SRE vs DevOps

Can they coexist or do they compete?

DevOps. Site Reliability Engineering (SRE). Are they different or just different names for the same thing? This article explores that question in depth by delving into each and then comparing them.

DevOps is an important paradigm shift to bridge the gap between the typically siloed development teams and operations teams. Traditionally these two teams rarely communicate, much less collaborate on work. Development writes code and throws it over the metaphoric wall to operations whose job it is to deploy that code, with all its dependencies and configurations, and keep it running.

Site Reliability Engineering is the next stage implementation of DevOps. DevOps is a philosophy with a wide range of implementation styles available. SRE is more prescriptive about how things are to be done and what the priorities of the team explicitly are, specifically, the job is to keep the site reliable and available and only things that contribute to this goal are prioritized.

What is DevOps?

The shortest definition of DevOps is combining development and operations teams for the purpose of moving code into production as quickly and smoothly as possible. The philosophy behind DevOps is that teams who share the responsibilities for both code writing as well as maintenance to keep it running well once in production are more efficient.

What is the Role of DevOps in an Organization?

According to Google, the primary role of DevOps in an organization is to “increase software delivery velocity, improve service reliability, and build shared ownership among software stakeholders.” This is done via a cultural and organizational movement, one that requires focus and buy-in from stakeholders, because it really is a new way of thinking about software development.

What are the Benefits of DevOps?

DevOps benefits an organization by improving the speed of software delivery with more frequent frequent releases comprised of smaller changes. This is a competitive advantage, allowing companies to bring products to market faster, whether feature additions or stability/bug fixes. We split out large software into services or microservices, making updates and replacements easier and faster, and since we have trained teams overseeing them and implementing good practices like failover schemes and Chaos Engineering to enhance reliability, we minimize the opportunity for failure due to networking and messaging problems.

DevOps also improves software stability, because even though changes are pushed to production frequently, those changes are small and therefore have far less potential to cause disruption. Further, small changes are easy to roll back quickly in the event of an unforeseen problem, making it safer to push those frequent changes.

Another benefit is in the availability and security of teams’ software delivery capability. When we are using a toolchain and build process frequently, we work out the problems and the process gets smoother and easier over time. Of course, we also automate it, which itself has great benefits. All this leads to reduced opportunity for errors, bugs, and security holes.

What is Site Reliability Engineering?

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is the outcome of combining system operations responsibilities with software development and software engineering. SREs accept a broad range of responsibility relating to software code. If they write it, they build it, they ship it, and they own it in production.

One interesting metaphor in common use is that the class SRE implements the DevOps interface. In other words, classes in object-oriented programming often include more specific behaviors than what interfaces define and sometimes classes implement multiple interfaces. In that sense, SRE includes practices and recommendations that are sometimes more precise or additional to what DevOps describes.

We define Site Reliability Engineering in detail in What is Site Reliability Engineering? A Primer for Engineering Leaders.

What are the Benefits of Site Reliability Engineering?

Where DevOps brings greater collaboration and velocity to companies, the main benefit of Site Reliability Engineering is greatly enhanced uptime. The strong focus on keeping a software platform or service running is the foundation of SRE. The goal is to keep things operational “no matter what,” meaning that significant effort and emphasis is placed on things like redundancy, disaster mitigation and prevention, and ultimately, reliability.

For an SRE, uptime is key. Even beyond what is promised, the goal is always to find better and better ways to prevent problems that can cause downtime and to keep things up and running. The unexpected happens, and we all know it, so perfection is not the focus. Instead, the focus is on learning from past problems, preventing recurrence, and anticipating as many potential problems as possible. Top-notch SREs do all of these well and are paid accordingly.

It is not a coincidence that companies such as Evernote and Home Depot with solid SRE teams can demonstrate significantly improved uptime, as shown in these case studies from Google.

What is the role of Site Reliability Engineering in an Organization?

The role of Site Reliability Engineering in an organization is to keep the organization focused on what ultimately matters to customers: the platforms and services customers want must be available when customers want to use them. Team members use a variety of tools, programming languages, and a broad skill set, making the job one that is constantly stimulating and interesting. See our sample SRE job description and interview questions article for more.

How does DevOps Work?

DevOps works by building a culture of collaboration from the beginning. Teams must work to establish trust between members, and by sharing responsibilities of all the stages of software development team members can make more informed decisions about the code that they write, test, deploy, and maintain. This flies in the face of past software development methodologies that relied on an assembly line of multi-stage testing deployments, review committees comprised of people across the business, and careful, often tedious, checklists.

It has always been a challenge in a waterfall setting to get code from idea to implementation to production efficiently. Even a major bug fix from a quality software engineer would require navigating organizational silos, setting up meetings and a sign off from multiple departments, many of whom might have only a passing interest in the system or service involved. It is not uncommon for a feature update to take six to nine months to make it into productions and provide value to customers. This is untenable in today’s marketplace.

Instead, DevOps teams are entrusted by the business to remember the big picture while writing code, because those same people must work together to deploy that code to production and maintain it. The very same team is responsible for bugs, outages, or anything else related to the code they have written.

Teams are empowered to experiment and innovate. They own the code. They own the process. They own the deployment. They also hold the power to make improvements and try out new ideas without approval from anyone outside the team.

The team is accountable for the reliability of their code and deployment and are otherwise given wide leeway to determine their own processes, change approvals, management, and needs. This requires a cultural shift and a great degree of trust, including trust among team members and also trust from management.

Four Metrics for the Success of DevOps

Google’s Jez Humble defined four metrics for the success of DevOps:

Lead time for changes measures how much time you must plan in advance for a proposed software change to make it to production. Decreasing that is vital for increased deployment cadence. Low performers take a week or even a month. High performers only need a day or less.

Deployment frequency has a direct impact on how rapidly it is possible for software users to benefit from bug fixes and new or enhanced features. Ultimately, elite companies deploy multiple times per day!

Time to restore service is the amount of time required to bring services back up when a problem occurs. Getting your number down under one hour is ideal. Eliminating the need entirely is an unreasonable expectation in an era of increased deployment velocity that sometimes introduces breaking changes. Note that this and the next entry do not mean failure of the overall system, but only failure of an individual service. If you are using canary deployments, the failure of a new service instance should have no impact on the numerous instances of the previous stable release and therefore there should not be a customer impact, even though you encounter problems.

Change failure rate measures how frequently a deployed release has to be rolled back due to it not working properly. The best teams have a rate between zero and 15%. Things like code reviews, testing, and good design help, but our systems are so complex and under constant change that we should expect some service failures.

How Do We Make This Happen?

How do we accomplish any of this? First, we need good measurement. Observability. We monitor our systems and use what we learn to inform our business decisions. Bottlenecks and squeaky wheels get attention, sooner rather than later.

Failure notifications are sent proactively based on data thresholds set in monitoring tools. We actively work to automate failure mitigation and try to set activation based on monitoring data thresholds set well below actual failure levels, so that even if a node fails or networking falters, end user needs are already routed to other paths and our customers never notice there was a problem.

DevOps requires establishing a cultural norm that accidents are normal and that failures happen--and that neither should be a lightning rod for blame. Eliminating blame enhances a team’s ability to focus on how to fix problems and experimentation rather than worrying about reputations and battling anxieties. Increasing the rate of change will also increase potential failures, so DevOps cultures need to be comfortable with failure while also focusing on recovery and backups.

DevOps Technology and Tools

Some of the technical solutions that effective teams use in their DevOps workflows include:

  • Version control for all code, including configuration management and secrets management, using tools such as git, with GitHub or GitLab for centralized master repository access or similar
  • A trunk-based development model where developers and engineers pull from a master branch frequently and push changes that are as atomic and small as possible as frequently as possible in separate pull or merge requests
  • Continuous integration using tools like Jenkins, Spinnaker, Travis CI or similar
  • Deployment automation, typically using the same CI tools
  • Test automation, including security tests starting as early in the pipeline as possible, using tools like Selenium, Postman, mabl or similar
  • Incident management, for when things go wrong, using tools such as Opsgenie, PagerDuty, and VictorOps or similar

How do DevOps and Site Reliability Engineering Compare: SRE vs DevOps

Systems fail, sometimes publicly and at great cost. Airlines have been hit with system-wide ticketing outages causing significant inconvenience and the company responsible said, “No downtime is acceptable” as they apologized for the downtime. Costco’s website crashed for several hours on Thanksgiving Day, costing them an estimated $11 million. CenturyLink had an outage lasting over 24 hours that included disruption to the vital 911 emergency service. These are just highlights from 2019.

Can we prevent outages in an era of such great velocity? We have gone from annual software releases to daily releases, from running software as a monolith to running hundreds of microservices, from on prem hosting on hundreds of physical hosts to Kubernetes, containers, and cloud hosts numbering sometimes into the hundreds of thousands.

This is where it is vital to join DevOps with Site Reliability Engineering perspectives and implementation.

Site reliability engineering may be thought of as a specific implementation of DevOps, even though they were developed separately. There are many similarities in intent and foundational perspectives. Differences mainly result from a narrowing of team focus.

Both DevOps Engineers and Site Reliability Engineers begin with a belief that change is necessary to improve. No software remains stagnant. No system idles unchanged forever. Whether it is fixing bugs or evolving and adding features, things change. Capacity needs wax and wane and infrastructure cannot remain static. Everything must and will eventually change or die out.

Both have a strong focus on working together as a team with shared responsibilities and an assumption of collaboration. No one works in a silo. Ownership is shared from initial code creation to software builds to deployment to production and maintenance. Keeping everything working is everyone’s responsibility, even if there is some role-based focus for individual team members, the responsibility remains everyone’s.

While both consider atomic changes a shared value, with reliability as the main focus, managing change is vital for SRE. Both promote making software changes as small as possible, because small deltas usually merge more smoothly and are easier to roll back when a problem arises. However, the R is SRE is “reliability” and that focus promotes this value to a higher standing.

How these small changes are merged and then integrated into a build and deployed may differ from a tooling perspective across DevOps and SRE, but both share a strong preference for automation where possible. SRE tends to take this to the logical extreme where it can, seeking to automate the CI/CD pipeline, testing, chaos experiments, and more.

SRE teams work to automate nearly every action that is performed more than once or twice by a human, removing any possible toil from the daily routine in favor of using human intellectual capacity to find and enact improvements. This may happen in a DevOps team, but it is rarely a focus.

The tools used by each type of team are generally similar and may be nearly identical, with the exception of team-written tools specific to that team’s responsibilities. The main similarity is a perspective that is focused on APIs and abstracted interactions rather than direct entanglements between systems or for administration and management tasks. Some tools are created in-house, some are adapted open source tools, and some are purchased proprietary tools.

A huge similarity is the requirement for good measurement and observability. Data, especially good data, is vital to both DevOps and SRE. One big difference is that SRE teams always focus on service level objectives (SLOs), keeping them and improving systems to maximize effectiveness based on them. DevOps tend to think about what the data tells them about the system, how it is running, where it is weak or failing, and so on. SREs tend to be more specifically practical, thinking about how to use the same data to improve performance on one or more SLOs, even using machine learning techniques to have systems adapt themselves to changing circumstances.

Both DevOps and SRE teams share the expectation that bad things happen. System components fail. Humans accidentally input the wrong instructions. Networks get overloaded and latent or fail. With this expectation, focus is put on how to prevent and then how to fix quickly when prevention fails. There is no blame placed on anyone. Looking at failures after they are repaired in a blameless way with a blameless retrospective or postmortem permits teams to focus on how to prevent a recurrence of the same problem rather than keeping silent out of fear of repercussion. Better systems result.

The biggest difference between DevOps and SRE is not in perspective or wider philosophy. The cultures are also very similar. The biggest difference is that SRE has an intentionally narrowed focus on keeping services and platforms available to customers while DevOps tends to focus on overall processes, which is much broader.

The two have different foundational guiding principles at the lowest layer as DevOps simply believes it has found a better way to meet the needs of the company and its customers while SRE believes it exists to keep a site reliable. It is interesting that both perspectives, developed separately, have some to embrace such astoundingly similar practices.

Does Every Engineering Organization Need Site Reliability Engineers, or Does DevOps Suffice?

To answer that question, answer this one first. Does your organization produce and maintain anything that is vital to customer success? How complex is your system?

If downtime is okay and uptime is not your main focus, perhaps DevOps will suffice. It is undoubtedly an improvement on past methods of software development, deployment, and operations.

If, however, your application or services are expected to be reliable to the level of two or more nines of uptime and availability, then the laser-like focus of SRE with its error budgets and SLOs will help remove the politics and guesses from the process. This enables you to see clearly how to most directly and effectively impact the availability and reliability of your system.

This is a bit of a trick question, because customer expectations continue to rise and downtime becomes less and less acceptable. If you don’t believe us, ask yourself if you’d tolerate an hours long maintenance window, something that was common a few years ago.

This is especially true if we bring system architecture into the conversation. With the growing complexity of containerized microservices running on cloud service, orchestrating everything and keeping everything working together, even with components or services fail, is a major undertaking. Planning for site reliability is vital.


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Is the Position of SysAdmin No Longer Relevant?

The answer is a qualified, “Yes, but.” Systems administration is still a vital part of the operations side of DevOps and Site Reliability Engineering. However, specializing in just that without learning how to work in a wider, collaborative context is a bad idea.

Specialized systems administration roles in a classic operations silo are dying out. It is simply not possible to create web application systems at scale with the velocity of change needed to be relevant today using the traditional siloed processes and technology.

Good SysAdmin-trained engineers are a valuable part of the new world. In fact, having some reasonable SysAdmin capabilities on your team is a must in both DevOps and SRE. Someone who knows Linux system calls, for example, may save the day when a node that the team can’t afford to destroy and replace can be brought back into service more elegantly than killing it and spinning up a new one.

For sure, there are many classic SysAdmin jobs still out there. The legitimate worry is that the landscape is changing rapidly. Working in this capacity without also finding ways to develop the skills and experience needed to stay relevant in the wider world has the potential to bring stagnation and end careers. Today, there’s a high demand for SREs and there is a natural evolution from SysAdmin to SRE.

Can a Site Reliability Engineering Team Prevent Production Incidents?

Yes. That is their goal. They can prevent many incidents. No team can prevent all production incidents. However, look at the companies that use SRE teams and think about how long it has been since they had an incident that impacted customers. Think about the nature of the incident and how quickly it was taken care of. The data says that SRE is the way to go when uptime and a minimization of incident-related downtime and costs are key.

Summary

The ultimate answer to the question asked in this article’s title is yes, SRE and DevOps can coexist. While the two share some foundational values, the focus of their work is different. They share similar tooling and development practices. The big differentiator is that SREs have a strong and deliberate focus on keeping a site up and running; anything that does not directly contribute to that goal in a measurable way is excluded from their priorities. Sometimes, companies create wider DevOps teams with an SRE team working alongside them or as a subset of the team.

Guide Chapters

A primer on SRE for engineering leaders

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is the outcome of combining IT operations responsibilities with software development. With SRE there is an inherent expectation of responsibility for meeting the service-level objectives (SLOs) set for the service they manage and the service-level agreements (SLAs) we promise in our contracts.

The role and responsibilities of SREs in software engineering

What do Site Reliability Engineers do and what exactly are they responsible for within an engineering organization? While the specifics will depend on your company, there are some general trends for how SRE teams tend to organize themselves. This article focuses on how SRE teams share responsibilities across members while at the same time recognizing the strengths each member brings to the team as they work towards a common reliability goal.

How to become a top notch SRE

You have some experience with programming or systems administration, development or operations, and now that you have heard about Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) you think this sounds like something you would like to do as your next step. This article will help you learn in greater detail what you need to know to not only be successful, but one of the best SREs.

How much money do SREs make?

Wondering about the average Site Reliability Engineer salary? Or how much top-notch SREs at best-in-class organizations are compensated? We did some research and are sharing our findings here.

SRE interview questions and job descriptions

What do Site Reliability Engineers do and what exactly are they responsible for within an engineering organization? While the specifics will depend on your company, there are some general trends for how SRE teams tend to organize themselves. This article focuses on how SRE teams share responsibilities across members while at the same time recognizing the strengths each member brings to the team as they work towards a common reliability goal.

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