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SLAs and service-level management: What does it mean for Windows managers?

Harris Kern
As an IT manager in a Windows environment, you know that transitioning to Windows Vista will be a huge and critical undertaking. With all the challenges you'll face, you're in no rush to embrace

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Vista deployment, but in the next one to two years, you may not have a choice. To prepare, consider these two things right away: service-level management issues and implementing service-level agreements (SLAs).

One of the key benefits to managing service levels is the consistent communication you'll have with your internal users, which will establish key relationships with them. During a Vista migration, not all things will go as planned, but if you have already established relationships with your users, they will be much more sympathetic.

What is service-level management?

Service-level management deals with how user service requirements are understood and managed. The objective of service-level management is to balance what users want and what the business can afford to provide.

Begin by examining the business environment and the ways in which information technology supports business objectives such as implementing a new customer relationship management system in your Windows environment.

Next, IT negotiates service levels or performance targets with its users. The result of the negotiations is a service-level agreement -- a living document that is revised as the business environment, IT environment and user requirements change.

What is a service-level agreement?

The objective of the service-level agreement is to define a framework for managing the quality and quantity of delivered services in the face of changing business needs and user requirements, at a price the business is able to afford.

Service-level agreements are the most effective way to establish a common understanding of what expectations are and what will be delivered to meet those expectations. You should have an SLA in place before a business application is run in the production Data Center. It will detail the administrative services, supporting configurations (hardware and software) and supporting practices necessary to meet the application's business requirements. This agreement will be reviewed as needed, but at least annually to insure that it is meeting the application's business service-level agreement requirements. At least once a year, a review process should include an IT report card.

The SLA addresses these factors:

  • Synchronizes IT services with the business needs of the customers
  • Sets the correct level of service expectations and responsibilities for both IT and the customer
  • Enables IT to be an effective and flexible partner to the business unit, aiding rapid response to the changing business environment
  • Enables IT to plan for the delivery of required services at the lowest cost to the customer
  • Enables IT to maintain the quality and visibility of the services they can provide, and thus demonstrate value for money
  • Without an established and agreed upon SLA, IT managers supporting a Microsoft computing environment will be inundated with priority one help desk. In the eyes of the user base, everything will be a priority, which will lead to ultimate failure of the IT department in this area as there will ALWAYS be more service requests than resources to support them.

    Seven key SLA focus areas

    In a service-level agreement, here are seven key focus areas that should be documented:

    1. Services and service availability hours

    2. Service availability commitments

    3. Service catalog

    4. Service delivery and response parameters

    5. Escalation procedures

    6. Metrics

    7. Glossary
    Services and service availability hours

    Users of Windows environments need to know upfront what their system availability hours are and which services are supported during those hours. Services and service availability hours should be highlighted in the beginning of each SLA. For example, the following services will be available from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday: Microsoft Office 2007; Phone System and Email; Calendar; Contacts; Public Folders; Task List; and File Server (shared directories and personal directories).

    Service availability commitments

    An annual service baseline of 99.99% availability has been established for the above services. Effectiveness will be measured against this baseline with a joint understanding that 100% availability is the objective for the times specified in this SLA. IT will produce metric reports to measure monthly availability of the services offered. In addition, IT will provide the following services to its users: business systems support, database support, backups, restores, after-hours systems supports and security.

    Submit requests for service via telephone (Extension 9999) or email (helpdesk@acme.com). An IT help desk agent will log information about each request, which will include a description of the problem, affected individual, location and incident priority. Time of day or other relevant factors will be used to determine priority.

    Service delivery and response parameters

    Service delivery must be managed. Every issue cannot be categorized as an emergency. IT managers need to develop a severity-level matrix that outlines IT's commitment and determination of service priority. The priority level will be agreed upon by both the customer and the service technician upon receiving a request for service.

    The severity-level matrix should have the following four categories:

    1. Problem Status describes the situation (i.e., emergency, urgent, normal, etc.) and a description of its severity. For example: An "emergency" severity level could be described as an outage that affects mission critical business functions or otherwise affects revenue stream.
    2. Response Time category states the actual amount of time a service technician would take to respond to the emergency request.
    3. Resolution Update should be the frequency in which the help desk responds with an update to the issue.
    4. Estimated Time of Resolution (ETR) marks the average time it would take to resolve an emergency response situation.
    Escalation procedures

    If a service request cannot be resolved in the appropriate time (as advertised in the ETR), an escalation path has been established for IT management. Requests exceeding the ETR will automatically be escalated to the appropriate individual. Users may also request ticket escalation or change the priority as needed.

    It is especially crucial for IT management in Windows environments to track the effectiveness of the service delivery matrix. Without knowing the numbers, you can't effectively gauge the progress or lack of it. A few key metrics to track are the total number of calls/email/walk-ups to the help desk by priority; the number of tickets resolved after the ETR; and the percentage of tickets resolved under/over the ETR.

    Harris Kern is the author of 44 IT and self-help books. He is recognized as the foremost authority on providing practical guidance for solving IT management issues. Harris is the founder behind Harris Kern's Enterprise Computing Institute and the best-selling series of books published by Prentice Hall. The series includes titles such as IT Services, IT Organization, and CIO Wisdom. Harris can be reached at harris@harriskern.com.


    This was first published in June 2007

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