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Be happy in the cloud with the right SLA

Fine print reveals providers' true intentions

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Cloud services are not perfect. They are run on computers, by technical people, for customers: a triumvirate of imperfection.

It is easy to get very excited by the possibilities of the cloud, so when Flickr accidentally deletes 4,000 photographs, or hotmail and gmail vanish email data, it serves as a useful reminder of the technology’s fallibility.

These are primarily consumer stories but the lesson is the same for businesses: there is no such thing as 100 per cent uptime.

You need to protect yourself, your business and your data from any service disruption, and that means negotiating the ever-sexy service level agreement (SLA).

So what should you look for in your cloud provider’s SLA?

Dan Germain, head of hosting and infrastructure at Outsourcery, says there are three main areas to look out for: availability, performance and support.

  • Availability: the uptime for a service. This should define what’€s meant by uptime, for example the ability to send and receive email, and any exclusions such as planned maintenance.
  • Performance: just because a service is available doesn’t mean it is usable. Typically the SLA will state a response time or measure of performance queries per second, email per second, round trip time, average network latency that is acceptable.
  • Service/support performance: if things go wrong, you need assurance that your cloud provider will fix it. Your SLA should define the working hours and terms of support. Consider what you really need: does every member of staff need access to support? Could you manage with one or two named contacts? The support SLA should include performance metrics, phone and email answering times, incident response times.

Dazed and confused

An SLA should be clean and clear, not full of long terms and conditions that just serve to confuse. You should easily be able to see what levels of service you will receive, Germain adds.

In a recently published report, analyst firm Gartner warns that this is very rarely the case. It highlights four major areas of risk for anyone looking at a cloud SLA, and lack of clarity is a big theme.

Terms favour the vendor, they are opaque and they can change, often without notification

Contracts are not mature for all markets, the firm says. Terms favour the vendor, they are opaque and they can change, often without notification. Many even lack clear service commitments, hiding details in URLs referenced only in the contracts.

So do your risk assessment, read the terms carefully and make sure you have a strategy in place for when it goes wrong.

You also need to look at what recompense is due if your provider does not live up to the agreement. The SLA should specify credits for failure; often this is in terms of financial penalties or service credits against the next bill.

Upbeat about uptime

Use your common sense, too. Technology is fallible and promises of 100 per cent up-time are just marketing bluster, Germain argues.

It doesn’t mean a cloud service is going to be available 100 per cent of the time, just that the provider has SLA terms for any performance below 100 per cent. Check the penalty terms as they can be very small, he says.

Last summer, IBM published a useful guide, too. It notes that off-the-shelf agreements might be OK for some things but they are unlikely to satisfy a company’s requirements for critical data or applications.

So before you start, do your homework. Which parts of your business can you not afford to be without? Make sure you can negotiate specific terms for those areas.

All about choice

Cloud providers ought to be able to flex a little to accommodate you, but bear in mind that standardisation is how cloud services offer cost savings. There will be limits to what can be done without paying significantly more for the service.

The flip side of this is that you don’t have to pay for service you don’t need. There is no point paying for four nines 99.9999 per cent availability if you don’t need it.

Germain advises: “The beauty of the cloud is that you can pick and choose services from a variety of service providers. Choose wisely.”®

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