Service Level Agreements (SLAs) play an important role in the governance and functioning of distributed research infrastructures (RIs) and particularly in European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERICs), yet many ERICs struggle to produce and sign a high-quality SLA that serves the purpose it is intended for.
What are SLAs?
The contractual mechanism of SLAs in distributed RIs is ‘borrowed’ from the domain of IT-services or outsourcing agreements, where they often form part of a larger contract, and are used to define issues such as the level of service expected by a customer from a supplier, the quality of the service, the remedies or penalties, if any, etc. By their nature, SLAs are delivery based, meaning that the subject of the SLA is the delivery of a service to a customer under certain terms and conditions. SLAs are usually signed between two separate entities, but they may also be concluded between two departments within the same entity.
Distributed RIs and ERICs use SLAs to define the level of services expected to be provided by a component of the research infrastructure, e.g., the node, a service provider, an operator or a center (hereinafter a ‘Node’) to the ERIC and/or to users. An SLA will usually entail provisions on the definition of the service to be provided, performance measurement, problem management, reporting, rights and obligations of the parties, IPR, confidentiality, term and termination, dispute resolution, etc.
How are SLAs used by distributed research infrastructures and ERICs?
Ensuring that each Node provides the relevant services and resources is crucial for the success of a distributed research infrastructure such as an ERIC. Since in distributed ERICs the Node is not usually an integral part of the same legal entity, the SLA is used as the mechanism that ‘glues’ the Nodes to the Hub of the ERIC.
Distributed ERICs may use SLAs in order to regulate the relationship:
(1) Between the Hub and the Node, in order to regulating the resources, facilities and services that each distributed Node contributes to the activities of the ERIC. In this sense the SLA may resemble an operational level agreement.
(2) Between the Node and/or ERIC and users, in which case it will regulate and describe the level of service that users may expect from the various Nodes, in accordance with the standards established by the central Hub. The SLA may sometimes include certain duties and responsibilities of the users for using the resources or services offered by the Node, but this could probably be better addressed in a separate user agreement, user policy or terms and conditions of use.
Points to consider
SLAs are important. Not only because they may be required by the Statutes or the governance structure of the RI or the ERIC, but mainly because they are crucial for a coordinated functioning of the distributed RI and to avoid silos between the Nodes and the Hub. Properly functioning SLAs enable the distributed RI to be viewed by users as a single RI providing seamless services to users as if it were one single unit.
If the ERIC has adopted a service catalogue, or a cost book, the SLA should cover the services or resources identified there and allocate responsibilities among the Nodes.
SLAs address the interdependent relationship between the Hub and the Node(s) and set the quality of the services that the research infrastructure provides as a whole while allowing such services to be bench-marked against the level agreed centrally. This bench-marking can help to improve the performance of the distributed ERIC and facilitate the improvement of the services to users, create common procedures, documentation, training, etc.
SLAs may also include provisions that regulate in-kind contributions and harmonise the procedure for their assessment and evaluation.
In their simplest form, an SLAs should be a standard document common to all Nodes and approved by the governing bodies of the RI or the ERIC. Additional technical annexes may be added which are more specific for each Node, thereby building in flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
Finally, SLAs help to signal quality to users, as they contribute to uniformity across the distributed ERIC and allow users to know the type and the level of services they can expect from the research infrastructure as well as the conditions for the provision of such services in terms of availability, performance, operation, or any other characteristics of the service.
How can X-officio help?
Putting together an SLA for a distributed research infrastructure or an ERIC requires a case-by-case approach and can be a challenging process. X-officio has a vast amount of experience and know-how in all aspects of contractual agreements for research infrastructures, including the creation of SLAs and in-kind agreements or the amendment of such agreements. We work in collaboration with the research infrastructure’s management team, the Nodes, and if so required, with political stakeholders, ensuring consensus and buy-in.