The Importance of SLAs

Assuring optimal performance is one of the most frequently occurring tasks for DB2 DBAs. Being able to assess the effectiveness and performance of your database systems and applications is one of the most important things that a DBA must be able to do. This can include online transaction response time evaluation, sizing of the batch window and determining whether it is sufficient for the workload, end-to-end response time management of distributed workload, and more. 

But in order to accurately gauge the effectiveness of your current environment and setup, service level agreements, or SLAs, are needed. SLAs are derived out of the practice of Service-level management (SLM), which is the “disciplined, proactive methodology and procedures used to ensure that adequate levels of service are delivered to all IT users in accordance with business priorities and at acceptable cost.”

In order to effectively manage service levels, a business must prioritize its applications and identify the amount of time, effort, and capital that can be expended to deliver service for those applications.

A service level is a measure of operational behavior. SLM ensures that applications behave accordingly by applying resources to those applications based on their importance to the organization. Depending on the needs of the organization, SLM can focus on availability, performance, or both. In terms of availability, the service level might be defined as “99.95% uptime from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on weekdays.” Of course, a service level can be more specific, stating that “average response time for transactions will be 2 seconds or less for workloads of 500 or fewer users.”

For an SLA to be successful, all parties involved must agree on stated objectives for availability and performance. The end users must be satisfied with the performance of their applications, and the DBAs and technicians must be content with their ability to manage the system to the objectives. Compromise is essential to reach a useful SLA.

In practice, though, many organizations do not institutionalize SLM. When new applications are delivered, there may be vague requirements and promises of sub-second response time, but the prioritization and budgeting required to assure such service levels are rarely tackled (unless, perhaps, if the IT function is outsourced). It never ceases to amaze me how often SLAs simply do not exist. I always ask for them when engaged as a consultant to track down performance issues or to assess the performance of a database environment. I usually get nothing.

But if you do not have an established agreement for how something should perform, and what the organization is willing to pay to achieve that performance, then how can you know whether or not things are operating efficiently enough? The simple answer is: you cannot.

It may be possible for a system assessment to offer up general advice on areas where performance gains can be achieved. But in such cases—where SLAs are non-existent—you cannot really deliver guidance on whether the effort to remediate the "problem areas" is worthwhile. Without the SLAs in place you simply do not know if current levels of performance are meeting agreed upon service levels, because there are no agreed-upon service levels (and, no, "sub-second respond time" is NOT a service level)! Additionally, you cannot know what level of spend is appropriate for any additional effort needed to achieve the potential performance, because no budget has been agreed upon.

Another potential problem is the context of the service being discussed. Most IT professionals view service levels on an element-by-element basis. In other words, the DBA views performance based on the DBMS, the SysAdmin views performance based on the operating system or the transaction processing system, and so on. SLM properly views service for an entire application. However, it can be difficult to assign responsibility if IT operates as siloed groups that do not work together very well. To achieve end-to-end SLM, silos need to be broken down. The various departments within the IT infrastructure need to communicate effectively and cooperate with one another. Failing this, end-to-end SLM will be difficult to implement.

The bottom line is that the development of SLAs for your batch windows, your transactions and business processes is a best practice that should be implemented at every DB2 shop (indeed, you can remove DB2 from that last sentence and it is still true).

Without SLAs, the DBA and the end users cannot know whether an application is performing adequately. And keep in mind, not every application can, or needs to, deliver sub-second response time. Without an SLA, business users and DBAs may have different expectations, resulting in unsatisfied business executives and frustrated DBAs—not a good situation.

With SLAs in place, DBAs can adjust resources by applying them to the most-mission-critical applications as defined in the SLA. Costs will be controlled and capital will be expended on the portions of the business that are most important to the business. Without SLAs in place, an acceptable performance environment will be ever elusive. Think about it; without an SLA in place, if the end user calls up and complains to the DBA about poor performance, there is no way to measure the veracity of the claim or to gauge the possibility of improvement within the allotted budget.