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PC World
Friday, February 29, 2008; 12:19 AM

As software-as-a-service (SAAS) adoption rises in the workplace, business managers mustn't overlook a key issue when selecting a Web-hosted applications suite: a service-level agreement.

Such contractual agreements, known as SLAs, bind the SAAS provider to meet specified levels of service. An SLA can address various   aspects of the service, such as   application uptime and performance, as well as data security, backup, recovery, and integrity. The SLA outlines penalties--often in the form of credits--if certain standards aren't met.

An SLA   is of particular importance for a hosted application, since in that case the customer is giving up control over the software and thus has little or no power to fix problems that arise on the SAAS vendor's end.

In other words, a business manager must make sure that a selected SAAS vendor can provide the level of reliable service the company needs. "IT [and business] managers need to understand the consequences for their operations if there's a problem. [They should] determine what downtime they can tolerate and compare that with what the vendor is offering," says Eric Maiwald, a Burton Group analyst.

Once a contract is signed and the hosted applications are implemented and woven into a company's workflow, migrating away to another provider will be costly and time-consuming.

Unfortunately, SLAs are far from prevalent among SAAS vendors--and when offered, the standard agreements typically are thin and limited. That goes for large and small vendors alike. "For the most part, SLAs haven't been in place for the broad cross-section of SAAS [offerings] currently available," says Jeff Kaplan, a ThinkStrategies analyst.

For example, theGoogle Apps Premier Editionsuite contains an availability guarantee only for its Gmail portion (for 99.9 percent uptime) and offers no commitment for the other components, which include word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software.

"It would be comforting to have an SLA that covered the entire suite," says Mark Harrison, founding partner of Abraham Harrison LLC, provider of online marketing services.

Abraham Harrison, founded in 2007, has been using Google Apps Premier Edition for about one year, and the uptime of its hosted applications and services, though not 100 percent, has been excellent, according to Harrison. Downtime incidents have been rare and brief, and have never proven disruptive to the company's operations, he says. "We've never been crippled by an outage," Harrison says.

Still, should a significant Google Apps outage occur, it certainly would impact the company,   which is highly   dependent on the suite. The company chose Google Apps in order to give its geographically-dispersed staff an array of   software to use for communication and collaboration. In addition to the suite's productivity applications, the company also uses Google Talk instant messenger and Gmail for e-mail. The company's 22 employees, located in six countries and four continents, operate in 14 different time zones, and since most of their work is collaborative, Google Apps--which lets users jointly edit documents located on a central server--was a better alternative than e-mailing Microsoft Office documents back and forth.

Harrison would also like to see Google Apps provide an offline component that would allow users to work on their local PCs when disconnected from the Internet, a capability he knows   Google is pursuing with its Gears technology.

That Harrison would feel more at ease with an SLA is telling. His company isn't an ordinary Google Apps customer. Although the relationship between Google and Abraham Harrison is purely of the vendor-client type, meaning that the company receives no compensation from Google, the Google Apps team has singled it out as a model small business whose feedback it regularly seeks. As a result, Harrison is in close contact with the Google Apps team.


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