How to manage service providers on your own

IT professionals who handle global networks need to know how to manage service provider relationships. This article explains how to be your own MSP.

In my previous article on managing service provider relationships for multicarrier networks, I provided questions to ask your service provider in order to assess whether they can act as a managed service provider or network integrator. In this article, I will discuss how to manage service provider relationships on your own if they fail to work with you in reducing network complexity.

Define every network boundary

If you cannot negotiate for your dominant service provider to give you a single point of responsibility, there's no choice but to manage service providers yourself. The key here is to recognize that you will need to define every provider boundary point between you and each service provider (and, if appropriate, between providers that are interconnecting on your behalf). Once those boundary points are identified, establish an integration policy for each. An integration policy is a plan to cover each of the FCAPS points -- fault, configuration, accounting, performance and security management. Any problem or change that impacts the boundary point should be covered in the integration policy plan, with a clear delineation of your role, the provider's role and the way disputes will be arbitrated. In nearly every case, the starting point in implementing that plan is boundary monitoring by both parties, which means either monitoring probes at both sides of an interface or the use of a shared and trusted monitoring tool.

Monitor your network boundaries

The biggest issue in network boundary monitoring is securing adequate management data on intercarrier linkages, so when self-integration appears the only choice, it's important to find out just what operators are willing to provide for these critical interconnect points. Lack of reasonable data at a given boundary will make problem isolation nearly impossible, though it's sometimes possible to gather enough information from endpoints to deduce whether a problem exists in one interconnected network or the other. Here, though, there is a real risk that one or more operators won't agree with this sort of deductive reasoning.

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Manage service level agreements with your providers

The final way to manage service provider relationships is to manage your service-level agreements (SLAs). Apart from the issue of boundary monitoring to determine the source of problems, multiprovider networks often raise the issue of jurisdiction and adjudication. Where only one country is involved, this can be problem enough if local regulations and contract law varies (as it does in the U.S.), but major problems can be expected where international networks are involved. Even if one provider is prepared to take the lead and act as an integrator, it may be necessary to write an arbitration clause into an SLA and define the specific organization and country in which arbitration is to take place. Otherwise there's a risk of contract issues hanging up on differences in interpretation between your geography and that of the network operator.

Most large companies today can't avoid multiprovider networks, and as specialized access providers and cloud providers proliferate, such networks will become both more common and more complicated over time. Only careful planning can prevent the kind of finger-pointing that's created more than a few jokes, but sadly more than a few project failures as well.

Learn how to manage WAN services with your cloud service providers in the last article of this series.

This was first published in November 2012

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