Web Hosting SLA, Part 1: Why it Matters & Core Components

The SLA is something that many people look for when they are considering different hosting solutions. One might argue that it is, in fact, the first thing you want to check out. Why? Well, for one, because it is incredibly boring. Reading nauseatingly boring stuff is an important part of being a grown-up (sorry to alienate any of the six-year-olds reading this piece).

In addition to being awesomely boring, the SLA is good to read because it states clearly what your relationship is with a hosting company. It’s like a marriage contract. Without a marriage contract with your hosting company, you could end up like Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra: unable to point to any real, solid specifications set forth by Michael Douglas. When your love for Douglas (your hosting company) evaporates, you will be stammering, surrounded by judgmental lawyers, bewildered and confused. “I’m sorry, Matt Damon,” the hosting company will say to you, “but you are going to have to leave. You’re a drug addict, and I, Michael Douglas, don’t want you here anymore.”

SLA in a Nutshell – A service level agreement (SLA) is a formal written agreement between two parties. It is a legal document, so if a company does not uphold its end of the arrangement, you can hold them liable. What the SLA allows is a certain set of expectations that is stated in hard language.

Let’s take a look at what the typical aspects of an SLA are, along with its general role in the hosting industry.

Typical Clauses within an SLA

First, keep in mind that an SLA does not necessarily take a particular form or contain particular types of information. It will be as broad or detailed as the hosting company wants it to be, much like Behind the Candelabra director Steven Soderbergh determines the level of specificity of Matt Damon’s doe-eyed dream sequence, in which he adoringly watches Michael Douglas ascend into the heavens to play his glittering piano for the angels.

That said, a service level agreement will typically include a number of standard pieces of information; this applies to any SLA (we will get into the SLA as it relates to hosting below). Here are the basics:

  • Different types of service that will be performed
  • Performance levels and exceptions (such as uptime percentage guarantees, which allow tiny percentages of downtime)
  • How the company will compensate or otherwise account for service disruptions and other failures to adequately deliver on SLA specifications
  • Types of support available for clients
  • Basic expectations for clients
  • Conflict resolution (whether arbitration will initially be used in lieu of court battles, etc.)
  • How services are ended.

The SLA may also contain a clause that guarantees Matt Damon a lock of Michael Douglas’s hair in perpetuity.

Guarantees, Terms of Service (TOS), & SLA

Guarantees are typically presented in three different places on a hosting company’s website:

1. Marketing language (such as sales copy on the homepage)

  • Money-back guarantees
  • Uptime guarantees

2. SLA

3. Terms of service (TOS)

The latter two are of course much more formal and provide more thoroughly defined information. Actually, the SLA is kind of a midway point between the sales copy and terms of service. It’s a quick, though careful, statement of expectations; and it’s “meant to be read.” The terms of service, on the other hand, is that 10-page document that most people never read.

Fun fact: Though Michael Douglas could not give Matt Damon a prenuptial agreement, he did give him a pre-snuggle agreement. It was 700 pages long and sprinkled with rose water.

SLA’s in Web Hosting

In the web hosting space, the following parameters are often seen in the service level agreement:

  1. How you will be compensated if the uptime guarantee is not achieved
  2. What type of support is offered for various service packages (dedicated versus virtual hosting, for example)
  3. What’s required to cancel service
  4. What kind of content (such as pornographic) and file types are unacceptable.

Either the web host or the client can point to the SLA to establish how the other party did not meet stated expectations. The Matt Damon/Michael Douglas Behind the Candelabra SLA, for instance, guarantees 30 minutes of pillow talk following any “roughhousing.”

Client Protections

These are some standard protections you might see in an SLA, though this information may be in the terms of service instead:

  1. Account termination processes, cancellation notices, & rights to refunds
  2. The maximum amounts of resources you can use
  3. Billing information
  4. Basic agreements you are making when you sign up for an account.

The SLA between Matt Damon and Michael Douglas also stipulates that what happens behind the candelabra … stays behind the candelabra … except for movie rights.

Conclusion

That’s the gist of what to expect in an SLA. The main point here is: read it (six-year-olds, do your best). It’s typically pretty quick. I will continue this discussion in a second piece, in which I will cover lack of an SLA, what to do in the event of a breach, and provisions within our SLA and that of Cornell University’s IT department.

Hey, what’s that behind the candelabra? It looks kind of like a candle.

by Kent Roberts and Richard Norwood

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