Look for SLAs, not third party certification, from service providers

It seems every networking vendor is keen to sell into the service provider space these days. And why not? Aside from a handful of large, multi-national corporations, no organization uses as much networking gear.

One trick vendors are using to sell equipment into the service provider market is third-party certification. Cisco has used this strategy for some time with its Cisco Powered Networking program and now Sun Microsystems is jumping on-board with its SunTone offering.

What does this mean for end users? Not a whole lot. Third party certification is much like an empty-net goal with ten seconds left in a hockey game – it looks good on the scoreboard, but in the end it doesn’t mean a whole lot. What end users really need from their service provider is an iron-clad service level agreement (SLA) with stiff penalties for non-compliance — not some window dressing-like certification.

In general, vendor certification is supposed to work something like this —

A vendor establishes a best practices certification program which revolves around the vendor’s own equipment. Service providers buy the equipment and comply to the certification program. The service providers then include the certifying vendor’s seal of approval in their marketing. End users, having faith in the name of the vendor sponsoring the certification program are attracted to service providers bearing the vendors’ certification seal.

At first glance, third party certification doesn’t seem entirely useless. In an industry where technological advancement is so rapid and new jargon springs up so quickly, it’s difficult to tell whether one service provider’s offerings are really any different from another’s. Third party certification gives end users a relatively easy method to differentiate between similar services. Presumably if a service provider has vendor certification, it is complying with at least some sort of performance criteria.

But just because a service provider is certified by its equipment suppliers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a best-of-class outfit.

Certification benefits the equipment supplier just as much as it does the service provider. Certification is a value-add to the supplier’s products. If a service provider has to choose between two similar switches, why not pick the one that comes with a certification program?

Once a service provider is certified though, there’s no incentive for the equipment supplier to make sure the service provider’s practices remain compliant with the certification. If a supplier becomes too heavy handed and begins pulling certification status from its service provider customers for non-compliance, it will begin losing those customers. So even if a provider is certified personally by John Chambers, Scott McNealy and Hanes inspector 771140, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Also, what equipment supplier is realistically going to send valuable engineers to monitor certification compliance at customer sites? The engineers’ time could be much more profitably spent in product development, or in handling new installations.

Who does that leave to enforce the certification program? The service providers themselves. It’s difficult to imagine any service provider revoking its own certification if it finds it isn’t able to remain true to the certification’s best practices.

Users need to look for substantive differentiators between service providers. Talking to other users is good practice. So is researching a service provider’s history and reputation. And establishing an enforceable service level agreement that sets out realistic network uptime and bandwidth goals is absolutely critical.