Evolution or Rebellion? The rise of Site Reliability Engineers (SRE)

What is a Google SRE?  Charity Majors gave a great overview on Datanauts #65, Susan Fowler from Uber talks about “no ops” tensions and Patrick Hill from Atlassian wrote up a good review too.  This is not new: Ben Treynor defined it back in 2014.

DevOps is under attack.

Well, not DevOps exactly but the common misconception that DevOps is about Developers doing Ops (it’s really about lean process, system thinking, and positive culture).  It turns out the Ops is hard and, as I recently discussed with John Furrier, developers really really don’t want be that focused on infrastructure.

In fact, I see containers and serverless as a “developers won’t waste time on ops revolt.”  (I discuss this more in my 2016 retrospective).

The tension between Ops and Dev goes way back and has been a source of confusion for me and my RackN co-founders.  We believe we are developers, except that we spend our whole time focused on writing code for operations.  With the rise of Site Reliability Engineers (SRE) as a job classification, our type of black swan engineer is being embraced as a critical skill.  It’s recognized as the only way to stay ahead of our ravenous appetite for  computing infrastructure.

I’ve been writing about Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) tasks for nearly 5 years under a lot of different names such as DevOps, Ready State, Open Operations and Underlay Operations. SRE is a term popularized by Google (there’s a book!) for the operators who build and automate their infrastructure. Their role is not administration, it is redefining how infrastructure is used and managed within Google.

Using infrastructure effectively is a competitive advantage for Google and their SREs carry tremendous authority and respect for executing on that mission.

ManagersMeanwhile, we’re in the midst of an Enterprise revolt against running infrastructure. Companies, for very good reasons, are shutting down internal IT efforts in favor of using outsourced infrastructure. Operations has simply not been able to complete with the capability, flexibility and breadth of infrastructure services offered by Amazon.

SRE is about operational excellence and we keep up with the increasingly rapid pace of IT.  It’s a recognition that we cannot scale people quickly as we add infrastructure.  And, critically, it is not infrastructure specific.

Over the next year, I’ll continue to dig deeply into the skills, tools and processes around operations.  I think that SRE may be the right banner for these thoughts and I’d like to hear your thoughts about that.

Reference Deployments are Critical [2/4 series on Operating Open Source Infrastructure]

This post is the second in a 4 part series about Success factors for Operating Open Source Infrastructure.

plansWhen we look at reference deployments, there are several things that make a good referenced deployment; and ones that are useful by the community.

First, a referenced deployment needs to be specific and useful. They have to be identified as solving a specific problem using the software. And they have to have a specific configuration that can be described in a way that creates a workable scenario for that. There may be multiple useful reference implementations. And in that case, each one needs to be identified as the – by the expected behavior. For example, our deployments include a compute centric configuration that has hardware configurations and network configurations adapted to compute focused applications.

They also have storage focused applications that are specifically targeted at enabling cheap and deep storage nodes for that type of situation. Both configurations are important and valid but they require different implementations, different details and different reference architectures. As long as it is clear that there are multiple patterns, the community is perfectly able to absorb and use these patterns.

Establishment of a widely adopted best practice is a central success criteria for any project.

Best practices ensure that deployers of the technology cannot only purchase implementations that will be successful, but they can also compare notes to work with their community. A significant adoption curve happens after the establishment of these best practices because at that point, the risk of purchase dramatically drops, and the ability to support radically increases. The next thing that’s important in the establishment of these technologies is that that reference implementation or the reference architecture has a way to be configured in a repeatable way.

Very often, this takes the form of deployment books from manuals. While useful in small deployments, in a hyperscale deployment the books really have diminishing value. This is because the level of human error – the chance of making a fundamental mistake during configuration – increases exponentially with the number of nodes, because each node is tightly interconnected with other nodes within the system.

My team at Dell launched the Crowbar project as a way to reduce or mitigate this effort substantially. We recognized that the number one cause of delays and impacts in time to value in a hyperscale deployment is configuration and set-up. Any simple mistake made during configuration, even down to ordering of the gear, or physical defects within the infrastructure, will create dramatic delays in troubleshooting and diagnosing those issues. By automating the process, we have ensured that we can bootstrap the system quickly.

The goal of automated best practice is to bootstrap in a conforming and repeatable way. This enables the community to work together immediately towards return on investment, and greatly reduces the risk of problems caused by human error. For example, it’s typical within a site for us to find that network configurations do not match the specifications. In many cases, we find issues with the core networking infrastructure not matching the way it was originally designed. We also find failures on physical infrastructure, disk failures, system mismatches,and unanticipated configuration. Any one of these problems with a human setup might be missed or overlooked.

Validated reference architectures, while valuable, are no longer sufficient.   Automated reference configurations have become the key to successfully delivered solutions.

Interested in more?  Read part 3







OpenStack steps toward Interopability with Temptest, RAs & RefStack.org

Pipes are interoperableI’m a cautious supporter of OpenStack leading with implementation (over API specification); however, it clearly has risks. OpenStack has the benefit of many live sites operating at significant scale. The short term cost is that those sites were not fully interoperable (progress is being made!). Even if they were, we are lack the means to validate that they are.

The interoperability challenge was a major theme of the Havana Summit in Portland last week (panel I moderated) .  Solving it creates significant benefits for the OpenStack community.  These benefits have significant financial opportunities for the OpenStack ecosystem.

This is a journey that we are on together – it’s not a deliverable from a single company or a release that we will complete and move on.

There were several themes that Monty and I presented during Heat for Reference Architectures (slides).  It’s pretty obvious that interop is valuable (I discuss why you should care in this earlier post) and running a cloud means dealing with hardware, software and ops in equal measures.  We also identified lots of important items like Open OperationsUpstreamingReference Architecture/Implementation and Testing.

During the session, I think we did a good job stating how we can use Heat for an RA to make incremental steps.   and I had a session about upgrade (slides).

Even with all this progress, Testing for interoperability was one of the largest gaps.

The challenge is not if we should test, but how to create a set of tests that everyone will accept as adequate.  Approach that goal with standardization or specification objective is likely an impossible challenge.

Joshua McKenty & Monty Taylor found a starting point for interoperability FITS testing: “let’s use the Tempest tests we’ve got.”

We should question the assumption that faithful implementation test specifications (FITS) for interoperability are only useful with a matching specification and significant API coverage.  Any level of coverage provides useful information and, more importantly, visibility accelerates contributions to the test base.

I can speak from experience that this approach has merit.  The Crowbar team at Dell has been including OpenStack Tempest as part of our reference deployment since Essex and it runs as part of our automated test infrastructure against every build.  This process does not catch every issue, but passing Tempest is a very good indication that you’ve got the a workable OpenStack deployment.

Seven Cloud Success Criteria to consider before you pick a platform

From my desk at Dell, I have a unique perspective.   In addition to a constant stream of deep customer interactions about our many cloud solutions (even going back pre-OpenStack to Joyent & Eucalyptus), I have been an active advocate for OpenStack, involved in many discussions with and about CloudStack and regularly talk shop with Dell’s VIS Creator (our enterprise focused virtualization products) teams.  And, if you go back ten years to 2002, patented the concept of hybrid clouds with Dave McCrory.

Rather than offering opinions in the Cloud v. Cloud fray, I’m suggesting that cloud success means taking a system view.

Platform choice is only part of the decision: operational readiness, application types and organization culture are critical foundations before platform.

Over the last two years at Dell, I found seven points outweigh customers’ choice of platform.

  1. Running clouds requires building operational expertise both at the application and infrastructure layers.  CloudOps is real.
  2. Application architectures matter for cloud deployment because they can redefine the SLA requirements and API expectations
  3. Development community and collaboration is a significant value because sharing around open operations offers significant returns.
  4. We need to build an accelerating pace of innovation into our core operating principles
  5. There are still significant technology gaps to fill (networking & storage) and we will discover new gaps as we go
  6. We can no longer discuss public and private clouds as distinct concepts.   True hybrid clouds are not here yet, but everyone can already see their massive shadow.
  7. There is always more than one right technological answer.  Avoid analysis paralysis by making incrementally correct decisions (committing, moving forward, learning and then re-evaluating).

Don’t fork it up. OpenStack needs community collaboration

Cant we just be friends?

We’re standing on the eve of the OpenStack 4th Design summit (aka Essex) and I’m watching a frenzy of IT Goliaths (Dell, Citrix, Cisco, HP, Rackspace) and some Cloud Davids (Nebula, Stackops) try to tangle revenue streams from an open source cloud project.

I was pleased to read GigaOM‘s Derrick Harris validation of Dell’s strategy which featured my team’s contributions (Crowbar, OpenStack & Hadoop).  We are working hard to bring these technologies to our customers in an open and collaborative way.

Dell has substantial IT assets to bring to bear on cloud solutions.  All of them are ultimately tied to products that generate revenue for Dell; however, that does not prevent our being able to collaborate and share.  On the contrary, we benefiting from input from our partners, customers and community to determine which features are needed to accelerate adoption.  Our recent decision to accelerate Crowbar modularization is a clear example of that process.

It is essential to understand that this is not just about cloud technologies!  It is about the collaborative way we are promoting them and the processes we are using to deliver them.

With Dell’s cloud moving at hurricane speed, it has been interesting to watch how other companies are setting their own OpenStack initiatives.  It seems to me that many of these efforts involve forks from OpenStack that cannot/will not be contributed back the community.  One (but not the only) example is from HP’s Emil Sayegh who says that “HP developers … ideas will be shared…”  He does not commit to sharing HP’s code in his post.  I hope that is an oversight and not their plan.

In time, forking may be needed.  Right now, we need to focus on building a strong foundation.  Open contributions of code are the engine of that success.