Maintenance made manageable: A guide to SLAs

All technology infrastructure requires some careful fine-tuning from time to time, and IT managers can't always do it alone. Whether you deal with the original equipment maker or a third party, read the fine print

Flynn Maloy is starting to spend a lot less time explaining to customers why system downtime is like an iceberg.

The worldwide marketing manager for technology services with US-based Hewlett Packard, had often used the larger submersed portion of an iceberg to represent the often-overlooked contributors to system failure, like processes and people. "These days it's not about the device, it's about the environment," he said.

The fact that customers - and maintenance vendors alike - are taking this more holistic approach is one example of how the maintenance service market is changing.

A variety of players in the market were interviewed to help IT managers get a better understanding of how to improve the way they handle the ongoing needs of their IT infrastructure.

Parsing the agreement

Understanding maintenance agreements requires focus on key components, in particular a vendor's definition of service level agreements (SLAs) or the amount of time within which the vendor commits to delivering support, said Patrick Zanella, product manager for data center support services with US-based third-party maintenance provider Akibia. He said a customer also needs to know how to submit queries to the vendor and how the call gets handled: by phone, e-mail or online.

"Those are critical questions to find out because if at two or three or four o'clock in the morning when you've got a hard system down and you've got people looking for help, the last thing our customers are looking for is a pager or a call back," he said.

If dealing with a third-party maintainer (TPM) versus the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), he said customers should find out when technical and field staff will be ready to provide support after a new product is launched. As well, know which software versions are supported, he added. And in general for all vendors, he said know whether they provide the maintenance support themselves, or through a subcontractor.

The term of the agreement also varies and typically depends on the age of the hardware being maintained, said Zanella. It's also a good idea, he said, to re-examine maintenance contracts to account for changes in infrastructure like a previously mission critical system assuming a more basic status, or vice versa. "Unless someone knows to go in and modify the service levels to make it less aggressive, they're still paying for a higher service level agreement," he said.

SMBs have similar needs

But overall, the specifics of a maintenance agreement boil down to the impact of failed systems to the business, or of client-facing systems to customers, said Benjamin Jacob, director of sales of professional services at US-based Sun Microsystems. "A personal desktop may not have as big an impact...as back-end servers that might be supporting thousands of e-mail users," he said.

Furthermore, Jacob doesn't see significant difference between the maintenance requirements of an enterprise versus a smaller business.

But small-to-medium-sized businesses have a "different culture" that influences maintenance demands, said Bob Verbeke, vice-president of product support for the technology support and maintenance practice with Blue Bell, US-based third party maintainer Unisys. SMBs may need similar types of service levels during the business day, but he's observed a lesser level of coverage required outside of that timeframe. Also, given the varying level of in-house technical expertise at SMBs, a different support model is often required, he said.

But company size aside, all businesses have the option of buying support from one or numerous vendors depending on their IT infrastructure and budget, said Mark Jacobson, director and sales of business development with US-based third-party maintainer QSGI. Having a single point of contact for all maintenance issues can be an easy sell for IT admins, he said, but, the need to cut costs can often mean switching vendors for a particular group of equipment or platform.

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