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SLA 101: What to look for in a service-level agreement

Before you sign, let our author walk you through the fine print

By Jian Zhen
March 15, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Many IT administrators aren't comfortable handing over control of the most critical security components of their infrastructure. But in recent years, security outsourcing has become a popular and viable means of lowering the cost of perimeter security management. More and more companies are outsourcing parts of their security infrastructure, including firewalls, intrusion-detection systems and virtual private networks, to managed security service providers (MSSP).

Anyone thinking about outsourcing such a mission-critical aspect of their network should understand in detail the potential implications to their IT security infrastructure and their company as a whole. One of the biggest differences among providers of security services is the service-level agreement (SLA). In this five-part series of articles, we will dive deep into the various aspects of the SLA and attempt to explain in details what the SLA should contain and why each of the items is necessary.

In general, an MSSP SLA should cover the following areas:

Service Summary or Description

The service summary section usually appears in the introductory section of the SLA. It should always state the name of the provider and the name of the customer.

This summary will enumerate the obligations that you, the customer, must fulfill in order to satisfy the SLA. For example, you may be asked to provide up-to-date contacts, network topologies and customer escalation paths.

This section will usually list the support level (e.g., gold or platinum) you have purchased. The support level determines how fast the service provider will respond to your service requests, how many service requests you’re allowed per week or month, how often you will be notified during emergencies, and most important, what your general service availability guarantee is.


Service providers host security services in a variety of ways. Some will install dedicated hardware at your site. Some will provide you with dedicated hardware, but it will sit in the provider’s own network operations center. And others will provide the security service through virtual domains that share, with other customers, the same physical hardware located (again) at the service provider's site.

Regardless of the method used, the service provider should state clearly in the SLA how the service is to be provided. Once you’re sure of the hardware in use, you will be able to ask intelligent questions about hardware specification, performance, throughput, size, upgrades and so forth.


Most service providers use products from name-brand companies such as Check Point, ISS, Cisco, and others. Other service providers will use open-source software such as Snort for IDS.

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