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Measuring services in a business context

by Phil Wainewright
August 27th, 2003

When web services emerge out of the test lab into live commercial environments, they confront a new spectrum of business-driven service requirements.

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IT and business stakeholders have to work together to define realistic service level criteria for commercial web services:
  • Traditional infrastructure SLAs measure 'feeds and speeds'
  • Web services SLAs must measure completed business events
  • Blending IT and business factors requires dialog
  • Business managers look to SLAs for competitive advantage
  • Feedback from service usage fuels further development

Glossary terms: SLA, services management, SOA, lookup tool

The notion of measuring up to specific technical performance benchmarks is well established in the IT industry. But defining service level objectives in terms of business factors is less familiar.

The traditional approach to defining service level agreements (SLAs) for computing and telecoms infrastructure has been to specify raw performance criteria, such as the amount of downtime, speed of response, and so on. Technical product managers look at typical 'feeds and speeds' for similar infrastructure services being offered by competitors, and decide on a proposition that seems competitive for that playing field. Then they sit down with lawyers to draft an SLA document that bakes those specifications into a contract.

"Mostly it has been the legal and marketing people who have drawn up SLAs and it has been up to systems administrators to implement them," says Abhijit Sharma, product director for Wisiba, a web services management suite developed by Itellix, based in Bangalore, India.

This established approach breaks down when applied to web services provision. True, a web service relies on the infrastructure playing its part. But what's being delivered is an up-to-date piece of information, or the timely completion of a process. These are business events, whose performance criteria are determined by the competitive business environment. It can take a lot of work to translate those business criteria back into measurable infrastructure feeds and speeds. Sharma points out that the resulting SLAs are unlikely to be realistic unless the sysadmins are involved in defining them right from the start.

Balancing factors
Real-time travel reservations company AgentWare makes sure that developers and systems managers are closely involved in defining its service commitments. Meetings to hammer out customer SLAs are attended by product development managers, IT management, the company CFO and the salesperson handling the customer account. It's essential to ensure IT and business factors get equal consideration, says Domenic Ravita, the company's principal software engineer, who often also attends.

"There are IT drivers a salesperson has to consider when they write an SLA," he says. "There are also market factors. What's the market willing to pay for this service? How important is this to the customer?" Some capabilities may prove too expensive to implement, while others that are technically very straightforward may have a significant value to customers. The price that's set for the service has to take both sides of the equation into account.

AgentWare serves the travel industry's burgeoning need for real-time information. The company uses web services to connect its suppliers' reservation systems directly into the online booking systems of travel agents and travel websites. "We're part of the extended enterprise and that's clearly what the market wants," says CEO Les Ottolenghi.

Some AgentWare customers use its services at point-of-sale, while others feed the services into back-office systems. Service level profiles vary not only from customer to customer, but also for different service consumers within each organization. Automated systems that update back-end databases, for example, have very different service expectations than live users accessing information via their browsers. "We have all kinds of usage scenarios," says Ravita.

The company uses service level management software from AmberPoint to track its service performance, with three separate objectives in mind:

  • To ensure performance conforms to internal and contractual SLAs
  • To monitor customer usage and SLA compliance for billing purposes
  • To analyse usage for product development purposes.

As well as monitoring technical metrics to do with service quality and usage, the system examines the business content and context of the web services messages. The latter feeds into AgentWare's product development, helping it to understand user behavior, such as how many times a customer asked for one airline's flight on a specific route, and what other airlines they asked for at the same time. "That really starts to branch into monitoring for business intelligence reasons," says Ravita. "Statistics like that are very helpful for our product planning."

Appropriate levels
Most organizations are at an earlier stage in their adoption of web services than AgentWare, which has put the technology at the core of its business proposition. For the majority, tailoring service levels to business requirements simply means taking the necessary steps to make sure they meet appropriate standards of reliability, availability and security.

London-based multinational British American Tobacco (BAT), for example, has piloted AmberPoint's software for use within a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that will underpin business critical systems. "Making sure they were operational to the required service levels was going to be a fundamental part of the brief," says BAT's application technology manager Kevin Poulter.

Its first production pilot of web services has been a supply chain dashboard application for senior management. "If you're putting a dashboard onto the CEO's desktop, you want to make sure those services are going to stay operational and be secure," Poulter observes.

But as adoption spreads out within the organization, it is only a matter of time before more complex service level demands emerge. Once web services have been deployed into customer-facing environments, it's inevitable that business managers will want to begin exploiting the competitive potential of their new capabilities. As in the example of AgentWare, this will lead to closer liaison with developers and IT managers to ensure that SLAs reflect the competitive environment in which the services are used.

Business creativity
A final layer of complexity arrives when, after analyzing how services are being used, sales and marketing staff see opportunities to develop more sophisticated offerings. "Whenever the business people get involved you get a lot of creativity in how folks want to offer stuff," says Jim Culbert, CTO of web services-based billing software vendor Metratech, most of whose customers provide either communications or information services.

"Then you start getting into more complicated models, especially in the enterprise," he says. "Being able to bundle and cross-discount across different services is something that marketing is always wanting to do. If web services are going to be real, they're going to have all these kinds of creativity [in] delivering services from the sales and marketing end of the curve."

In any organization, three distinct groups have a vested interest in measuring service levels, says Ed Horst, VP marketing for services management vendor AmberPoint:

  • Developers ask, 'How are my web services doing?'
  • IT wants to know, 'Are we meeting our service commitments?'
  • Business wants to know, 'How are customers feeling?'

Once business starts asking that question of web services, it's only a matter of time before they start feeding back new requirements to developers and IT managers. Attaching service level commitments to a web service is the first sign that the development process has gone beyond the realms of IT infrastructure to add a real-world business dimension. "Now that it is a web service, how does it interact with the world? It's from the infrastructure on up rather than the infrastructure down," says Horst. For most organizations, fine-tuning that interaction will mean opening up new lines of communication between IT and business stakeholders.

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