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Service-level Agreement is an agreement between two or more parties, where one is the customer and the others are service providers. This can be a legally binding formal or an informal "contract" (for example, internal department relationships). The agreement may involve separate organizations, or different teams within one organization. Contracts between the service provider and other third parties are often (incorrectly) called SLAs – because the level of service has been set by the (principal) customer, there can be no "agreement" between third parties; these agreements are simply "contracts." Operational-level agreements or OLAs, however, may be used by internal groups to support SLAs. If some aspect of a service has not been agreed with the customer, it is not an "SLA".

SLAs commonly include segments to address: a definition of services, performance measurement, problem management, customer duties, warranties, disaster recovery, termination of agreement. In order to ensure that SLAs are consistently met, these agreements are often designed with specific lines of demarcation and the parties involved are required to meet regularly to create an open forum for communication. Contract enforcement (rewards and penalties) should be rigidly enforced, but most SLAs also leave room for annual revisitation so that it is possible to make changes based on new information.

SLAs have been used since late 1980s by fixed line telecom operators as part of their contracts with their corporate customers. This practice has spread such that now it is common for a customer to engage a service provider by including a service level agreement in a wide range of service contracts in practically all industries and markets. Internal departments (such as IT, HR, and real estate) in larger organizations have adopted the idea of using service-level agreements with their "internal" customers — users in other departments within the same organization. One benefit of this can be to enable the quality of service to be benchmarked with that agreed to across multiple locations or between different business units. This internal benchmarking can also be used to market test and provide a value comparison between an in-house department and an external service provider.

Service level agreements are, by their nature, "output" based – the result of the service as received by the customer is the subject of the "agreement." The (expert) service provider can demonstrate their value by organizing themselves with ingenuity, capability, and knowledge to deliver the service required, perhaps in an innovative way. Organizations can also specify the way the service is to be delivered, through a specification (a service level specification) and using subordinate "objectives" other than those related to the level of service. This type of agreement is known as an "input" SLA. This latter type of requirement is becoming obsolete as organizations become more demanding and shift the delivery methodology risk on to the service provider.

Service level agreements are also defined at different levels: