When do you need a Site Reliability Engineer?

05 Jul 2019 · Three minute read · on Gianluca's blog

I have started to work as a Site Reliability Engineer more than two years ago as first hired SRE at InfluxData. I survived and learned to all the eras that every company that onboard a new position live:

  1. Lack of knowledge about what the job role means
  2. Adjustment
  3. Growth
  4. Re-adjustment
  5. Repeat

You are an SRE not because you care about reliability, everybody cares about reliability but because the system is too complex to be driven by a person that also does other things.

There are no differences with any other “first hired” in a company. Even the first project manager gets hired when the person who was doing that job can’t make it anymore because the company needs somebody 100% focused on the product.

The Site Reliability Engineer as a role should improve service reliability. Visibility, observability, logging, scalability, instrumentation are all areas when it should step to serve better tooling to troubleshoot, identify issues. Because as we all know, even not that complex distributed system are difficult to debug, this complexity is caused by what it is called partial failure. The idea that a distributed system will never fail drastically alltogheter, but it is continuously in a condition of failure mitigated by re-try policies and or redundancy.

The ability to acknowledge a problem before it will get reported by a customer improves reliability.

It is not a responsibility for the Site Reliability Engineer to fix the actual bug in the service, it can. For all those reasons the SRE knows how to code, and it should modify the application, and it needs to be close to the team that builds the service, just as every heterogeneous group has who takes care about the design, UI, deploy, management.

are they the unique people on-call?

Obviously no. It’s hard to reach a scale where you can manage a sustainable rotation only with SREs, and every developer is responsible for the code it ships. If you managed to have a rotation for every service with different people, all of the teammates should be on-call.

The SREs other than being part of the rotation is the person responsible for the MTTR (mean time to repair) and the number of false positive. The Site Reliability Engineer needs to be able to make the MTTR as short as possible, and the number of false positive as low as it can. They should improve how the service is monitored, instrumented, and easy to debug.

do I need an SRE in every service team?

It is hard to quantify a number, but the SREs needs to have a structure that gives them time to hang out together and to see each other as a unique team as well to share knowledge and to avoid the use of too many technologies across the company. Even more, if the company is not at a gigantic scale in term of the number of people. The amount of SREs per team depends on now crucial, and complex reliability for the service is, how big the service team is. You can share SREs with organizations and services if they are not too big or too complicated or if the unit itself has excellent reliability skills embedded in.

What SRE is not

SRE does not replace your ops team; it is not a person with DevOps skills that knows containers and Kubernetes. It knows cloud, containers, and kubernetes because it is a pretty new “unicorn” role.

It is a side effect of being a coder that loves to see its code running smoothly under real load.

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