Analyzing the SLA (Service Level Agreement)

A service level agreement is a pact, and in the case of small and midsized business IT departments, it’s most likely a pact with a vendor. A solid SLA outlines what and how much a vendor is responsible for when service is required and functions as a vehicle for managing expectations.

For example, if you’ve recently bought a computer, it probably has a warranty. The length of the warranty is part of the SLA  – one year, usually. Coverage is another part – for example, whether the warranty only covers defects, or if it also covers accidental damage. Lastly, how does the manufacturer cover repairs if something goes wrong – by sending you a part to replace yourself, having you send the laptop to a repair depot, or sending a technician onsite for the repair?

Part of that SLA includes the length of time it takes to get you back up and running. The SLAs of most IT vendors include a target response time, in which they are notified of the issue and dispatch technicians. An SLA also may cover a target resolution time outlining how long a given outage or other issue might take to resolve

What do I need to know about various SLAs?

An SLA outlines the agreement between you and a service provider. The details will depend on your service. The most critical questions to answer are:

  • What is covered under the SLA?
  • What isn’t covered by the scope of an SLA?
  • What timeframe is offered?
  • Is there a price for faster service?
  • How do I get help for something that’s out-of-scope?


What is covered?

Read your SLA document carefully to see what will and won’t be covered. A managed services provider should cover any of the services it touches: virtually-hosted apps, servers, storage, data center uptime and the like.

If you’ve ever contacted technical support or a helpdesk, you may be familiar with the term “support boundaries,” or “scope of support.” In order to maintain the quality of their service, appropriate call times, and appropriate staffing levels, helpdesks will clearly define what issues are out of the scope of their support. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to help you; it means that because of lack of training or resources, they can’t.

A good example is the company that manufactured your computer. Their warranty typically covers whatever was on your computer when you took it out of the box. That’s all the hardware, plus the operating system. If you get a virus after you take it out of the box, they probably couldn’t help.

Some companies specialize in “all-in-one” support services and often go above and beyond normal support boundaries. But you should still read your SLA document to make sure you understand what’s covered and what’s not.

What timeframe does my SLA offer?

This purely depends on the service or device. Some hardware manufacturers only offer repairs by shipping the system back to a repair depot. Some software companies don’t offer any support at all, except user forums, unless you pay for support. On the other hand, some server manufacturers have a response time of minutes and a resolve time of hours.

Response time tells you that for a severity 1 issue – which is a term that you negotiate with your service provider, but usually means a potential loss of revenue or clientele – will be responded to within a certain amount of time. So when you submit an issue, by phone or electronically, the response time is the maximum amount of time you have to wait for the vendor to acknowledge and start working on the issue.

Resolve time is the target time for having the issue fixed. Most of the time, it doesn’t take this long to resolve. It’s a tool that helps them plan ahead, and to make sure agents and assets are available when needed.


Is there a price for faster service?

Usually, yes. Some hardware vendors offer an “upgraded” helpdesk for a fee. Some offer advanced or faster warranties – including sending a technician onsite for a repair – for a fee. Software vendors often offer their software for free, but charge a fee for telephone support.

How do you choose? Just look at your business. Are you open on weekend? If not, you probably don’t need weekend support. How much business or labor would you lose if your systems were down for 8 hours? If it’s a small amount, the lower tier is probably right for you. If you stand to lose massive amounts of productivity in a short amount of time, pick an SLA with a faster response and resolution time.

How do I get help with something that’s not covered?

Some premium support services will include help with out-of-scope issues. Some won’t.

When in doubt, look at the brand name of the device or software. On hardware, there’s usually a phone number that you can use to call support. In software, you can usually click help -> about, and it will give you support options.

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  • David Koffer

    David is a computer whisperer from a little town in Idaho. Although he’s been convincing computers to do his bidding since childhood, he’s studiously tried to avoid the label “nerd” by doing cool things like karate and baking bread. He has a Master’s degree in English and Technical Writing from Idaho State University, where he geeked out on linguistics and persuaded his advisors to let him write his thesis on video games.

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