DevOps vs SRE: delayed coverage of the dumbest war

Last week was the West Coast Velocity conference.  I had a terrific time — I think it’s the
best Velocity I’ve been to yet.  I also slipped in quite late, the evening before last, to catch Gareth’s session on DevOps vs SRE.

had to catch it, because Gareth Rushgrove (of DevOps Weekly glory) was taunting @lusis and me about it on the Internet.

rainbowdropletAnd it was worth it!   Holy crap, this was such a fun barnburner of a talk, with Gareth schizophrenically arguing both for and against the key premise of the talk, which was about “Google Infrastructure for Everyone Else (GIFEE)” and whether SRE is a) the highest, noblest goal that we should all aspire towards, or b) mostly irrelevant to anyone outside the Google confines.

Which Gareth won?  Check out the slides and judge for yourself.  🙃


At some point in his talk, though, Gareth tossed out something like “Charity probably already has a blog post on this drafted up somewhere.”  And I suddenly remembered “Fuck!  I DO!”  it’s been sitting in my Drafts for months god dammit.

So this is actually a thing I dashed off back in April, after CraftConf.  Somebody asked me for my opinion on the internet — always a dangerous proposition — and I went off on a bit of a rant about the differences and similarities between DevOps and SRE, as philosophies and practices.

Time passed and I forgot about it, and then decided it was too stale.  I mean who really wants to read a rehash of someone’s tweetstorm from two months ago?

Well Gareth, apparently.

Anyway: enjoy.



So in case you haven’t noticed, Google recently published a book about Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems.  It contains some really terrific wisdom on how to scale both systems and orgs.  It contains chapters written by dear friends of mine.  It’s a great book, and you should buy it and read it!

Rainbow-Umbrella-Z-5_5It also has some really fucking obnoxious blurbs.  Things like about how “ONLY GOOGLE COULD HAVE DONE THIS”, and an whiff of snobbery throughout the book as though they actually believe this (which is far worse if true).

You can’t really blame the poor blurb’ers, but you can certainly look askance at a massive systems engineering org when it seems as though they’ve never heard of DevOps, or considered how it relates to SRE practices, and may even be completely unaware of what the rest of the industry has been up to for the past 10-plus years.  It’s just a little weird.

So here, for the record, is what I said about it.


Google is a great company with lots of terrific engineers, but you can only say they are THE

The Google SRE Bible

BEST at what they do if you’re defining what they do tautologically, i.e. “they are the best at making Google run.”  Etsyans are THE BEST at running Etsy, Chefs are THE BEST at building Chef, because … that’s what they do with their lives.

Context is everything here.  People who are THE BEST at Googling often flail and flame out in early startups, and vice versa.  People who are THE BEST at early-stage startup engineering are rarely as happy or impactful at large, lumbering, more bureaucratic companies like Google.  People who can operate equally well and be equally happy at startups and behemoths are fairly rare.

And large companies tend to get snobby and forget this.  They stop hiring for uniquerainbow-swirl strengths and start hiring for lack of weaknesses or “Excellence in Whiteboard Coding Techniques,” and congratulate themselves alot about being The Best.  This becomes harmful when it translates into to less innovation, abysmal diversity numbers, and a slow but inexorable drift into dinosaurdom.

Everybody thinks their problems are hard, but to a seasoned engineer, most startup problems are not technically all that hard.  They’re tedious, and they are infinite, but anyone can figure this shit out.  The hard stuff is the rest of it: feverish pace, the need to reevaluate and reprioritize and reorient constantly, the total responsibility, the terror and uncertainty of trying to find product/market fit and perform ten jobs at once and personally deliver to your promises to your customers.

rainbow-cloud-dropletAt a large company, most of the hardest problems are bureaucratic.  You have to come to terms with being a very tiny cog in a very large wheel where the org has a huge vested interest in literally making you as replicable and replaceable as possible.  The pace is excruciatingly slow if you’re used to a startup.  The autonony is … well, did I mention the politics?  If you want autonomy, you have to master the politics.


Everyone.  Operational excellence is everyone’s job.  Dude, if you have a candidate come in and they’re a jerk to your office manager or your cleaning person, don’t fucking hire that person because having jerks on  your team is an operational risk (not to mention, you know, like moral issues and stuff).

But the more engineering-focused your role is, the more direct your impact will be on operational outcomes.

As a software engineer, developing strong ops chops makes you powerful.  It makes you better at debugging and instrumentation, building resiliency and observability into your own systems and interdependent systems, and building systems that other people can come along and understand and maintain long after you’re gone.rainbow-shade

As an operations engineer, those skills are already your bread and butter.  You can increase your power in other ways, like by leveling up at software engineering skills like test coverage and automation, or DBA stuff like query optimization and storage engine internals, or by helping the other teams around you level up on their skills (communication and persuasion are chronically underrecognized as core operations engineering skills).

This doesn’t mean that everyone can or should be able to do everything.  (I can’t even SAYrainbow-dot-ball the words “full stack engineer” without rolling my eyes.)  Generalists are awesome!  But past a certain inflection point, specialization is the only way an org can scale.

It’s the only way you make room for those engineering archetypes who only want to dive deep, or who really really love refactoring, or who will save the world then disappear for weeks.  Those engineers can be incredibly valuable as part of a team … but they are most valuable in a large org where you have enough generalists to keep the oars rowing along in the meantime.

So, back to Google.  They’ve done, ahem, rather  well for themselves.  Made shitbuckets of money, pushed the boundaries of tech, service hardly ever goes down.  They have operational demands that most of us never have seen and never will, and their engineers are definitely to be applauded for doing a lot of hard technical and cultural labor to get there.

So why did this SRE book ruffle a few feathers?

Mostly because it comes off a little tone deaf in places.  I’m not personally pissed off by
the google SRE book, actually, just a little bemused at how legitimately unaware they seem to be about … anything else that the industry has been doing over the past 10 years, in terms of cultural transformation, turning sysadmins into better engineers, sharing on-call rotations, developing processes around empathy and cross-functionality, engineering best practices, etc.

DevOps for the rest of us

If you try and just apply Google SRE principles to your own org according to their prescriptive model, you’re gonna be in for a really, really bad time.

However, it happens that Jen Davis and Katherine Daniels just published a book called Effective DevOps, which covers a lot of the same ground with a much more varied and inclusive approach.  And one of the things they return to over and over again is the power of context, and how one-size-fits-all solutions simply don’t exist, just like unisex OSFA t-shirts are a dirty fucking lie.

Google insularity is … a thing.  On the one hand it’s great that they’re opening up a bit!rainbow-umbrella-clipart-1 On the other hand it’s a little bit like when somebody barges onto a mailing list and starts spouting without skimming any of the archives.  And don’t even get me started on what happens when you hire long, longterm ex-Googlers back into to the real world.

So, so many of us have had this experience of hiring ex-Googlers who automatically assume that the way Google does a thing is CORRECT, not just contextually appropriate.   Not just right for Google, but right for everyone, always.  Which is just obviously untrue.  But the reassimilation process can be quite long and exhausting when the Kool-Aid is so strong.

Because yeah, this is a conversation and a transformation that the industry has been having for a long time now.  Compared with the SRE manifesto, the DevOps philosophy is much more crowd-sourced, more flexible, and adaptable to organizations of all stages of developments, with all different requirements and key business differentiators, because it’s benefited from loud, mouthy contributors who aren’t all working in the same bubble all along.

And it’s like Google isn’t even aware this was happening, which is weird.

Orrrrrr, maybe I’m just a wee bit annoyed that I’ve been drawn into this position rainbow-dot-ballof having to defend “DevOps”, after many excellent years spent being grumpy about the word and the 10000010101 ways it is used and abused.

(Tell me again about your “DevOps Engineering Team”, I dare you.)

P.S. I highly encourage you to go read the epic hours-long rant by @matthiasr that kicked off the whole thing.  some of which I definitely endorse and some of which not, but I think we could go drink whiskey and yell about this for a week or two easy breezy  ❤

Anyway what the fuck do I know, I’ve never worked in the Google lair, so maybe I am just under-equipped to grasp the true glory, majesty and superiority of their achievements over us all.

Or maybe they should go read Katherine and Jen’s book and interact with the “UnGoogled” once in a while.  ☺️



DevOps vs SRE: delayed coverage of the dumbest war

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


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.


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,

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.11.10 PM


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 …


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

Nail polish: the superior paint

Here is a thing that more people need to know: nail polish is the toughest, brightest, sparkliest, most durable paint in the world.  It makes everything prettier and brighter and it lasts forever.

I have a tradition of always painting a new keyboard every time I start a new job.  Please witness exhibit A, my freshly painted Hound keyboard & num pad:

microsoft sculpt ergonomic keyboard

Doesn’t that just make you happy to look at?  The idea of typing on a plain beige or black keyboard all day long is … actually one of the more depressing things I can imagine.

Now check out the one I painted when I started at Parse and used nearly every day for almost 4 years:

old-school microsoft natural keyboard, RIP

Still pretty cute, right?  It’s a little dingy and a few chips here or there but is there literally any other paint on earth that would have taken this abuse for four years?  (And you can’t even tell how pretty the shimmery holographic silver keys are in this pic.)

Dude, it gets better.  My work laptop:

work laptop, aluminum MBP with hound swag

And since I got my work and personal laptops around the same time, I made them fraternal twins.

IMG_4811 (1)
personal laptop, dark grey MBA

Yo, this shit can bang around in my laptop bag for *years* and never chip or wear off or fade.  Nail polish is the most badass paint in the entire world.

(The only thing I will not paint is my fingernails, I hate painted nails.)

I really really wish I had saved pictures of all the laptops and keyboards and monitors and mice and cell phones and other crap I have painted over the last decade or so.  But here are a few of the pics and pieces I still have lying around:


People keep asking me where I get my laptop “stickers”, or my awesome keyboards, and now you know.

Nail polish.  It is the shit.

Pro tip #1: if you want to paint bright colors on a black background, you need to lay down a very light base first.  Surprisingly, white doesn’t work well, it’s not opaque enough and ends up looking streaky.  You need something reflective, like silver aluminum foil or silver chrome — maybe this?  Dunno, I have a big stash so I haven’t really bought anything new in years and can’t recommend specific brands.

Pro Tip #2: cheap polish is A-OK.  Those 99 cent bottles are fine, just select for opacity.  Sheer colors don’t work very well, if you have to apply more than 2-3 coats it will get globby and weird as well as being tedious.

Pro Tip #3: sketch your designs out with a pencil before you paint them (easily erasable), and apply a top coat the next day to make everything even shinier and longer-lasting.

Please send me your pics.  🙂

Happy painting!!

Nail polish: the superior paint

Two weeks with Terraform

I’ve been using terraform regularly for 2-3 weeks now.  I have terraformed in rage, I have terraformed in delight.  I thought it might be helpful to share some of my notes and lessons learned.

Why Terraform?

Because I am fucking sick and tired of not having versioned infrastructure.  Jesus christ, the ways my teams have bent over backwards to fake infra versioning after the fact (nagios checks running ec2 diffs, anyone?).

Because I am starting from scratch on a green field project, so I have the luxury of experimenting without screwing over existing customers.  Because I generally respect Hashicorp and think they’re on the right path more often than not.

If you want versioned infra, you basically get to choose between 1) AWS CloudFormation and its wrappers (sparkleformation, troposphere), 2) chef-provisioner, and 3) Terraform.

The orchestration space is very green, but I think Terraform is the standout option.  (More about why later.)  There is precious little evidence that TF was developed by or for anyone with experience running production systems at scale, but it’s … definitely not as actively hostile as CloudFormation, so it’s got that going for it.

First impressions

Stage one: my terraform experiment started out great.  I read a bunch of stuff and quickly spun up a VPC with public/private subnets, NAT, routes, IAM roles etc in < 2 days.  This would be nontrivial to do in two days *without* learning a new tool, so TOTAL JOY.

Stage two: spinning up services.  This is where I started being like … “huh.  Has anyone ever actually used this thing?  For a real thing?  In production?”  Many of the patterns that seemed obvious and correct to me about how to build robust AWS services were completely absent, like any concept of a subnet tier spanning availability zones.  I did some inexcusably horrible things with variables to get the behavior I wanted.

Stage three: … modules.  Yo, all I wanted to do was refactor a perfectly good working config into modules for VPC, security groups, IAM roles/policies/users/groups/profiles, S3 buckets/configs/policies, autoscaling groups, policies, etc, and my entire fucking world just took a dump for a week.  SURE, I was a TF noob making noob mistakes, but I could not believe how hard it was to debug literally anything..

This is when I started tweeting sad things.

The best (only) way of debugging terraform was just reading really, really carefully, copy-pasting back and forth between multiple files for hours to get all the variables/outputs/interpolation correct.  Many of the error messages lack any context or line numbers to help you track down the problem.  Take this prime specimen:

Error downloading modules: module aws_vpc: Error loading .terraform
/modules/77a846c64ead69ab51558f8c5be2cc44/ Error reading 
config for aws_route_table[private]: parse error: syntax error

Any guesses?  Turned out to be a stray ‘}’ on line 105 in a different file, which HCL vim syntax highlighting thought was A-OK.  That one took me a couple hours to track down.

Or this:

aws_security_group.zookeeper_sg: cannot parse '' as int: 
strconv.ParseInt: parsing "": invalid syntax

Which *obviously* means you didn’t explicitly define some inherited port as an int, so there’s a string somewhere there lurking in your tf tree.  (*Obviously* in retrospect, I mean, after quite a long time poking haplessly about.)

Later on I developed more sophisticated patterns for debugging terraform.  Like, uhhh, bisecting my diffs by commenting out half of the lines I had just added, then gradually re-adding or re-commenting out more lines until the error went away.

Security groups are the worst for this.  SO MANY TIMES I had security group diffs run cleanly with “tf apply”, but then claim to be modifying themselves over and over.  Sometimes I would track this down to having passed in a variable for a port number or range, e.g. “cidr_blocks = [“${var.ip_range}”]”.  Hard-coding it to “cidr_blocks [“″]” or setting the type explicitly would resolve the problem.  Or if I accidentally entered a CIDR range that AWS didn’t like, like instead of  The change would apply and usually it would work, it just didn’t think it had worked, or something.  TF wasn’t aware there was a problem with the run so it would just keep “successfully” reapplying the diff every time it ran.

Some advice for TF noobs

  • As @phinze told me, “modules are basically like functions — a variable is an argument, output is a return value”.  This was helpful, because that was completely unintuitive to me when I started refactoring.  It took a few days of wrestling with profoundly inscrutable error messages before modules really clicked for me.
  • Strings.  Lists.  You can only pass variables around as strings.  Split() and join() are your friends.  Oh my god I would sell so many innocent children for the ability to pass maps back and forth between modules.
  • No interpolation for resource names makes me so sad.  Basically you can either use local variable maps, or multiple lists and just … run those index counters like a boss I guess..
  • Use AWS termination protection for stateful services or anything risky once you’re in production.  Use create_before_destroy on resources like ASG launch configs.  Use “don’t destroy” where you must — but as sparingly as possible, because that basically breaks the entire TF model.
  • If you change the launch config for an ASG, like replacing the AMI for example, you might expect TF to kick off an instance recycle.  It will not.  You must manually terminate the instances to pick up the new config.
  • If you’re collaborating with a team — ok, even if you’re not — find a remote place to store the tfstate files.  Try S3 or github, or shell out for Atlas.  Local state on laptops is for losers.
  • TF_LOG=DEBUG has never once been helpful to me.  I can only assume it was written for the Hashicorp developers, not for those of us using the product.

Errors returned by AWS are completely opaque.  Like “You were not allowed to apply this update”.  Huh?  Ok well if it fails on “tf plan”, it’s probably a bad terraform config.  If it successfully plans but fails on “tf apply”, your AWS logic is probably at fault.

Terraform does not do a great job of surfacing AWS errors.

For example, here is some terraform output:

tf output: "* aws_route_table.private: InvalidNatGatewayID.NotFound
: The natGateway ID 'nat-0e5f4ea507113b423' does not exist"

Oh!~  Okay, I go to the AWS console and track down that NAT gateway object and find this:

"Elastic IP address [eipalloc-8583b7e1] is already associated"

Hey, that seems useful!  Seems like TF just timed out bringing up one of the route tables, so it tried assigning the same EIP twice.  It would be nice to surface more of this detail into the terraform output, I hate having to resort to a web console.

Last but not least: one time I changed the comment string on a security group, and “tf plan” went into an infinite dependency loop.  I had to roll back the change, run terraform destroy against all resources in a bash for loop, and create an new security group with all new instances/ASGs just to change the comment string.  You cannot change comment strings or descriptions for resources without the resources being destroyed.  This seems PROFOUNDLY weird to me.

Wrapper scripts

Lots of people seem to eventually end up wrapping terraform with a script.  Why?

  • There is no concept of a $TF_ROOT.  If you run tf from the wrong directory, it will do some seriously confusing and screwed up shit (like duping your config, but only some of it).
  • If you’re running in production, you prob do not want people to be able to accidentally “terraform destroy” the world with the wrong environment
  • You want to enforce test/staging environments, and promotion of changes to production after they are proven good
  • You want to automatically re-run “tf plan” after “tf apply” and make sure your resources have converged cleanly.
  • So you can add slack hooks, or hipchat hooks, or github hooks.
  • Ummm, have I mentioned that TF can feel somewhat undebuggable?  Several people have told me they create rake tasks or YML templates that they then generate .tf files from so they can debug those when things break.  (Erf …)

Okay, so …..

God, it feels I’ve barely gotten started but I should probably wrap it up.[*]  Like I said, I think terraform is best in class for infra orchestration.  And orchestration is a thing that I desperately want.  Orchestration and composability are the future of infrastructure.

But also terraform is green as fuck and I would not recommend it to anyone who needs a 4-nines platform.

Simply put, there is a lot of shit I don’t want terraform touching.  I want terraform doing as little as possible.  I have already put a bunch of things into terraform that I plan on taking right back out again.  Like, you should never be running a script after TF has bootstrapped a node.  Yuck.. That is a job for your cfg management, or possibly a job for packer or a custom firstboot script, but never your orchestration tool!  I have already stuffed a bunch of Route53 DNS into TF and I will be ripping that right back out soon.  Terraform should not be managing any kind of dynamic data.  Or service registry, or configs, or ….

Terraform is fantastic for defining the bones of your infrastructure.  Your networking, your NAT, autoscaling groups, the bits that are robust and rarely change.  Or spinning up replicas of production on every changeset via Travis-CI or Jenkins — yay!  Do that!

But I would not feel safe making TF changes to production every day.  And you should delegate any kind of reactive scaling to ASGs or containers+scheduler or whatever.  I would never want terraform to interfere with those decisions on some arbitrary future run.

Which is why it is important to note that terraform does not play nicely with others.  It wants to own the whole thing.  Monkeypatching TF onto an existing infra is kind of horrendous.  It would be nice if you could tag certain resources or products as “this is managed by some other system, thx”.

So: why terraform?

Well, it is fairly opinionated.  It’s actively developed by some really smart people.  It’s moving fast and has most of the momentum in the space.  It’s composable and interacts well with other players iff you make some good life choices.  (Packer, for example, is amazing, by far the most unixy utility of the Hashicorp library.)

Just look at the rate of bug fixes and releases for Terraform vs CloudFormation.  Set aside crossplatform compatibility etc, and just look at the energy of the respective communities.  Not even a fair fight.

Want more?  Ok, well I would rather adopt one opinionated philosophy for my infrastructure, supplementing where necessary, than duct tape together fifty different half baked philosophies about how software and infrastructure should work and spend all my time mediating their conflicts.  (This is one of my beefs with CloudFormation: AWS has no opinions, only slobbering, squidlike, directionless-flopping optionalities.  And while we’re on the topic it also has nothing like “tf plan” for previewing changes, so THAT’S PRETTY STUPID TOO.)

I do have some concerns about Hashicorp spreading themselves too thin on too many products.  Some of those products probably shouldn’t exist.  Meh.

Terraform has a ways to go before it feels predictable and debuggable, but I think it’s heading in the right direction.  It’s been a fun couple weeks and I’m excited to start contributing to the ecosystem and integrating with other components, like chef-solo & consul.


[*] OMGGGGGGG, I never even got to the glorious horrors of the terraforming gem and how you are most definitely going to end up manually editing your *.tfstate files.  Ahahahahaa.

[**] Major thanks to @phinze, @solarce, @ascendantlogic, @lusis, @progrium and others who helped me limp through my first few weeks.

Two weeks with Terraform

How to survive an acquisition

Last week Facebook announced that they will be shutting down Parse.


I have so, so many feelings.  But this isn’t about my feelings now.  This is about what I wish I had known when we got acquired.

When they told us we were getting acquired, it felt like a wrecking ball to the gut.  Nothing against Facebook, it just wasn’t what I signed up for.  Big company, bureaucracy, 3-4 hour daily commute, and goddammit Parse was my *baby*.  What the fuck was this big company going to do to my baby?

Here’s the first thing I wish I had known: this is normal.  Trauma is the norm.  Acquisitions are *always* massively disruptive and upsetting, even the good ones.

This was all compounded by the jarring disconnect between internal and external perceptions of the acquisition.  The surreality of being written up in the press and having everyone act like this was the greatest thing that ever happened to us, versus the shock and dismay and confusion that many of us were actually experiencing.

Here are a few more things I wish I had understood.

You don’t own your product anymore.  Your product is now “strategic alignment”.  Look at yourself in the mirror and repeat that five times every morning.

Your customers are not your customers anymore.  Your customer is now your corporate overlord.  You can resist this and try to serve your old customers first, but it will wear your engineering team out and eventually drive you mad.

Cultures will clash.  Yours will lose.  You *must* learn the tribal and hierarchal games of the new org if you want to succeed.  They don’t make sense to you, and you didn’t choose into them, but you must learn them anyway if you want to succeed.

Assume good intent.  Aggressively assume good intent.  If a big company buys up your tiny startup, lots of people are going to condescend to you and assume they know how to solve your own problems better than you do.  In retrospect, I realize that a lot of tiny acquired startups *don’t* know what the fuck they’re doing and so the behemoth just gets used to assuming that everyone is like that.  Just grit your teeth and take it.

And if you honestly can’t see yourself ever embracing the new parent company, whether for cultural or ethical or technical reasons, you should leave sooner rather than later.  (UNLESS it’s for the golden handcuffs in which case for god’s sake try to emotionally disengage and do not be a people manager.)

One of Facebook’s internal slogans is something like “always do what’s best for Facebook”.  I never gave a shit about Facebook’s mission; I cared about Parse’s.  I remain incredibly proud of everything we accomplished for Parse, MongoDB, and RocksDB.  If only our strategic alignments had, well, aligned.


How to survive an acquisition

2015 in recaps and life changes

2015 is dead, long live 2016

A pretty serious list of ridiculous/amazing shit happened in 2015.  My face was on a fucking pillar.  I got to meet KEITH BOSTIC.  A bunch of my favorite engineers got dressed up in cheetah kigurumi pajamas and ran around playing booth babes.  And that’s just a three day sampling of mischief.

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THIS IS MY FACE ON A PILLAR.  you are allowed to find this incredibly creepy.

There are at least three key things about 2015 that I feel like I am always going to associate with this year, so that’s what I want to write about.  (I’ll do a boring second post later with links to all the talks, articles etc for the year.)

The three things that stood out for me this year were:

  1. Conference Overload
  2. MongoDB + RocksDB (aka “mongo grows up”)
  3. Leaving Parse.

The Year of Conference Insanity

In 2015 I gave talks at 21 conferences, which was … excessive.

This wasn’t really intentional.  But I was bored and restless and unhappy a lot and had many erratically available spare cycles.  Being a manager at a big company makes this depressing Swiss cheese out of your calendar.  You can’t really carve out the heads-down time you would need in order to do challenging technical work, but it’s easy to go on lots of short trips to conferences.  And travel is nice.  So I just kind of said “yes” to everything.

I really appreciate all the brilliant people and organizers who welcomed me to their events this year, and all the many random, unexpectedly lovely connections I made there.

Next year will be very different.

IMG_4135 (1)
that one day i packed lighter fluid in to work to burn things because reasons

MongoDB + RocksDB

When I started running MongoDB in 2012, we were on version 2.0 and it had a single lock.  Yep, just the one!  This was a SUPER fun way to try and build a sophisticated multi-tenant platform.

Mongo was rolling out performance improvements with every release.  But shit actually got real when they put the storage engine API on the roadmap and acquired WiredTiger.  The Facebook RocksDB team enthusiastically pitched in too, providing feedback on the API design and ultimately delivering a full-fledged implementation of MongoDB with RocksDB storage engine.

the RocksDB “marketing” team, with bonus Peter Zaitsev

Parse spent the past 1.5 years being the alpha customer for MongoRocks.  We developed a load testing framework for replaying production workloads, evaluated TokuMX and WiredTiger as well as Rocks, worked with the RocksDB team (aka Igor Canadi) to iron the kinks out of the MongoRocks implementation and figure out how to run and monitor the damn thing, and then got it rolled it out to 100% of our production replica sets in under a year.  (Worth it? with Rocks we used 1/10th the storage space and writes were 50-200x faster compared to mmap.)

Asya, Domas and Mark Callaghan at the inaugural MongoDB Storage Engine Summit

I’ve said this before but I really believe it: 2015 is the year that MongoDB grew up and became a “real database”.  This was Mongo’s InnoDB moment.  Remember how much shit everyone used to give MySQL back in the MyISAM days?  Hey guess what, software actually can get better!  This is one reason it has been a special delight getting to work with Mark Callaghan.  Mark was one of those engineers who turned MySQL from a punch line into a “real database” which powers much of the internet.  So it was kind of like having this guy around.

I loved having a front row seat to mongo’s awkward adolescent phase.  I loved getting to play a small role in promoting storage engine diversity.  With Percona now offering enterprise support for both MyRocks and MongoRocks, I think the project is in good hands, and I’m really really fucking proud of this.

Leaving Parse

I said goodbye to Parse in early September.  This was one of those emotionally overwhelming life changes that somehow manages to feel both too soon and way, way overdue.  I spent 3.5 years working on Parse — one year pre-acquisition, 2.5 years at Facebook.

IMG_4631 (1)
my going-away cake.  yes, it is a unicorn shitting rainbows with a purple tutu and sparkly silver slippers.  thank you nancy!!

I like to think of myself as this crusty backend engineer who sighs wearily and doesn’t give a shit about product, but the fact is I fell in love with Parse on the very first day.  I am so, so proud of what we built.  We built a thing that people really cared about.  We empowered so many developers to build and create and make whole new businesses on our platform.

There is nothing as heady as getting to pour yourself into a product that people are passionate about, tackle problems that are hard and might actually be impossible, with a team that blows your socks off with their brilliance and joy and hilariousness on a daily basis.

the amazing parse production engineering team.  my boys 4 lyfe

So yeah, it was hard to let go.  But it was time.  The 3-4 hour commute was fucking killing me, and it had been a long, *long* time since I felt like I was learning new things or pushing my boundaries as an engineer or a leader.  I need a certain amount of chaos and panic in my life.  Being comfortable for too long just makes me miserable.

Parse is going to be a hard act to follow.  Thanks for raising the bar, motherfuckers.

quitting day

In summary

2015 was ridiculous and awesome, and I want 2016 to be ridiculous and awesome but in some radical and fantastically new ways.  I have many hopes and intentions for 2016.  but I’ll save that for another time.

Oh but my single greatest achievement of 2015?  is *clearly* this tattoo.


12 months, 11 appts, about 30 hours of inking.  thank you micah riot.

2015 in recaps and life changes