As IT departments start turning to service providers to manage their network equipment, a raft of new challenges is accompanying this technological sea change. Some of the biggest worries are provided by the service level agreement, a document that outlines what services will be provided and what will happen if those services, for whatever reason, fail to be provided.

The SLA is essentially your insurance policy against excessive network outages, equipment failure and any other nefarious network activity that can wreak havoc with your business processes. Like all insurance policies, the SLA can be a complicated, hard-to-understand document. The good news is that it can be deciphered and understood; when this is the case, the SLA transforms from intimidating document to powerful partner.

The path to SLA comprehension is paved for IS managers somewhat by the ability to grill a service provider about what exactly is in it, and to suggest additions or deletions where necessary. Ask your service provider to put the legal mumbo-jumbo into plain English for you. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, such as inadequate minimum response times to server outages, ask if the parameters are negotiable. It is in areas such as this one where one top-tier service provider can outdo another, and this is where the deals can be had.

Once the SLA is in place, the next important step is to develop a regular system of examining whether the policies in the agreement are indeed being met by the provider. This can involve actually making it part of someone’s job to go through the daily, weekly or monthly reports that flow in from the provider. Too often, the streams of info received by clients languish untouched on top of a desk, or they go straight to the recycling bin. When an IS team member is actually held accountable for comparing such raw data with what was promised in the SLA, such an examination process can start offering huge benefits.

Don’t be afraid, either, to ask your service provided about just what kind of network data you’ll be receiving, and in what form. While most service providers have a hard time standing out from the pack in terms of pure network monitoring/operation services, there can be a great deal of variance in the “little” things, such as reports. The simpler they are, the easier a time you will have in relating them to the guarantees laid out in your SLA.

While no one expects their service provider to stoop to a Homer Simpson level and play “eeny-meeny-miney-moe” in an effort to push the right button and save the network, we all know human and technological errors happen. Expect them, and guard against them by knowing what’s in your SLA.