Site reliability engineering (SRE) is a term originally coined in 2002 by engineering managers at Google to codify a particular set of software development and support skills and practices associated with ensuring their software products operate continuously and efficaciously. SRE as a discipline has gained widespread adoption throughout the commercial software services industry.
SaaP readers who don’t like or see how the word site applies should consider a slight adaptation, Software reliability engineering. It is concerned with the work involved in ensuring a deployed software product is and remains usable and effective to its users and in responding to incidents relating to the use of the software itself or some operational aspect of the computing environment in which the software is being used.
While Customer Support is focused primarily on responding to user inquiries, Software reliability engineering is focused on the continuous investment of effort and evolution of best practices to craft and carry out small corrective actions, often in the form of improved automation, aimed at continuously improving the software and/or its processes and artifacts. This focus and these activities represent a fusion of aspects of Google’s Site Reliability Engineering process (sometimes also called Systems Reliability Engineering or Services Reliability Engineering) and aspects of User Experience Driven Development (UXDD). That is SRE+UXDD. However, User Experience Driven Development is a relatively new term (not to be confused with User Experience Driven Design) where user experience is being constantly fed back to inform development activities to incrementally improve the software. So, the remainder of this article uses SRE as a shorthand for SRE+UXDD.
Typically, SRE issues originate from users in the midst of using a software product who are encountering some kind of difficulty. The work involved in handling such inquiries should not end with addressing this one user’s problem and sending them on their way. When one user encounters a problem, others probably have or will encounter the same problem. Furthermore, often the problems users encounter are suggestive of minor, easily corrected deficiencies in either the software itself or its associated processes and artifacts.
For mature DOE software projects with wide reach and many users, SRE activity represents a brand of effort wholly different from conventional software product development, planning and execution. Most DOE software projects have no dedicated SRE resources. Instead, developers themselves must also support SRE activity. Nonetheless, managing SRE work effectively and efficiently is an essential part of ensuring positive outcomes for users and continued productivity for developers.
SRE work is allocated and rotated among developers in shifts. During a shift, one developer’s role is to serve as the Primary SRE point of contact. S/he handles all user inquiries that come in during that shift. Except for escalations, any other developers are free of SRE responsibilities and can remain focused on planned software product development work.
The role of the Primary is to respond within the response time goal, to each inquiry. Ideally, all SRE activity during a shift is handled and resolved solely by the Primary. However, escalations, which should be rare, will wind up engaging other developers. In addition, any active SRE issues that remain unresolved at the end of a shift are formally handed off to the next shift’s Primary.
Active SRE issues are logged and tracked in an issue tracker separate from the project’s planned development. For any work the Primary performs, even if it is a rather trivial amount of work to resolve, there should be an associated SRE issue for tracking that work. Tracking even the trivial issues will help to build a database to later mine to identify where further product or process improvements can be made. Upon resolution of serious incidents, the Primary prepares a brief postmortem to inform discussion at the next project meeting of possible improvements in processes or practices.
Because SRE work tends to be interrupt driven, there is always the chance that the Primary will have no active issues. At these idle times, the Primary uses their time to address low-hanging fruit. In particular, there is no expectation that a developer serving as SRE Primary can get any product development work done. In slow shifts, its conceivable they can. But, to meet coverage and response time goals, there can be no implied assumption or expectation that this will be the case.
The Primary role is rotated so as to balance the load among team members.
Some of the goals of SRE are…
While many aspects of SRE are under the direct control of software developers, some (those involving operations and the underlying computing infrastructure) are not and involve collaboration with other teams in resolving. In most cases the extent of the development team’s involvement in resolving operational issues is confined primarily to the software itself; its development, testing, release and deployment which includes installations the team directly manages, hosted binary downloads for common platforms and the tools and resources to build from sources. Operational issues impacting software behavior but outside of this scope are typically delegated to other teams who are responsible for the associated processes and resources.
The preceding paragraphs describe SRE processes at a basic level and in the ideal. Nonetheless, several terms here (those that are links in the paragraphs above) require elaboration. In addition, there are also many practical matters which can serve to complicate the basic process. These details are addressed in the remaining sections.
Part of the reason for formalizing these activities is the recognition of a different category of work, SRE, that is an essential part of maintaining the overall quality of a software product as well as the productivity of both developers and users of the software alike. Nonetheless, this work is very different from conventional product development type work where bug fixes, feature enhancements, and technology refreshes are estimated and prioritized, methodically planned and resources are allocated to meet target release dates.
Issues that impact one user’s productivity often impact others. Likewise for developers. When such issues come to a team’s attention, whenever possible it is often helpful to identify two kinds of actions; a short-term constructive correction and a longer-term comprehensive solution.
|Constructive Correction||Comprehensive Solution|
|Short term||Longer term|
|Faster response||Slower response|
|Low cost/benefit||Higher cost/benefit|
|Low risk||Higher risk|
A constructive correction has value only when…
Ordinarily, a constructive correction is something the Primary handles as part of their SRE activity. A comprehensive solution, which often involves more planning and resource allocation, is handled as part of normal product development activities.
Constructive corrections can wind up falling through the cracks of traditional software project management and planning processes. However, such work also often represents low cost, high benefit improvements in quality of either the software itself or the development or deployment processes supporting it. We refer to issues of this nature as low-hanging fruit type issues.
Apart from acknowledging their existence, a key aspect of SRE processes is the commitment of a small fraction of resources for the sole purpose of supporting SRE activities and developing a practice of continuously crafting constructive corrective actions arising from SRE inquiries.
Consequently, another key role of the Primary is to use any time not working active SRE issues to fix other low-hanging fruit issues from the product development backlog. As a rule of thumb, low-hanging fruit is considered to be anything that the team believes is fixable within a half-day’s (4 hours) worth of effort. When there are many such tasks in the system to work on, the Primary is free to use his/her judgment to decide which s/he can most productively address.
It is important to distinguish between response and resolution of SRE incidents. A key goal in this process is to ensure that user inquiries do not go unanswered. However, responding to an SRE inquiry does not necessarily mean resolving it. Sometimes, the only response possible is to acknowledge the inquiry and let the user know that the resources to address it will be allocated as soon as practical. In many cases, an immediate response to acknowledge even just the receipt of a user’s inquiry with no progress towards actual resolution goes a long way towards creating the goodwill necessary to negotiate the time to respond more fully.
Resolution of an SRE issue often involves one or more of the following activities…
To emphasize the last bullet, resolution does not always mean a user’s issue can be addressed to satisfaction within the constraints of the SRE process as it is defined here. Sometimes, the most that can be achieved is filing a highly informative issue to be prioritized, scheduled and ultimately resolved as part of normal product development activities. The SRE issue gets promoted to a product development issue. It is closed in the SRE issue tracker and new issue is opened in the product development issue tracker including a reference to the original SRE issue. Doing so does serve to resolve the original SRE issue that initiated the work.
SRE inquiries may escalate for a variety of reasons. The technical expertise or authority required to respond to a given inquiry may be beyond the Primary’s abilities or other difficulties may arise. For issues that the Primary does not quickly see a path to resolution, other developers may be enlisted. However, where a Primary is responsible for maintaining the response time goal, other developers so enlisted are free to either delay or even decline to respond (but nonetheless inform the Primary of this need) if their schedule does not permit timely response. Such a situation could mean that the only remaining course of action for the Primary to resolve the issue is to file a product development issue as discussed at the end of a preceding section.
If after investigation and diagnosis, the work required to resolve an SRE incident remains highly uncertain or is not believed to be a low-hanging-fruit type task, the Primary should search the product development issues to see if there is a known issue and, if so, add additional information from this new SRE incident or submit a new issue to the product development issue tracker. Such action then resolves the original SRE issue.
Serious incidents are those that have significant productivity consequences for multiple users and/or require an inordinate amount of resources (either time or people or both) to diagnose, work-around and/or ultimately properly correct.
When such incidents occur, it is a best practice to spend some time considering adjustments in processes that can help to avoid repeating similar issues in the future.
When such incidents reach SRE resolution, the Primary prepares a brief postmortem (often just a set of bullet points) explaining what happened and why, estimating the amount of resources that were needed to resolve the incident, describing key milestones in the work to resolve the incident and suggesting recommendations for changes in processes to prevent such incidents from being repeated. This postmortem will be used to guide team discussion during a subsequent project meeting.
The key parameters in these processes is the coverage of support hours, the response time and the length of a shift. In the IT world where companies like Google, Apple and Amazon have whole teams dedicated to SRE activity, coverage is 24/7, response time is measured in minutes and shifts are weeks or months.
For a DOE software project of moderate size (say 6 or more developers) and which has a sufficiently large user base, coverage should be during normal business hours, response time should be about a half-day (4 hours) and shift length should be about one week. For a project of this size, if a Primary is wholly consumed with SRE activities during their shift, this would represent about 17% of the project’s development resources.
If this is too much, the solution is to reduce coverage, either shorter days or fewer days. For example, maybe the project decides coverage will be normal business hours but only Monday through Wednesday. This reduces the maximal cost for SRE activity from 17% to a more manageable 10%. In this example, it may make sense to lengthen a shift to two weeks.
For even smaller projects or projects with few users, it may be appropriate to reduce coverage to only certain days out of a month and a shift length of a day. In such cases the goal of ensuring a response time becomes inapplicable. There is simply not enough resource available to ensure any specific response time. Nonetheless, as long as expectations are appropriately set, users will often demonstrate surprising patience and understanding.
To balance SRE work load among developers, the Primary role is rotated. However, a number of factors can complicate a simple round-robin approach including percent-time assignments of team members, alternate work schedules, working remotely, travel, vacations, multi-day trainings, etc.
Round-robin assignment may lead to a fair load by head-count but isn’t weighted by percent-time assignments. From a percent-time assignment perspective, it might be more appropriate for a 50% time developer to serve as Primary only half as often as a 100% time developer.
For teams where a majority of developers divide their time across multiple projects, it may make sense to use 50% as the nominal developer assignment. The aim is an approximately round-robin load balance where contributors who are more than 50% time are occasionally assigned an extra shift.
These SRE processes involve two kinds of handoffs. One is the redirection of a user who makes first contact with a developer not serving as the Primary. The other is the handoff of unresolved SRE issues from one shift’s Primary to the next.
To handle user redirection handoffs, it is a best practice to use a three-way handoff giving the user some assurance that their initial contact with someone is successfully handed off to the Primary. For example, for a call-in, it is a best practice to try a three-way call transfer. For some developers, the prospect of redirecting friends and colleagues with whom they may have long standing relationships may be initially uncomfortable. But it is important to recognize that this an essential part of achieving various of the goals of this process, such as reducing SRE interruptions for the team as a whole and tracking SRE effort.
If an active SRE issue cannot be resolved within the shift of a Primary’s assignment, it gets handed off to the next shift’s Primary. Such handoffs are managed formally with a comment (or email) to the user(s) and the next shift’s Primary in the associated issue. The associated issue(s) in the SRE issue tracker is re-assigned by the outgoing Primary upon ending their shift. However, an outgoing Primary may be near enough resolving an SRE issue that it makes more sense for him/her to carry it completion rather than hand it off.
An SRE inquiry with the team begins with a first contact and may optionally be followed by ongoing conversation. These two phases of communication have different requirements and can involve different processes. This is due to the need to balance two priorities; accessibility for users and productivity for developers.
To maximize accessibility for users, supporting a wide variety of communication platforms for first contact is desirable. However, to maximize productivity for developers, the platform(s) used for ongoing conversations must be restricted.
Users who are co-located with the development team can often spontaneously make first contact with a developer by an office drop-in or a tackle in the hallway or parking lot. The virtual equivalent of this occurs even more frequently on various communication platforms such as Confluence, Jabber, MS Teams, etc. where users can wind up engaging specific developers that happen, by nothing more than coincidence, to also be using those platforms.
A challenge with spontaneous first contacts is that they inadvertently single out a specific developer who is then expected to at least respond and possibly even to also resolve the issue. But, these actions and the effort they involve are the responsibility of the SRE Primary. Consequently, spontaneous first contacts can wind up jeopardizing the goals of SRE processes by making it difficult to track, allocate and manage SRE effort.
Therefore, officially supported platforms for first contact should be those which engage the whole team instead of singling out a specific member (e.g. Email list or GitHub conversation). Whenever users attempt a first contact through something other than a supported platform, the receiving developer should make an effort to hand-off the inquiry to the Primary SRE as quickly and politely as practical.
What does it mean for a platform to be supported? It means there is an assurance that it is being monitored by the SRE Primary. In addition, supported platforms are encouraged and promoted in any documentation where support processes are described.
Balancing the priorities of user accessibility with developer productivity involves a compromise on the number of platforms a team can make an assurance to monitor. However, the approved platforms should be periodically reevaluated. If there is some platform which seems to be gaining popularity among users, it may make sense to include it as a supported platforms.
There are several advantages in having all team members participate in and gain SRE experience. These include…
When faced with a long backlog of product development tasks, team members can all too easily perceive SRE work as an interruption to those tasks. This is a common and serious misconception.
Software Reliability Engineering is an important aspect to a successful product and project on par with any other major development work. It is part of what is involved in maintaining and improving the utility of the software for users and the productivity of the software for developers. The commitment of a fraction of the project’s development resources to continually respond to SRE inquiries with constructive corrective actions in the software implementation or its processes or artifacts is a best practice that will, in the long run, improve developer and user productivity alike.