Increasingly dependent on their networks to realize evolving business objectives, companies are looking harder at new service-level management software.These tools are designed to track and enforce preset service-level agreements (SLA), both with internal end users and external customers and service providers. Many vendors offer software that can help companies more quickly collect and correlate performance metrics from network components that support a business service such as a customer service desk, or an application such as online credit card processing."We as information technology professionals need to do a better job in supporting [our customers'] e-business applications," says Rob Shepard, regional CIO at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Public Buildings Service, in San Francisco. "To remain competitive . . . it is critical that IT personnel proactively manage all of the services we provide."What follows are the things network executives told us they would most like to see from SLM suppliers.1. Real-time tools.Users need SLM tools to report on service across routers, switches, databases, and Web and application servers while events are taking place to avoid poor performance affecting end users and customers. In other words, SLM software must deliver intelligent data in real time."In an ideal world, SLM would help the IT manager know about the problem and possibly have it resolved before the user even knows there is a problem," Shepard says.Henry Wojcik, director of enterprise service management at Network Data Systems in Rolling Meadows, Ill., agrees that real-time reporting is essential to SLM. He says SLM reporting must be "available immediately" to notify network staff of potential SLA breaches. And he says real-time reporting "should be dynamic enough to slice and dice the information in many different ways."2. Centralization.To be able to manage an IT service across switches, databases, servers, desktops and more, SLM products need to collect performance metrics from multiple sources and deliver the information to IT staff in a centralized window. Network managers must be able to maneuver through the performance data from disparate devices without running from one console to another."We would need . . . the ability to display and manage captured data and correlate it to service levels in a single repository, a single reporting interface and engine," says Chris Holbert, director of IT at North American Scientific in Chatsworth, Calif.Eric DuMond, senior network engineer at Data Dallas in Texas agrees. He says he needs an SLM product to "give us an interface that is easy to use and read, so we can easily begin to see and address trouble spots." His company is evaluating HP OpenView.3. Problem diagnosis.Tools can't just show network staff how services perform, but also must explain why and where any performance problems might arise. SLM tools in the past have been focused on managing the service in one area of the network. Corporate managers want today's SLM software to tell them which part of the service chain broke down and the root cause of poor service performance.For example, SLM software could tell network managers how an application server performed separately from a database and Web server, but traditionally the IT staff would have to pore through logs and manually correlate based on time and date when and where the problem originated."[SLM] must have the ability to accurately pinpoint the root cause of problems, understanding the interrelationships between the components," GSA's Shepard says.4. Changes on the fly.Tracking IT services requires companies to first define and model those services. With daily infrastructure and application changes, keeping an SLM product current with each change poses a challenge.Users say they need software to understand the network topology, incorporate relevant elements to support specific services and update itself dynamically as these elements change."My environment moves like the ocean's tides, and by the time you modeled every SLA that I have to keep up with, you would be six months behind," says Scott Orr, manager of enterprise management systems at Affiliated Computer Services in Dallas. "I would someday like to see a tool that keeps up with my daily changes in SLA management requirements."5. Smart SLM.Shepard adds that SLM software should be able to tell IT managers how to resolve the performance issue once it identifies the source of a problem. SLM should not only indicate, say, that an overloaded cache on an edge server is holding up the Web content on an e-commerce page, but it also should tell IT staff how to resolve that issue, either with preset rules or proven suggestions."There should be an effective means to identify resource availability and quickly prioritize the problem and assign the appropriate resources," he says.Network Data Systems' Wojcik says a good SLM product also will prioritize the importance if multiple services are affected. Network managers would predefine which customers or applications get priority over others based on SLAs or other rules, and the SLM tool should be able to tell IT staff which problem needs attention first based on its potential impact."[Network managers] need to monitor the impact of a service and how it relates to SLAs," Wojcik says.6. Automation.IT executives also want to implement an SLM tool that eases the burden on their staffs by automating tasks. Mike Heller, senior manager in the service provider segment at Cisco in San Jose, says a good SLM product would increase productivity for IT teams looking to work on mission-critical projects."[SLM should] multiply the abilities of small and always busy IT groups by automating routine or time-consuming tasks, such as deploying quality-of-service or security policies across numerous network elements," Heller says.North American Scientific's Holbert says he wants SLM tools to provide job-scheduling automation as well."We would need it to provide reports, perform data collection routines and more," he says.7. Standards-based.Any SLM product must be compliant with industry standards such as SNMP and work with third-party management tools. Integration should not be a challenge.One user says SLM needs to have visibility into all the elements on the network, and another adds that it needs to be "platform agnostic.""We need to capture data from many different sources and the capability to integrate with the [Computer Associates] Unicenter Management Console," Holbert says.8. SLA verification.A good SLM product needs to help track the details of internal and external SLAs and alert network operations when the network isn't performing up to par - and also when carriers and ISPs aren't hitting their numbers.David Graham, telecom analyst at Hershey Foods in Hershey, Pa., wants performance specifics on how apps perform on the LAN and if that holds when they traverse corporate WANs. "Many applications that work over the LAN do not run as well, if at all, over WAN links," he says.9. Business and technology.Typically, SLM software has followed IT guidelines, but today's tools must translate how the network performs directly into how well the business is delivering on its promised services.A sales representative might want the company's e-commerce Web site to handle 100 orders per minute. That calls for the technology team to enable databases, Web servers and application servers to deliver on those service needs in unison."The challenge with SLM is to make it relevant to end users, expressing IT in terms that relate to their business and not typical 'computer operations' metrics," says a network analyst at a Southern utility company.10. ROI.With IT dollars in short supply, SLM can play a key role in helping to justify expenses.Troy Tate, corporate network manager at electronic components manufacturer CTS in Elkhart, Ind., says network monitoring and reporting tools need to show to business management how well they help keep the company in the black."Management needs to know what was affected, how long it was affected and what is the dollar impact to the business," he says. "We can easily get the first two answers, but an SLM system could use business rules to give us the third."