Hosting Service Level Agreements and worthless guarantees

You do have a SLA with your current web hosting company, don't you? Not sure?

Or was your reaction simply, "What's a SLA?"

That's not surprising, the first time many customers hear about an SLA, or Service Level Agreement is when their web site is down and they're trying to find out what they can do about it.

Many of those same customers are shocked when they find there is nothing they can do about it because (especially if they are on a minimum year-long contract and no get-out clause) the web host either has no SLA, or the SLA is totally favourable to the web host or the SLA's "guarantees" are worthless. We'll be taking a look at those three scenarios in a minute.

If you are responsible for running a company's commercial website then you should NEVER host your website with a web hosting company that does not have an SLA.

As a webmaster your mantra should be: No SLA - no deal!

(If you want to see a Service Level Agreement here's ours as an example. You may want to compare it to that of your hosting company).

Typically, the SLA will include a network up time or availability figure. This is where you may wish to get a big pinch of salt ready with the figures fed to you by some companies. When looking at a SLA ask yourself:

  • is the figure independently monitored - can you see the results?
  • is it guaranteed (see "when is a guarantee not a guarantee")
  • what is the actual figure - the difference between 99.99% and 99% is over 86 hours, or over three and a half days - which extra three days do you want to have no website availability, God forbid it should be during the Xmas sales!
  • what are the exclusions used when calculating the uptime figure? - normally, this will include both items that are beyond the power of the host to prevent, such as denial of service attacks on a server, and things such as routine maintenance - the network isn't considered "down" just because a well-run hosting company undertakes necessary maintenance to your server.

You may be familiar with the uptime figure, it's used as a hook by most hosting companies to get you to sign up with them - the figure is usually 99% or above - but for many hosting companies the figure is worthless. That uptime figure needs to be in the Service Level Agreement, backed by a money-back guarantee or you are being short-changed - literally.

Firstly, you have the companies that have no SLA, often the excuse used is that it is a "budget" web hosting account that costs so little that they can't afford to give uptime guarantees. Then why don't they say that instead of splashing "99.9% uptime" all over the sign-up page? If they have so little confidence in their product that they won't offer ANY guarantee, say even 80%, then just how bad is their service. AVOID!

Then there's the companies with an SLA, but they have no actual way of being able to justify that figure they used. Often these are affiliates or resellers of another company's hosting and they have no access to the actual uptime figures nor influence over the uptime. They are consumers of someone else's products just like you, but slightly higher up the food chain.

What if you can show that the actual availability of your server was less than the headline uptime figure used by your web host? Disappointingly, that's when many people find out that a guarantee isn't always a guarantee!

Unless the web host offers a guarantee that includes money-back in the event of their failure to live up to their promises (e.g. uptime) then it is not a guarantee - because they don't have to give you anything back in the event that their service falls below the level they promised! They suffer no penalty for failing to fulfill their specious "guarantee".

Those of us with a legal background know that there are ways to make companies live up to promises but let's be honest do you really want to have to go to Trading Standards, the Better Business Bureau or the County Court to extract compensation every time your website is down?

Wouldn't life be easier if you just hosted your commercial (or personal) website with a company that excelled at keeping it servers running year-after-year, and that provided you with written details of the refunds that you would receive in the, highly unlikely, event that they didn't do exactly as they promised?

Needless to say, here at Intrahost, even our "Value" entry-level, £4.95 pm, shared web-hosting account is backed by a written, money-back guarantee, in our Service Level Agreement.

Your next step is to check that you have a SLA with your current host - if not - MOVE!

If you have an SLA read it carefully, you're looking for a guarantee of uptime, with reasonable exclusions (stuff that the host can't really do anything about), and a clear and specific refund amount for each hour your site/server is down; and a reasonably easy way of proving and claiming for, that downtime. If any of those features are missing it is time to seek another more responsible web hosting company.