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Three Learnings from Site Reliability Engineers | @DevOpsSummit #DevOps

All IT departments can learn from the value an SRE can bring, regardless of its adoption level of DevOps or digital business

Three Learnings from Site Reliability Engineers About Managing Incidents

Web-scale companies like Facebook and Google are popularizing a new title within IT operations teams: the Site Reliability Engineer (SRE). For some, this role is referred to as a Production Engineer, while others have even more obscure titles, like Airbnb's "Developer Happiness Engineer." No matter the title though, the common thread for all SREs is this: ensuring that an organization's online presence is up and available at all times, and performing efficiently. And as they march down this path, SREs relentlessly look for answers to these questions: Does it work? Does it work well? Could it work better?

From my observations of DevOps and IT operations teams at leading companies ranging from online software, retail, and financial services, I have identified three key themes that consistently surface with successful SREs. Equally important, these themes have applicability to all organizations seeking to improve their operational processes and service quality, and particularly incident management, to detect earlier and remediate faster.

1. Attack your most urgent problems first, without mercy
Successful SREs start by being brutally honest, looking introspectively, and prioritizing work on the most pressing problems that will help their business the most. In short, they get in front of the curve, not behind it. "Solve the problem that needs to be solved," stated Fernanda Weiden, a production engineer at Facebook, at a recent conference focused on site reliability engineering. Stay persistent, observe keenly and a result, the knack for coming up with new and out-of-box ideas will increase.

To illustrate, a key focus for a web-scale company with rapid user adoption is to prepare for operational scale. Handling peak traffic loads to web servers without downtime is a common, but difficult challenge that SREs often face. Being able to observe keenly starts with having your "operational intelligence" in place. Not only does this include the monitoring tools, but also the analytics that sit on top to turn all the data into actionable insights.

Many SREs deploy operational intelligence as a three-layer framework:

  • Layer one is instrumentation, the raw monitoring and "recording" of it all, as deep and as wide as possible
  • Layer two is mediation, turning the massive resulting data stream into exception-based, alert-event streams
  • Layer three is situational awareness, a manager of managers (if you like) function that ingests alert-event streams from all over, and can use analytics to automate early detection of incidents and faster remediation using collaborative workflows

2. Get more proactive with operational improvement
Skilled SREs seek to minimize how often they're in fire-fighting mode by investing before they smell smoke, so they can do things better in the future. Consider it as engineering production operations. Everyone acknowledges that this is often easier said than done, but to stay ahead of the game, SREs try to: (a) simplify everywhere they can, i.e., by eliminating technical debt, removing cruft, and reducing to the bare minimum, then (b) commit to follow-through and implement the actions that come out of quality improvement processes, e.g., weekly incident post-mortem meetings. Things will go wrong in production - they always do - so SREs put measures in place ahead of time, ready for when "it" hits the fan, minimizing any negative impacts.

But without the operational intelligence in place (as outlined above), it is incredibly difficult to be proactive and ready for anything. Situational awareness is paramount, which comes from a real-time holistic view of what's going on across the entire IT environment, along with the automated reduction of "exception" information that everyone can look at when something goes awry. Of course, the earlier the detection of anomalous behavior, the better. "Quantize thyself," stated Sue Lueder, program manager at Google, in speaking about how to proactively approach incident analysis. "Collect your data from everywhere, drill down by asking five times ‘why' to understand the root causes of outages, and then commit to implementing the improvement actions."

3. Automate everything you can to simplify
As in all IT departments, SREs are challenged to do more with less. Meanwhile, the expectation for service quality only becomes greater. The only way around this paradox is through automation. Automation reduces manual errors. Automation gets things done faster. Automation frees IT to be more proactive. Automation is working smarter. "You should always be trying to automate yourself out of a job," stated Xianping Qu, an SRE who implemented a comprehensive monitoring architecture at Baidu.

Incident detection and remediation are ripe for automation all across IT shops - the tools are available and the results are striking. Machine learning can automate the "noise reduction" of event streams and cluster related alerts into single "situations" or groupings - all without dependence and labor-intensive rules and models that have to be maintained and constantly updated when something changes. Furthermore, social collaboration tools can automate the notification process, bringing together the right stakeholders to share information and resolve incidents faster. Finally, robust tool APIs are essential to integrate with other tools, allowing actions to be automatically initiated based on real-time analytics.

Pedro Canahuati, production engineering director at Facebook, recited the well-known quote from Deepak Chopra, "All great changes are preceded by chaos." Chances are, this chaos is very real to your IT department. But implementing these best practices takes a longer view for the improvement and success of your organization. There will be cultural, process, and technological resistances to overcome, yet the benefits to your business (and time savings for your team) are significant, so keep that front and center as you persevere.

Parting words without incident
SREs are the unsung heroes who make the most popular web sites across the global web run so well that we hardly take the time to notice, despite the enormous complexities and need for scale. This isn't by chance. SREs keep focused, they keep proactive, and they keep simplifying. There are many aspects for how to improve site reliability, but a key starting point is to build in operational intelligence, a three-layer framework to monitor, to mediate exceptions, and to gain overall situation awareness using analytics. It's about seeing problems earlier - before your customers do - so you can remediate and restore service faster.

All IT departments can learn from the value an SRE can bring, regardless of its adoption level of DevOps or digital business. It's never too late for IT Ops to learn from a good SRE.

More Stories By Rob Markovich

As Chief Marketing Officer at Moogsoft, Rob Markovich is responsible for global outbound marketing, sales support, and product management. His 25-year career is all about building successful IT service assurance businesses.

Prior to Moogsoft, he was SVP of Sales and Marketing at VSS Monitoring and later Danaher after its acquisition. Rob was also a co-founder of Visual Networks, which grew $0-100M in 5 years and had a successful IPO. He was CEO of Agito Networks (now Shoretel) and Network Chemistry (now Aruba), and also served in senior executive positions at Empirix and iBahn. He holds a BSEE degree from Carnegie Mellon University.

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