Operational Best Practices #serverless

This post is part two of my recap of last week’s terrific Serverless conference.  If you feel like getting bitchy with me about what serverless means or #NoOps or whatever, please refer back to the prequel post, where I talked about operations engineering in the modern world.

*Then* you can get bitchy with me.  (xoxoxxooxo)

The title of my talk was:

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.43.39 PM

The theme of my talk was basically: what should software engineers know and care about when it comes to operations in a world where we are outsourcing more and more core functionality?

If you care about running a quality service or product, or providing your customers with a reasonable level of service, you have to care about operational concerns like design, resiliency, instrumentation and debuggability.  No matter how many abstractions there are between you and the bare metal.

If you chose a provider, you do not get to just point your finger at them in the post mortem and say it’s their fault.  You chose them, it’s on you.  It’s tacky to blame the software or the service, and besides your customers don’t give a shit whose “fault” it is.

So given an infinite number of things to care about, where do you start?

What is your mission, and what are your differentiators?

The first question must always be: what is your mission?  Your mission is not writing software.  Your mission is delivering whatever it is your customers are paying you for, and you use software to get there.  (Code is kind of a liability so you should write as little of it as necessary.  hey!! sounds like a good argument for #serverless!)

Second: what are your core differentiators?  What are the things that you are doing that are unique, and difficult to replicate, or the things where you have to actually be world class experts in those things?

Those are the things that you will have the hardest time outsourcing, or that you should think about very carefully before outsourcing.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 7.57.06 PM

Facts

You can outsource labor, but you can’t outsource caring.  And nobody but you is in the position to think about your core differentiators and your product in a holistic way.

If you’re a typical early startup, you’re probably using somewhere between 5 and 20 SaaS products to get rid of some of the crap work and offload it to dedicated teams who can do it better than you can, much more cheaply, so you are freed up to work on your core value proposition.

GOOD.

But you still have to think about things like reliability, your security model, your persistent storage models, your query performance, how all these lovely services talk to each other, how you’re going to debug them, how you’re going to repro when things go wrong, etc.  You still own these things, even if you don’t run them.

For example, take AWS Lambda.  It’s a pretty great service on many dimensions.  It’s an early version of the future.  It is also INCREDIBLY irritating and challenging to debug in a practically infinite number of insanity-inducing ways.

** Important side note — I’m talking about actual production systems.  Parse, Heroku, Lambda, etc are GREAT for prototyping and can take you a long, long way.  Early stage startups SHOULD optimize for agility and rapid developer iteration, not reliability.  Thx to @joeemison for reminding me that i left that out of the recap.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.03.01 PM

Focus on the critical path

Your users don’t care if your internal jenkins builds are broken.  They don’t care about a whole lot of things that you have to care about … eventually.  They do care a lot if your product isn’t actually functional.  Which means you have to think through the behavioral and failure characteristics of the providers you’re relying on in any user visible fashion.

Ask lots of questions if you can.  (AWS often won’t tell you much, but smaller providers will.)  Find out as much as you can about their cotenancy model (shared hardware or isolation?), their typical performance variance (run your own tests, don’t trust their claims), and the underlying storage systems.

Think about how you can bake in resiliency from the user’s perspective, that doesn’t rely on provider guarantees.  If you’re on mobile, can you provide a reasonable offline experience?  Like Parse did a lot of magic here in the APIs, where it would back off and retry saves if there were any errors.

Can you fail over to another provider if one is down?  Is it even worth it at your company’s stage of maturity and engineering resources to invest in this?

How willing are you to be locked into a vendor or provider, and what is the story if you find yourself forced to switch?  Or if that service goes away, as so many, many, many of them have done and will do.  (RIP, parse.com.)

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.11.10 PM

Tradeoffs

Listen, outsourcing is awesome.  I do it as much as I can.  I’m literally helping build a service that provides outsourced metrics, I believe in this version of the future!  It’s basically the latest iteration of capitalism in a nutshell: increased complexity –> increased specialization –> you pay other people to do the job better than you –> everybody wins.

But there are tradeoffs, so let’s be real.

The service, if it is smart, will put strong constraints on how you are able to use it, so they are more likely to deliver on their reliability goals.  When users have flexibility and options it creates chaos and unreliability.  If the platform has to choose between your happiness vs thousands of other customers’ happiness, they will choose the many over the one every time — as they should.

Limits may mysteriously change or be invented as they are discovered, esp with fledgling services.  You may be desperate for a particular feature, but you can’t build it.  (This is why I went for Kafka over Kinesis.)

You need to think way more carefully and more deeply about visibility and introspection up front than you would if you were running your own services, because you have no ability to log in and use strace or gdb or tail a logfile or run any system profiling commands when things go dark.

In the best case, you’re giving up some control and quality in exchange for experts doing the work better than you could for cheaper (e.g. i’m never running a fucking physical data center again, jesus.  EC24lyfe).  In a common worse case, it’s less reliable than what you would build AND it’s also opaque AND you can’t tell if it’s down for you or for everyone because frankly it’s just massively harder to build a service that works for thousands/millions of use cases than for any one of them individually.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.21.36 PM.png

Stateful services

Ohhhh and let’s just briefly talk about state.

The serverless utopia mostly ignores the problems of stateful services.  If pressed they will usually say DynamoDB, or Firebase, or RDS or Aurora or something.

This is a big, huge, deep, wide lake of crap to wade in to so all I’m going to say is that there is no such thing as having the luxury of not having to understand how your storage systems work.  Queries will get slow, and you’ll need to be able to figure out why and fix them.  You’ll hit scaling cliffs where suddenly a perfectly-usable app just starts timing everything out because of that extra second of latency coming from …

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The hardware underlying your instance will degrade (there’s a server somewhere under all those abstractions, don’t forget).  The provider will have mysterious failures.  They will be better than you, probably, but less inclined to give you satisfactory progress updates because there are hundreds or thousands or millions of you all clamoring.

The more you understand about your storage system (and the more you stay in the lane of how it was intended to be used), the happier you’ll be.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.28.29 PM

In conclusion

These trends are both inevitable and, for the most part, very good news for everyone.

Operations engineering is becoming a more fascinating and specialized skill set.  The best engineers are flocking to solve category problems — instead of building the same system at company after company, they are building SaaS solutions to solve it for the internet at large.  Just look at the massive explosion in operational software offerings over the past 5-6 years.

This means that the era of the in-house dedicated ops team, which serves as an absorbent buffer for all the pain of software development, is mostly on its way out the door.  (And good riddance.)

People are waking up to the fact that software quality improves when feedback loops are tighter for software engineers, which means being on call and owning services end to end.  The center of gravity is shifting towards engineering teams owning the services they built.

This is awesome!  You get to rent engineers from Google, AWS, Pagerduty, Pingdom, Heroku, etc for much cheaper than if you hired them in-house — if you could even get them, which you probably can’t because talent is scarce.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.39.42 PM

But the flip side of this is that application engineers need to get better at thinking in traditionally operations-oriented ways about reliability, architecture, instrumentation, visibility, security, and storage.  Figure out what your core differentiators are, and own the shit out of those.

Nobody but you can care about your mission as much as you can.  Own it, do it.  Have fun.

 

Operational Best Practices #serverless

WTF is operations? #serverless

I just got back from the very first ever @serverlessconf in NYC.  I have a soft spot for well-curated single-track conferences, and the organizers did an incredible job.  Major kudos to @iamstan and team for pulling together such a high-caliber mix of attendees as well as presenters.

I’m really honored that they asked me to speak.  And I had a lot of fun delivering my talk!  But in all honesty, I turned it down a few times — and then agreed, and then backed out, and then agreed again at the very last moment.  I just had this feeling like the attendees weren’t going to want to hear what I was gonna say, or like we weren’t gonna be speaking the same language.

Rainbow_dash_12_by_xpesifeindx-d5giyirWhich … turned out to be mmmmostly untrue.  To the organizers’ credit, when I expressed this concern to them, they vigorously argued that they wanted me to talk *because* they wanted a heavy dose of real talk in the mix along with all the airy fairy tales of magic and success.

 

So #serverless is the new cloud or whatever

Hi, I’m grouchy and I work with operations and data and backend stuff.  I spent 3.5 years helping Parse grow from a handful of apps to over a million.  Literally building serverless before it was cool TYVM.

So when I see kids saying “the future is serverless!” and “#NoOps!” I’m like okay, that’s cute.  I’ve lived the other side of this fairytale.  I’ve seen what happens when application developers think they don’t have to care about the skills associated with operations engineering.  When they forget that no matter how pretty the abstractions are, you’re still dealing with dusty old concepts like “persistent state” and “queries” and “unavailability” and so forth, or when they literally just think they can throw money at a service to make it go faster because that’s totally how services work.

I’m going to split this up into two posts.  I’ll write up a recap of my talk in a sec, but first let’s get some things straight.  Like words.  Like operations.

What is operations?

Let’s talk about what “operations” actually means, in the year 2016, assuming a reasonably high-functioning engineering environment.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.29.09 PM

At a macro level, operational excellence is not a role, it’s an emergent property.  It is how you get shit done.

Operations is the sum of all of the skills, knowledge and values that your company has built up around the practice of shipping and maintaining quality systems and software.  It’s your implicit values as well as your explicit values, habits, tribal knowledge, reward systems.  Everybody from tech support to product people to CEO participates in your operational outcomes, even though some roles are obviously more specialized than others.

Saying you have an ops team who is solely responsible for reliability is about as silly as saying that “HR defines and owns our company culture!”  No.  Managers and HR professionals may have particular skills and responsibilities, but culture is an emergent property and everyone contributes (and it only takes a couple bad actors to spoil the bushel).

Thinking about operational quality in terms of “a thing some other team is responsible for” is just generally not associated with great outcomes.  It leads to software engineers who are less proficient or connected to their outcomes, ops teams who get burned out, and an overall lower quality of software and services that get shipped to customers.

These are the specialized skill sets that I associate with really good operations engineers.  Do these look optional to you?

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.41.21 PM

It depends on your mission, but usually these are not particularly optional.  If you have customers, you need to care about these things.  Whether you have a dedicated ops team or not.  And you need to care about the tax it imposes on your humans too, especially when it comes to the cognitive overhead of complex systems.

So this is my definition of operations.  It doesn’t have to be your definition.  But I think it is a valuable framework for helping us reason about shipping quality software and healthy teams.  Especially given the often invisible nature of operations labor when it’s done really well.  It’s so much easier to notice and reward shipping shiny features than “something didn’t break”.

The inglorious past

Don’t get me wrong — I understand why “operations” has fallen out of favor in a lot of crowds.  I get why Google came up with “SRE” to draw a line between what they needed and what the average “sysadmin” was doing 10+ years ago.

Ops culture has a number of well-known and well-documented pathologies: hero/martyr complexes, risk aversion, burnout, etc.  I understand why this is offputting and we need to fix it.

Also, historically speaking, ops has attracted a greater proportion of nontraditional oddballs who just love debugging and building things — fewer Stanford CS PhDs, more tinkerers and liberal arts majors and college dropouts (hi).  And so they got paid less, and had less engineering discipline, and burned themselves out doing too much ad hoc labor.Rainbow_Dash_3.png

But — this is no longer our overwhelming reality, and it is certainly not the reality we are hurtling towards.  Thanks to the SRE movement, and the parallel and even more powerful & diverse open source DevOps movement, operations engineers are … engineers.  Who specialize in infrastructure.  And there’s more value than ever in empathy and fluid skill sets, in engineers who are capable of moving between disciplines and translating between specialties.  This is where the “full-stack developer” buzzword comes from.  It’s annoying, but reflects a real craving for generalist skill sets.

The BOFH stereotype is dead.  Some of the most creative cultural and technical changes in the technical landscape are being driven by the teams most identified with operations and developer tooling.  The best software engineers I know are the ones who consistently value the impact and lifecycle of the code they ship, and value deployment and instrumentation and observability.  In other words, they rock at ops stuff.

The Glorious Future

And so I think it’s time to bring back “operations” as a term of pride.  As a thing that is valued, and rewarded.  As a thing that every single person in an org understands as being critical to success.  Every organization has unique operational needs, and figuring out what they are and delivering on them takes a lot of creativity and ingenuity on both the cultural and technical front.

“Operations” comes with baggage, no doubt.  But I just don’t think that distance and denial are aRainbow_Dash_in_flightn effective approach for making something better, let alone trash talking and devaluing the skill sets that you need to deliver quality services.

You don’t make operational outcomes magically better by renaming the team “DevOps” or “SRE” or anything else.  You make it better by naming it and claiming it for what it is, and helping everyone understand how their role relates to your operational objectives.

And now that I have written this blog post I can stop arguing with people who want to talk about “DevOps Engineers” and whether “#NoOps” is a thing and maybe I can even stop trolling them back about the nascent “#NoDevs” movement.  (Haha just kidding, that one is too much fun.)

Part 2: Operations in a #Serverless World

 

WTF is operations? #serverless