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In the Age of Smart Infrastructure, page 4

During the past 30 years, we have seen the Internet change from a basic set of transport protocols to an expansive application platform that supports complicated transactions and large-scale data transport. But during the past two years we have seen the rise of a completely new type of Internet service. This is the concept of the "Web Service," a structured set of data that can be discovered, authenticated, bundled and used without any particular client interface and without direct human interaction.

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Management & Measurability

The old axiom that "you can't manage what you don't measure" was never truer than in today's world of complex, leveraged technology. At all points in a system, both internal and external, measurements are critical to evaluating the success of a technology for making quick decisions based on direct customer feedback. Surveys and other measurement snapshots are good but are not as important as real time and correlated overall business metrics.

With Web Services, we can build direct feedback loops with our customers, thereby improving our ability to understand trends and make adjustments before an issue becomes a business-threatening problem. These types of systems are also critical in dealing with our partners since we can only bring about real change in their behavior if we can show where improvements can be made or problems lie. In our "Web of Trusts," not only do we usually have SLAs with our partners but with our customers--both internal and external--as well. These SLA's are critical to the smooth interaction of Web Services since the actual control of the service we depend on is now a direct function of a partner and not directly by us. This complex value chain requires that we again build in feedback loops to provide a mechanism for continuous improvement and change.

The tools used to measure effectiveness must be timely, address the issues and work on a consistent basis. Without the basic measurement tools it becomes very difficult to measure yourself against an SLA you've accepted much less to effect organizational change and spot trends. Measurement tools also need to be highly visible and objective. The measurements need to be as free as possible from over interpretation or analysis in order to build confidence and provide objective measures. Ideally they should be checked and audited by an independent third party to help establish this level of trust.

What is an effective Service Level Agreement? To answer this question you first have to determine the purpose of any SLA you construct. In most cases the overriding purpose of an SLA, from my perspective, is to act as a tool to uncover issues and drive fundamental institutional processes of a partner or allow you as a customer to move on to another vendor or partner. The most critical element of this type of SLA is measurement that addresses not only what you are going to measure but also how and over what time periods. The SLA needs to be specific as to the type of measurement and preferably incorporates a third party audit to confirm the results. Any measurement system must be either shared or run by an independent third party so that you have direct access to all the information.

Most traditional SLA's are built around the concept of financial credits or other terms should the vendor be out of compliance. While this may have some desirable attributes it is also ripe for abuse since a vendor can simply factor in the cost of having to pay SLA penalties as part of its service and continue to violate with impunity.

A more important use of the leverage an SLA creates is the concept of a "three strikes, you're out" clause. This may include financial penalties, but as well allows a customer to terminate a partnership without penalty if the vendor commits a particular number of compliance violations during a specific time. I've found this to be far more effective since even a low cost service with small financial penalties can cause great economic harm to your business. You can then use the compliance incidents as a tool to drive process and organizational change within your vendor's organization. If they ultimately do not adapt you have the freedom to do the right thing for your business. Without a well-crafted agreement it is much more difficult to get deep into a vendor's business and get the required results for your business. You become trapped by a poorly performing vendor while your business suffers-leaving you unable to react in a timely manner.

Leveraging the Web Services Model

As we've explored there are numerous methods available to effectively publish a service on the Internet in a secure and robust manner. Do your homework, hammer out an SLA that makes sense, be smart about your requirements and you are on your way to delivering your services. As part of this process you have to ask the hard questions about your company's key value-proposition and core competency. Companies now have the luxury of focusing on content or application framework creation as opposed to maintaining basic Web IT infrastructures. This analysis is also important since it will guide your decisions about critical agreements you forge with partners and how you build your Internet presence. There is no good way to approach this process other than to doing the hard homework of understanding all of your technology options, then focusing your efforts on those activities that differentiate you from your competition in a positive way.

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Copyright 2001, Reprinted by permission.


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