Service level agreements — assurances that IT systems work up to 99.999 percent of the time — have been around for a while. But as the pandemic ushered in more ubiquitous remote computing, the question about SLAs became, exactly which IT systems need to work all the time?

Enterprise-deployed systems? Remote workers’ BYOD systems? Local applications? SaaS applications?

The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Therefore, as companies continue down the digital transformation path in an increasingly hybrid computing environment, it’s become clear that SLAs alone aren’t enough to ensure optimal IT performance. As important as it is to ensure systems are available when workers need them, it’s more important that those systems deliver the computing experience users require to do their jobs well, wherever they happen to be working.

Building on solid SLAs, solution providers should deliver XLAs — experience level agreements — which more precisely support the business outcomes customers seek.

IT That Works, or IT That Works for the User?

Here is how I think of the distinction between SLAs and XLAs: We give every employee a standard Smart Car. It starts, runs, and gets you to work on time. No frills, and everyone’s car is the same. So, the car works reliably (SLA). Still, it doesn’t really work for you if you are not comfortable using it, if you cannot fit all the gear you need in the trunk, if there are not enough seats for your family, or even if you cannot listen to the radio (XLA). The SLA is the fact that the car starts every day and gets you to work. The comfort, fitting in all your gear and family, and listening to music are all part of your experience, or XLA.

And that’s how IT service agreements should evolve: from just working to working for the user. In other words, from technology solutions warranted to be “on,” to technology solutions pledged to make employees more productive, effective, engaged, or satisfied.

Why now? There are a few trends at play. For starters, workers often have more powerful machines at home than at the office, so they expect greater performance when they do their jobs. Many workers (think millennials) are used to instantaneous access to information in their everyday lives through smartphones, so they expect a certain experience.

And frankly, some systems have gotten so inexpensive that it’s sometimes less important to ensure uptime or rapid break/fix than to replace systems when they don’t work well. In that case, if a solution provider can show that the replacement has the power and performance to get the job done in less time — and can track it — that’s a user experience worth investing in.

Telemetry Data Is the Key to XLAs

But the biggest trend laying the groundwork for XLAs is the availability of XLA-related data. Measuring whether an IT system can deliver the computing experience users want — beyond just whether the system is up and available — takes real-time insight into system-level performance. A system that boots up and loads Windows may meet an SLA, but if its CPU runs at 80 percent utilization and the user can get a cup of coffee while it renders graphics, it likely falls short of an XLA.

Enterprise endpoint software like Microsoft Intune, Intel EMA, or Lakeside SysTrack collects telemetry data from users’ computers  (e.g., CPU and GPU usage, disk and memory utilization) to help understand the user experience. Chip makers like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia make telemetry data available through their platforms. And systems don’t have to be inside the firewall — solutions like VMware Workspace ONE and others also harvest telemetry data. This is key to crafting XLAs in a hybrid computing world.

How to Craft an XLA

With all this data available — Windows alone, for example, provides more than 300 telemetry metrics — you can begin to craft an XLA. Among the steps:

1. Choose a platform for measuring experience. There are several out there, many built into endpoint management solutions. The customer must agree on one and allow it to be integrated with its network of systems. The goal is a “single pane” of telemetry data that the IT department or solution provider can monitor.

2. Define user experience in the enterprise. It shouldn’t be assumed that better system performance leads to a better user experience. For some, being more productive is, indeed, the best experience. For others, it could be avoiding common problems or minimizing the steps to accomplish a task.

3. Create personas for different users. This is where you begin defining the experiences covered by an XLA because not everyone in an enterprise works the same. Some perform data entry, others do graphic design. Some compute locally, and others tax the network. The nature of their work, combined with each persona’s perception of a good user experience, forms the basis of an XLA.

4. Determine what to measure. If SLAs incorporate KPIs for measuring performance, XLAs need XPIs (experience performance indicators). Looking at all the available telemetry data and considering, for example, the persona of a heavy graphics user who wants to be more productive, you might determine that certain CPU, GPU, and memory utilization indicate a good user experience.

XLAs Should Be Living Documents

Eventually, you’ll develop outcomes for when the XPIs trigger action. If CPU utilization reaches some agreed-upon percentage, it may trigger a system replacement or redesign. It could lead you to approach an application developer to see if a program has a memory leak.

The beauty of XLAs based on real-time telemetry data is that they’re living documents, especially in the beginning, when solution providers and customers determine what works best and has a measurable impact on business performance. A system could hit all its telemetry metrics, and users are still unsatisfied. Or the opposite: users love the experience, even when metrics come up short.

Still, with better data about user experience, you can more precisely align IT resources with business needs. For example, IT refresh cycles can be better targeted and cost-justified using XLA metrics. And that’s a real value-add above foundational SLAs.

Almost every SLA I’ve reviewed had a hidden XLA — the user satisfaction score. Now that score is backed by data. By offering enterprise customers a suite of service agreements, including SLAs and XLAs, solution providers can position themselves even better as trusted partners in digital transformation.

David White has architected thousands of support solutions for enterprise customers ranging in size from 500 end users to over 100,000+ in all industries. He’s an enterprise evangelist at Compucom, a company that supports more than 9 million devices globally for more than 300 enterprise-managed service clients with 85% first-contact resolution.

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