Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) have many goals and objectives. Above all is ensuring the reliability of the applications and an excellent customer experience. To do this well and at scale, SREs need frameworks. The one with a lot of momentum behind it is observability, which is not interchangeable with monitoring. In this post, we’ll do a deep dive into observability and its importance for SREs.
What is observability? (Hint: It’s not monitoring.)
In a DevOps culture, observability and monitoring aren’t synonyms. Monitoring takes place by teams using instrumentation to gather data about systems. When it identifies errors or issues, SREs can quickly respond. However, it’s a passive process and primarily works for static environments.
Observability is instrumenting your systems with tools to collect actionable data to know when the errors occur—but more importantly, why they happen. It’s an approach to understanding multilayer architectures to find what is broken and what requires improvement for better performance.
SREs can use observability to:
- Provide high-quality applications and software at scale.
- View real-time performance for their digital assets.
- Construct a sustainable innovation environment.
- Maximize organizational investments in the cloud and other advanced tools.
What’s driving the need for observability?
The shift to observability was a necessity that expanded from monitoring. The pressure to iterate faster, meet customer expectations, and embrace automation opened the doors for observability. There are several challenges SREs encountered that are driving the adoption of observability:
- Systems and applications are more complex, resulting in the concept of the “unknown unknowns.”
- Frequent deployments bring a higher rate of risk of failures, necessitating instant detection so as not to encumber the user experience.
- The toolset is expanding and becoming harder to manage with manual or inefficient processes.
While all these drivers point to a greater proliferation of observability, how wide is the adoption?
Adoption of observability isn’t widespread.
Since SREs have the opportunity to solve issues with observability, one would think it’s in widespread use. However, data from an industry survey paints a different picture. In the 2020 SRE Survey, only 53 percent of SREs said observability tools were in use. Of that group, 43 percent have an observability framework for each service, 27 percent for some services, and 19 percent for no services.
How do SREs master observability and make it part of their foundation? It starts with three pillars.
There are three observability pillars.
There are three central components to observability. Having them doesn’t necessarily mean you have observability, but they are the building blocks. Here’s a brief synopsis of each and why they are essential.
Event logs are text lines describing an event. It’s a time-stamped, unalterable record of discrete events occurring over time. Logs are where SREs point their attention when something goes wrong. They also include a payload that provides context about the event. This context offers valuable insights for debugging. In this, SREs seek to find patterns. Failures rarely happen because of one specific event. With logs, you can see the triggers.
Generally speaking, a metric is a data measurement over intervals of time. A metric has a set of traits, such as a time stamp, value, name, and labels. An SRE would use a metric to trigger an alert when a number rises above a certain threshold. Metrics enable you to define several key areas, service-level agreements (SLAs), service-level objectives (SLO), and service-level indicators (SLI).
Metrics are the best component for discovering the overall current health of a system. Metrics are customizable as well, which translates to better insights.
This pillar does have drawbacks. When you use them for trigger alerts, you are working within a known problem. You receive the alert and deploy the fix that you already have. Over time, your metrics continue to show excellent reliability. The confusion begins when you’re still receiving feedback about the application being down. Metrics, on their own, don’t solve all problems. Supplementing them with logs helps.
A trace represents a span of executed code. It has three attributes: a name, ID, and time value. Combining traces from a distributed system, you can see the end-to-end flow of the path of execution. Traces identify what areas in the code are taking longer to process inputs.
Traces are most advantageous when addressing latency. You have greater visibility into a request path.
The discussion around these elements by experts brings about many viewpoints. Simply put, these tools won’t guarantee observability, but they are the best way to move toward it.
There are a few benefits of observability for SREs.
Observability is certainly worth pursuing for SRE teams. Leveraging it can offer many benefits including:
- Detecting customer-affecting issues faster and rolling back before breaking SLOs.
- Fostering transparency and providing real-time information on a service’s status. This advantage allows you to be more productive and not waste time in update meetings, which are no longer necessary.
- Creating better workflows for debugging, optimizing workflows, and resolving issues rapidly.
- Investigating hypotheses about root causes easier.
Site reliability can work smartly with observability.
The need for and advantages of observability will only increase for SREs. The industry has yet to reach saturation for the approach, but it’s a pivotal part of running a DevOps environment that deploys reliable, error-free software.
Is observability your specialty? Looking to transition to a career that allows you to show off your mastery of observability? Contact our SRE recruiting experts to explore opportunities.