it's products or network services, on the global stage managers expect a lot from vendors. As Wills points out, "quite a few companies have global operations. They want a vendor to be able to service them regardless of setting, but without a difference in service delivery, pricing, etc. Companies want consistent SLA provisions across geographies, but in reality very few vendors are capable of this." "You have to set practical goals that can be met," states Robinson. "If you look realistically at vendors' response time, mean time between failure or network availability, you'll see there can't be 100 percent uptime for various reasons. Similarly, the repercussions in an SLA have to be enforceable. You can stipulate financial penalties, but depending on who you're working with these can be hard to collect if the provider puts you through a lot of legal hoops."

Craig Settles is president of Successful.com and the author, most recently, of Pilots to Profits.

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