On Nov. 19, 2014 the IT department of a Texas contracting company started getting reports that the Microsoft Office 365 cloud-based email system was unavailable to its employees. Users couldn't get email on their phones or via Outlook. As the day rolled on some users' email came back, others didn't. When US workers signed off, international employees started reporting similar issues. For some users, email was out for 24 hours.
After the outage IT leaders huddled and filed a claim with Microsoft for a breach of the company's service-level agreement (SLA), which guarantees that Office and other Microsoft Online services will be available 99.9% of a given month. If the service is available for less than that, a 25% credit can be issued to customers. But the response they got from Microsoft surprised them: Web access was still available so the service was not technically unavailable and therefore it was not a breach of the SLA.
"The number of people willing, able and knowledgeable enough to use that option is pretty low," said a senior member of the IT staff, who requested anonymity so he doesn't sour his relationship with Microsoft. In response, the contracting company has since educated employees on how to use web email access when Outlook is down.
In response to a request for comment on the situation, Microsoft issued a statement saying it strives for "an always available service" and that SLAs are in place to provide financial reassurance to that commitment. If a Microsoft online service is unavailable for less than 95% of a given month customers can get a full statement credit for that period.
This episode, however, illustrates the need to understand all terms and conditions in cloud SLAs. Enterprise agreements can be complicated so here are 10 things to watch out for when reviewing SLAs for Microsoft Office 365 (the SaaS offering) and Microsoft Azure (which includes IaaS and PaaS components). Many of the tips apply to other cloud platforms too, such as AWS, but they are specifically for Microsoft cloud services. See Microsoft's list of Azure IaaS SLA uptime guarantees here; the online services SLA can be found here.
This may seem obvious, but many people don't actually read the contract, just like they skim over End User License Agreements. "I run into an amazing number of people who zip through a PowerPoint and then sign the contract," says Paul DeGroot, who works as a consultant at Pica Communications advising clients on Microsoft licensing. If you don't understand something in the contract after analyzing it, ask for help. The key to understanding your SLA is reading it.
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