What’s the Difference Between SLAs, SLOs and SLIs?

Every tech company providing a service, whether it be free or paid, shares one similar objective: Deliver the best possible experience in order to attract and retain users. After all, without the users there is no reason (or money for that matter) for the service to exist.

When using a service, you want to be able to trust it will perform as promised. If Google suddenly became notorious for outages and slowdowns we’d likely see a mass exodus of users looking for a new search engine. Yet because of Google’s ability to consistently meet user expectations and deliver (at least) 99.99% uptime month-after-month, the search engine giant continues to dominate with over 70,000 searches every second.

Maintaining these high uptime percentages isn’t just something Google “shoots for” every month because it looks good. Their Monthly Uptime Percentage is a key indicator that is measured in order to determine whether or not they’re delivering on the promises made to their users – in this case, a search engine that works as planned 99.99% of the time. Not bad, Google, not bad at all.

These different promises or agreements that tech companies make with their customers are often defined within a Service Level Agreement (SLA). These SLAs consist of different Service Level Objectives (SLO) that are tracked and monitored by measuring specific Service Level Indicators (SLI).

Companies define, track, and monitor these SLAs, SLOs and SLIs with the goal of creating a more reliable service for their customers. But what exactly do these terms mean and how do they relate to one another?

What is a Service Level Agreement (SLA)?

An SLA, or Service Level Agreement, is an agreement made between a company and its users of a given service. The SLA defines the different promises that the company makes to users regarding specific metrics, such as service availability. For example, Google’s SLA from our example earlier promises the user a Monthly Uptime Percentage of no less least 99.99%.

SLA Challenges. Unfortunately SLAs are often written by a company’s business or legal team with little to no input from the tech team. Without involving tech in the writing process, an SLA can end up leaving out important aspects and be extremely difficult to measure.

To avoid this, it’s important that the business and legal teams collaborate with tech when creating SLAs. This will help create SLAs that better reflect real-world scenarios.

When to use SLAs. SLAs are made between vendors (company providing the service) and paid users. Free-to-use services do not need an SLA.

What is a Service Level Objective (SLO)?

An SLO, or Service Level Objective, is the promise that a company makes to users regarding a specific metric such as incident response or uptime. SLOs exist within an SLA as individual promises contained within the full user agreement.

The SLO is the specific goal that the service must meet in order to be in compliance with the SLA. According to Google Product Managers Jay Judkowitz and Mark Carter, an SLO should “define the lowest level of reliability that you can get away with for each service.” In Google’s SLA that promises a 99.99% Monthly Uptime Percentage, the SLO is 99.99%.

SLO Challenges. A common challenge with SLOs is when they are too vague, complicated, or immeasurable. SLOs should always be simple, clearly defined, easily measured to determine whether or not the objective is being fulfilled. This will also keep your engineers from hitting roadblocks when something doesn’t make sense.

When to use SLOs. SLOs can be useful for both paid and free-to-use services as they can help companies improve the overall quality and reliability of their service.

SLAs vs. SLOs: What’s the Difference?

SLAs are used externally to define an agreement between a company’s service and its paid users. SLOs are objectives that are measured internally to determine whether the SLA is being met. If an SLO’s terms are violated, teams must respond and react quickly to prevent from breaking the SLA.

These SLOs are measured by closely monitoring key Service Level Indicators (SLIs).

What is a Service Level Indicator (SLI)?

An SLI, or Service Level Indicator, is a key metric used to determine whether or not the SLO is being met. It is the measured value of the metric described within the SLO. So, where Google’s SLO is 99.99%, the SLI is the actual measured value at the time. In order to remain in compliance with the SLA, the SLI’s value must always meet or exceed the value determined by the SLO. A good incident response plan is critical to quickly resolving any moments of downtime when they do happen.

SLI Challenges. To prevent overcomplicating things, it’s important to keep things simple and choose the right key metrics to monitor. Tracking too many metrics will just make for more work that makes little difference to the user.

When to Use SLIs. SLIs are essential for monitoring how effectively a service is meeting SLOs. Without them, there’s no way of accurately measuring performance.

Why SLAs, SLOs, and SLIs are Important

SLAs, SLOs, and SLIs allow companies to define, track, and monitor the promises made for a service to its users. Together, SLAs, SLOs, and SLIs should help teams generate more user trust in their services with an added emphasis on continuous improvement to incident management and response processes.