Book Image

Real-World SRE

By : Nat Welch
Book Image

Real-World SRE

By: Nat Welch

Overview of this book

Real-World SRE is the go-to survival guide for the software developer in the middle of catastrophic website failure. Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) has emerged on the frontline as businesses strive to maximize uptime. This book is a step-by-step framework to follow when your website is down and the countdown is on to fix it. Nat Welch has battle-hardened experience in reliability engineering at some of the biggest outage-sensitive companies on the internet. Arm yourself with his tried-and-tested methods for monitoring modern web services, setting up alerts, and evaluating your incident response. Real-World SRE goes beyond just reacting to disaster—uncover the tools and strategies needed to safely test and release software, plan for long-term growth, and foresee future bottlenecks. Real-World SRE gives you the capability to set up your own robust plan of action to see you through a company-wide website crisis. The final chapter of Real-World SRE is dedicated to acing SRE interviews, either in getting a first job or a valued promotion.
Table of Contents (13 chapters)

What is SRE?

SRE is an exciting field. As mentioned earlier, it has evolved from a long line of roles and, as it is a relatively new field, its definition is steadily changing. SRE is an extension and evolution of many past concepts and, as such, concepts relevant to SRE apply to many roles, including but not exclusive to, backend engineering, DevOps, systems engineering, systems administration, operations, and so on. Depending on the company, these roles can involve very similar or very different responsibilities. The point is that, no matter what your job title is, you can apply SRE principles to your role.

In an attempt to define the field, we can learn a lot from its full name, Site Reliability Engineering:

  • Site: As in website
  • Reliability: Defined as, "The quality of being trustworthy or of performing consistently well." (Oxford Living Dictionary, 2017,
  • Engineering: Defined as, "The action of working artfully to bring something about." (Oxford Living Dictionary, 2017,
  • Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems; B. Beyer, C.D. Jones, J. Petoff, N.Murphy, 2016, by O'Reilly Media (

Merging these three definitions, we get something like, "The field focused on working artfully to bring about a website that performs consistently well." While this definition could use some brushing up, it suits our needs for now. If you work, or know people who work, in the web development or software engineering world and you ask them what SRE means, then they may ask you, "Isn't that like X?" To someone from that background, X might be "DevOps," "ops," "platform engineering," "infrastructure engineering," "24/7 engineering," "a sysadmin," and so on.

This variation of answers presents the first problem we will see throughout this book: every organization is different. SRE's primary goal is making a website perform consistently according to our previous definition, which is difficult because it is dependent on the organization, the business around that organization, and the website's (or product's) requirements. One of the primary goals of this book is to present a framework that you can apply even if you do not belong to an organization with any of the aforementioned roles. The framework should be effective if you work for yourself, and it should also work if you are employed by some gigantic international multi-headed Hydra organization, and anything in between.

I worked as an SRE in 2016 for Hillary for America. It was the lead organization (but definitely not the only one) working to help to elect Hillary Clinton as President of the United States of America. We were not successful, and while this example immediately dates this book, I found it to have the most concrete separation of concerns between the parts of a website that I have ever worked on. The organization was hyper-focused on one goal (electing Hillary Clinton as president), so it had a very explicit list of goals that made my job a lot easier.

There were many separate parts of the campaign that the technology team worked on, including a mobile application, different websites, data pipelines, and large databases. To keep this simple though, and to explain what I mean by a separation of concerns, let me use three separate websites that we built and maintained as an example:

  • The home page for Hillary Clinton's campaign:
  • The donate page for her campaign:
  • The voter registration page for her campaign:
What is SRE?

Figure 1: Screenshots of different parts of, courtesy of the Hillary for America design team. From left to right: the header on the home page, a page about Nevada, a page about Hillary's policies, Hillary's home page in Spanish, the campaign blog, and the donate page.

The home page was a general landing page. It needed to be available during the hours that people in North America were awake (as our target audience was mostly based in the United States), but very few people visited the home page unless driven there.

The main reason you would go to was if you were sent there, not because it was part of your daily browsing like you would visit Twitter or Reddit. Surrogates speaking at rallies, on the radio, or on television supporting Hillary Clinton would often say things like, "Go to now to sign up," or " has more details on her policies on this topic." A five-minute outage here and there was OK, because of this semipredictable traffic spike, but like many media organizations, there were no guarantees of when a large spike of traffic would occur.

The donate page always needed to be up. According to our product team and senior leadership, the donate page's availability was priority number one. If people could not give money, then the campaign might not be able to pay people's salaries or get the candidate to her speaking engagements. The donation site was not the only way that the campaign made money, but it was a significant source of income.

The voter registration page only needed to be fully available when there was an election coming soon. This was because the page let people say they were going to vote for Hillary Clinton and find their nearest polling location. While the donate page needed to be available for the majority of the campaign (May 2015 through to November 2016), the voter registration page only really needed to be available during the lead up to the primary election (September through to November of 2016). If we had built the voter registration page earlier in the election, it also would have been needed in the days leading up to the primaries, but then only for states that were voting on those days. Primary elections are a precursor to the general election and happen from February to June, with different states voting on different days.

The key here is that different websites and features have different requirements and a different definition of being reliable. Nothing will ever be perfect, nor is 100% uptime achievable on the internet, because things are always breaking. So, all we can do is figure out what sort of failures we might have and optimize our product to be resilient in a way that is useful for us. SRE isn't just the analysis of systems; it is also the architecting and building of systems so that they meet the requirements of the product.


Software on the internet can never be fully reliable for two reasons. The first reason is that the internet is a distributed system and, often, parts fail, which will affect your service's availability. The second reason is that humans write software, and that software will often have bugs, which will also cause outages.

Often, the job of someone working in SRE is to take in reliability requirements for software, and its infrastructure, and then figure out how to make the infrastructure meet those requirements. Steps toward this often require figuring out if existing infrastructure is meeting those needs, collaborating with teams (or people writing software that will run on the infrastructure), evaluating external tools, or just designing and writing what you need yourself.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, an SRE role can be very diverse. The requirements of an SRE position at a Fortune 500 company can be very different to those of a 20-person video game company. The role could be different at a bank in the USA from a role at a bank on the other side of the world. This is because the organization is different. For smaller organizations, someone working as an SRE may handle everything in the organization related to infrastructure and reliability. On the other hand, larger organizations may have multiple teams of SREs working with many diverse teams of developers. The role between two different banks could be different because of each bank's needs.

A local bank may only need someone to improve the reliability of tools for people who work for the bank, while a much larger bank in London may need someone who can make sure their bank's systems can make trades at very high speeds with the London Stock Exchange or support millions of individual customers. This book will provide a structure for anyone interested in becoming an SRE. The goal is to empower you, no matter your background or current situation. It will not be a panacea but will provide a knowledge base and a framework for making sites more reliable and moving your career forwards.