Why SLAs are Meaningless

Wayne Rash
I was on the phone with a sales guy for a major broadband provider in the Washington, D.C., area. He was telling me all of the reasons why I should upgrade my business Internet access to the new, faster and more expensive version he was selling. We discussed the broadband speeds I could expect, the depth of the 24 x 7 service, the promise to roll a truck within four hours of an outage and, of course, we discussed the service guarantee.

The salesperson was making a big deal about the company's ability to react quickly to get service back so that my business wouldn't be down any longer than a few hours. The goal, he assured me, was to make sure that I had the high-speed Internet access I needed to keep my business running. It all sounded good, until I asked the question that always seems to ruin everything.

I recalled that my high-speed Internet service was out for four days last week because of a massive snow storm. The closest thing I had to Internet access was my BlackBerry, and only then when the cell sites were available, which much of the time, they weren't. Even analog Internet service was unavailable-the landlines were out, too.

So I asked the guy from the broadband provider how he would get me back on the Internet in such a situation. I had the necessary generating capacity to keep my network and servers running, but without Internet access, there was no point in wasting the fuel. The answer was as you probably would expect if you've dealt with this situation before. If the company couldn't meet their service agreement, they'd give me a refund for the days I was down.

The reason is obvious when you think about it. The broadband provider depends on electrical power, and while its data center was up and running the whole time, the network infrastructure between me and the provider didn't work if it didn't have electricity. And, agreement or not, the company couldn't restore my service if it didn't have the means to power that infrastructure.

So even if I could get my office up and running, and even if the provider could do it as well, that didn't mean I'd be able to get to the Internet. And, as it turned out, I wasn't. The answer should have been to have an alternate provider already on site, and just flip the router over to that provider. But I didn't think of that, and since the phones were out, chances are so was everything else. Even if I'd had an ironclad, totally enforceable, service agreement that guaranteed that I'd always get my Internet access back within a couple of hours it wouldn't have mattered.

What I actually needed was another choice that didn't depend on the same infrastructure in any way. Perhaps I needed to get the phone company to bring in a fiber drop, or perhaps I should have had a DSL provider signed up, but I didn't. As a result I was down for four days and the service agreement the sales guy was pushing wouldn't have mattered at all.

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