ISP Competition Fuels Stronger SLAs

Service-level agreements (SLA) for dedicated Internet access offerings are stronger than ever, but many of these guarantees still lack automatic credits and real-time monitoring tools.

Last week, Cable & Wireless raised the bar on ISP performance guarantees with its latest SLAs. Cable & Wireless is offering its new DirectConnect dedicated Internet access customers a protective guarantee that they will experience an average latency of no more than 70 msec per month across the ISP's Internet backbone.

Cable & Wireless has also added a packet-loss protection guarantee of no more than 1 percent over one month, which a handful of other ISPs also offer.

Previously, GTE Internetworking offered the strongest latency guarantee to its dedicated Internet access customers, with its SLA stipulating an average of no more than 75 msec of latency over the ISP's network per month.

The fact that ISPs are taking SLAs to the next level is good news for customers, says Jim Slaby, senior analyst at Giga Information Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, consulting firm. Other business-class ISPs will soon follow suit or add new SLA parameters, he predicts.

UUNET started offering business users aggressive performance guarantees 18 months ago with its latency guarantee of no more than 85 msec over its Internet backbone. At the time, most ISPs weren't even offering protection guarantees on latency. So while Cable & Wireless is leading the pack today, the race is far from over.

If Cable & Wireless fails to meet its latency or packet loss SLA, the ISP will offer customers a three-day service credit, which does not include any local loop service costs. DirectConnect customers can access Cable & Wireless' secure monitoring site, which will in-clude monthly reports on the ISP's performance.

This site is the only tool that will allow Cable & Wireless users to see whether the ISP has met its guarantees for the month. If customers don't go to the site but point out to Cable & Wireless that latency was averaging more than 70 msec for the month or that packet loss was over 1 percent, they will not get the credit. UUNET seems to be one of the only large ISPs offering customers proactive credits if it does not meet SLAs.

But there is a hitch to UUNET's so-called proactive crediting procedure. UUNET has to sustain more than 85 msec of latency for two consecutive months before its credit kicks in. Just about all of the other ISPs base their credits on one-month averages. UUNET and PSINet are offering one-day credits to customers when the respective ISP fails to meet an SLA, whereas GTE Internetworking and Cable & Wireless are offering three-day credits.

One area where all ISPs are lacking is providing business users with real-time monitoring tools that measure latency, packet loss and network availability.

These tools would be especially helpful to business users, such as BMW Manufacturing. The auto manufacturer is diversifying its dedicated Internet access connectivity by working with at least three ISPs to ensure reliability, says Sim Wright, coordinator of information technology at BMW Manufacturing in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Knowing which ISP has the lowest latency at any given time could help users reroute traffic, especially when trying to send large files over the Internet.

But today, business users are at the mercy of their ISPs' monthly reports.

Although the Cable & Wireless SLA is a positive step for business users, there is one downside for existing DirectConnect customers. These users will have to draw up new contracts with Cable & Wireless to take advantage of the stronger guarantees.

Customers shouldn't expect to pay higher monthly fees by drafting new contracts, according to Dave Savino, director of IP product management at the ISP.

But because Cable & Wireless has to set up access configurations for each customer to view the monthly performance Web site, the ISP is requiring that users request the SLAs and register for the site, Savino says.

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