Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is a term that’s getting attention and gaining momentum – and for a good reason.
SRE takes features of software engineering and applies them to various problems in infrastructures and operations. Organizations look to build SRE teams with a couple goals in mind, including to create and increase scalability and develop solid software systems. Rapid changes in business landscapes, labor market pressures, economic twists and turns, and more require—in many cases—extreme scalability in operations. With scalability comes the need for greater speed, and SRE helps ensure stability and mitigate risks.
Pressure is especially high in the digital services space to deliver products faster than we’ve likely seen yet. The SRE practice can help reduce the friction between development teams (who are moving quickly to develop new software features and fix bugs) and the IT operations teams that support software in production. As a result, SRE and its fundamentals are gaining traction since they play an important role in reducing risk and closely aligning with DevOps principles.
Top priorities for companies, customer experience and retention improvements, can come from an SRE approach by leveraging service level goals and objectives to determine how to manage services, depending on a business’s specific needs, according to Daniel Betts, Sr. Director Analyst at Gartner. Complex architectures are becoming more and more prominent in meeting market demands and customer needs, as they lead to cloud applications, containers, SaaS, and more. It means a load of data is too large for IT teams to handle, so Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) aim to automate and streamline operations tasks.
Operations Focus Meets Reliability Mindset
Teams of SREs work together to help solve business issues and get other teams where they want to be, in terms of site reliability. The team ideally has a diverse set of skills, from software, systems engineering, could technologies, and chaos engineering.
They stay focused on automation and reliability, particularly as a key guiding foundation and for reduction of toil. Each business faces its own challenges and has its own objectives, and SREs realize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. They know an ideal SRE practice is flexible and agile, and easy to modify over time.
Optimization of IT operations is part of every SRE practice. After all, customers only benefit from products and services while they are running in production, and their expectations of site reliability are very high. SREs depend on automation for problems as they arise – especially for those that are repeat offenders.
Three Primary Focal Points of SRE Teams
An SRE team contributes to service level agreements (SLAs), working to ensure the operations performance and error risk stay within the contract’s terms. A breach of contract comes with more than hefty fines, as it poses serious threats to businesses: the loss of customers, a damaged reputation, and the potential for legal dispute concerns.
SREs keep their eyes on aligning development, operations, and the business. They consider the SLA’s objectives, and then set out to connect development and operations teams in a way that expedites the production of new software but keeps it under control. SREs depend on three central metrics to shift priorities along the way, uphold SLA constituents, and support optimal customer experiences:
- Service Level Indicators (SLIs): Precisely defined quantitative measures of levels of service, including request latency, error rate, system output, and availability.
- Service Level Objectives (SLO): Target values, or ranges of values, for a service level as measured by an SLI, like setting a maximum average latency per request, for example.
- Error Budgets: Specific percentages of error a service can accumulate overtime, that SREs track to keep systems from reaching a topmost allowed failure rate, or time of underperformance or downtime, as defined by an SLA’s contractual terms.
Three Essential SRE Standards
An SRE team benefits organizations by making sure software applications maintain reliability during frequent updates from development teams. To reduce risk, there are a few foundational practices SRE teams follow:
Observability: Unfortunate, but inevitable errors are part of the software development process, and SRE teams realize that a perfect solution sets unrealistic expectations. Monitoring applications and services allows SRE teams to quickly identify abnormal behavior and hopefully act on it before it turns into an incident.
Gradual Change Management: SREs shine a positive light on the release of small, frequent changes to maintain system reliability. SREs approach change management with consistent, repeatable processes to reduce risks associated with changes, provide feedback loops to measure system performance, and increase speed and efficiency of change implementation. In the case of a change causing something unexpected, a healthy and progressive change management practice allows SRE teams to quickly react and rollback the change.
Eliminating Toil: SRE principles seek to reduce work that is manual, repetitive, and that adds little to no value to the business other than to ensure status quo. Examples of SRE principles include tasks like triaging non-critical alerts and servicing repetitive resourcing requests. Automation needs to be front and center of goals that involve eliminating repetitive tasks, making it a key focus area for SREs. It allows them time to focus on more proactive tasks while automation resolves problems as they arise, with strategies including:
- Developing quality gates based on SLOs to detect issues faster
- Automating build testing using SLIs
- Making architectural decisions to ensure system resiliency at the outset of software development.
Supporting DevOps: An Important SRE Goal
DevOps and SRE teams are both built on foundational principles of breaking down silos, embracing risk, and taking a fail-fast approach. While DevOps engineers prioritize the delivery of software, SRE teams focus on reliability of the software given all the updates being made.
As applications and systems become more distributed in nature, having a team of engineers who focus on the operational/scale problems is where teams of SRE come in. They want to make sure any product updates and new releases won’t cause outages and other operations problems.
SRE is growing its importance for DevOps and the now-critical role it plays. While both roles are connected and share similarities, they are unique in what they do. DevOps engineers are solely focused on the product development environment stages making changes all the way through to production environments. SREs come in after the production process to ensure performance. SRE teams are responsible for the system’s reliability and availability.
Bottom line: SRE and DevOps are on the same team for enabling stronger organizations. Silos simply aren’t part of a successful, modern organization, especially when it comes to building reliable systems at scale. DevOps engineers are focused on driving innovation at the software development stage, and SRE teams complement DevOps by ensuring business continuity and the ability to quickly remedy unforeseen problems, in spite of the change velocity.
The combination of DevOps methodology, paired with SRE support, can unify the organization and streamline internal processes, increasing efficiency across the board.
Making the SRE Vision a Reality
As SRE engineers juggle with their day-to-day tasks, automation is the only way SRE teams can succeed. Putting automation front and center of their operations allows them to ensure uptime performance and respond to incidents while managing many other priorities the function demands.
For example, SRE teams can employ automation for improving aspects of incident response, like validation of incidents, diagnosis and self-healing.
SRE engineers are too often bogged down by time-sensitive tasks in incident resolution. IT automation enables SREs to improve the process by responding to interruptions, as they maintain knowledge of key health indicators, availability, and performance expectations. As SREs can spend an entire day, if not more on an outage, IT automation can free up valuable time, minimize errors, and even reduce stress.
Downtime pauses business operations. Shoppers cannot buy, employees cannot work, and users cannot be serviced. The halt costs about $5,600 per minute, according to Gartner. Adding insult to injury, cutting costs and boosting savings is a top goal for companies. Downtime means customer experiences are taking a big hit, keeping businesses farther away from saving money.
Organizations must deliver uninterrupted service – that’s what customers have come to expect. IT automation in SRE reduces incident response times and resolves issues faster, enabling optimal reliability and operations.
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