Tag Archives: sre

Is maintenance as sexy as innovation?

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A recent NYT piece on our aging american infrastructure got me thinking. It seems that roads, bridges, airports & city sewer systems are all in need of repair. Sadly as budgets to maintain these systems in good repair are often short, they become larger problems to fix as their status becomes critical.

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“Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as a mere drudgery.”

I’m not sure this is an American-only phenomenon. However I do see it a lot with technology companies & startups.

1. Do we have to manage ops in the cloud?

The cloud has enabled infrastructure automation in some pretty phenomenal ways. Code pipelines can deliver changes to a repo, through automated unit testing, and out to customers all without human intervention. This makes teams more agile, and ultimately businesses faster & more profitable.

We might be distracted enough to stop worrying about operations altogether. After all Amazon knows how to manage broken servers & alert us right? I write do we have to manage operations in the cloud previously, as this sentiment seems to be growing.

Modern applications have a ton of interdependencies. Even with decent integration testing, the full stack is complex, and requires monitoring. Co-tenancy can complicate your performance tuning efforts as neighboring customers may directly affect your application. Third party services may be delivered from smaller or less experienced companies, whose SLA may be limiting besides. And hey if Amazon goes down, I can just tell my customers it was their fault, right?

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. Do you know Dustin Moskovitz?

Chances are I’m guessing you’ll say no. He was part of the original Facebook team alongside Zuckerberg. You don’t know his name? He had the sexy job of, you guessed it maintenance! He was the operations guy. Did he write the application code? More than likely he knew that code very well as he had to fix & maintain it. Along with the infrastructure to scale & support Facebook’s massive growth.

Read: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams? The growing demand for Cloud SRE

3. Is a little technical debt ok?

Ward Cunningham has an excellent interview about technical debt. Is a little bit ok? Maybe. But each amount is kicking the can down the road. As the NYT article on maintenance makes clear, you can move the responsibility on to the next administration, the next term, or someone else, but eventually you’ll have a critical problem on your hands, which will be much more expensive to fix.

Related: How to build an operational datastore on Amazon Redshift with S3

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How to interview an amazon database expert

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Amazon releases a new database offering every other day. It sure isn’t easy to keep up.

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Let’s say you’re hiring a devops & you want to suss out their database knowledge? Or you’re hiring a professional services firm or freelance consultant. Whatever the case you’ll need to sift through for the best people. Here’s how.

Also: How to interview an AWS expert

What database does Amazon support for caching?

Caching is a popular way to speed up access to your backend database. Put Amazon’s elasticache behind your webserver, and you can reduce load on your database by 90%. Nice!

The two types that amazon supports are Memcache & Redis. Memcache is historically more popular. These days Redis seems a clear winner. It’s faster, and can maintain your cached data between restarts. That will save you I promise!

Also: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams?

How can I store big data in AWS?

Amazon’s data warehouse offering is called Redshift. I wrote Why is everyone suddenly talking about Redshift?. Why indeed!

When you’re doing large reports for your business intelligence team, you don’t want to bog down your backend relational database. Redshift is purpose built for this use case.

I’ve see a report that took over 8 hours in MySQL return in under 60 seconds in Redshift!

A new offering is Amazon Spectrum. This tech is super cool. Load up all your data into S3, in standard CSV format. Then without even loading it into Redshift, you can query the S3 data directly. This is super useful. Firstly because S3 is 1/10th the price. But also because it allows you to stage your data before loading into Redshift itself. Goodbye Google Big Query! I talked about spectrum here.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

What relational database options are there on Amazon?

Amazon supports a number of options through it’s Relational Database Service or RDS. This is managed databases, which means less work on your DBAs shoulders. It also may make upgrades slower and harder with more downtime, but you get what you pay for.

There are a lot of platforms available. As you might guess MySQL & Postgres are there. Great! Even better you can use MariaDB if that’s your favorite. You can also go with Aurora which is Amazon’s own home-brew drop in replacement for MySQL that promises greater durability and some speedups.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can even get Oracle & SQL Server working on RDS. Very nice!

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

Does AWS have a NoSQL database solution?

If NoSQL is to your taste, Amazon has DynamoDB. According to . I haven’t seen a lot of large production applications using it, but what he describes makes a lot of sense. The way Amazon scales nodes & data I/O is bound to run into real performance problems.

That said it can be a great way to get you up and running quickly.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

How do I do ETL & migrate data to AWS?

Let’s be honest, Amazon wants to make this really easy. The quicker & simpler it is to get your data there, that more you’ll buy!

Amazon’s Database Migration Service or DMS allows you to configure your old database as a data source, then choose a Amazon db solution as destination, then just turn on the spigot and pump your data in!

ETL is extract transform and load, data warehouse terminology for slicing and dicing data before you load it into your warehouse. Many of todays warehouses are being built with the data lake model, because databases like Redshift have gotten so damn fast. That model means you stage all your source data as-is in your warehouse, then build views & summary tables as needed to speed up queries & reports. Even better you might look a tool like xplenty.

Amazon’s new offering is called Glue. Five ways to get data into Amazon Redshift. This solution is purpose build for creating a powerful data pipeline, complete with python code to do transformations.

Read: Is data your dirty little secret?

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Do we have to manage ops in the cloud?

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One of the things that is exciting about the cloud is the reduced need for operations staff. There seem to be two drivers of this trend. One is devops, and all the automation that comes with it. As we formalize configurations, things become repeatable, and fewer people can manage greater armies of servers.

The second is by moving to a cloud hosting provider, we essentially outsource the operations to their team.

1. Pretty abstractions? still hardware buried somewhere

That’s right, beneath all the virtual EC2 instances & VPCs there is physical hardware. Huge datacenters sit in North Virginia, Oregon, Ireland, London and many other cities. Within them there are racks upon racks of servers. The hypervisor layer, the abstraction built on top of that, orchestrates everything.

Although we outsource the management of those datacenters to Amazon, there are still responsibilities we carry. Let’s dig into those more.

Also: Top serverless interview questions to ask an expert

2. Full-stack dev – demand for generalists?

These days we see the demand for a full stack developer. That is someone who does not only front end dev, but also backend. In turn, they are often asked to wear the had of ops. Spinup EC2 instance, decide on the capacity & size, choose proper disk I/O, place it within the right subnet & vpc & then configure the security groups properly.

All of these tasks would previously been managed by a dedicated ops team, but now those responsibilities are being put on developers shoulders. In some cases, such as with microservices, devs also carry the on-call duties of their applications.

Lastly there is likely ops to handle automation. Devops will formalize configurations, into ansible playbooks or chef recipes, so they can be checked into version control. At this point infrastructure can even be unit tested.

Read: Build an operational datastore on aws S3 with Spectrum

3. Design, resiliency, instrumentation, debugging

In previous eras, ops teams would be heavily involved with design of applications & architecture to support that. Now that may be handed to devs, but it still needs to happen.

Furthermore resiliency is said to be the customers responsibility. In the pre-cloud days, hardware was more reliable. It had a slower failure rate. With virtual machines, they’re expected to fail, and all the components to make your applications resilient are given to you. But it’s your job to architect them together.

That means your applications need to be self-healing. Failures need to be detected, taken out of autoscaling groups, and replaced. All automatically. Code or not, that is certainly operations.

Check this: Which engineering roles are in top demand?

4. It’s amazon’s fault we’re down!

I’ve seen quite a few outages in the past year, from Dropbox to Airbnb, and DYN themselves. Ultimately these outages could be tied back to a failure with Amazon. But when your business customers are relying on your service, it is *YOUR* business that answers to it’s own SLA.

In the news we see many of these firms pointing the finger at Amazon, “hey it’s not our fault, our cloud provider went down!”. Ultimately your customers don’t care. They don’t want excuses. If using multiple regions in AWS is not sufficient, you’ll need to build your application to be multi-cloud.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

5. It’s hard to outsource your expertise

Remember, while you outsource your operations to Amazon, you’re getting very professional management of those systems. However they will optimize for their many customers. Your particular problems are less of a concern.

Read this: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

6. Only you can thinking holistically about interdependancies

Your application more than likely uses a number of APIs to capture data, perhaps do single sign on or even a third party database like Firebase. It’s your responsibility to do integration testing. All that becomes more complex in the cloud.

Also: How to lock down systems from outgoing employees

7. How do services complicate things?

SaaS solutions are everywhere now. auth0, firebase and an infinite variety of third party apis complicate reliability, security, storage, performance, integration testing & debugging?

Security is a traditional responsibility held by the operations hat. Much of that becomes more complex in the cloud. With serverless applications for example you may use a few APIs, plus an authentication broker, and a backend database. As this list of services grows, the code you write may decrease. But testing & securing it all becomes much more complex.

With more services like this, the attack vector or surface area becomes greater. Each of those services, can and will have bugs. What if a zero day is found in the authentication broker, allowing a hacker to break into a broad cross section of applications across the internet? How do you discover this? What if your vendor hasn’t found out yet?

Read: Is Amazon cloud too complex for small dev teams?

8. How does co-tenancy impact performance tuning?

Back to point #1 above, all these virtual servers sit on real physical servers. That affects customers in two ways. One you may be sharing the same host. That is if you use a very small vm, it may sit along side another customer with a small vm. If those eat up CPU cycles or network on that box, neighbors or co-tenants will suffer.

There are many other instance types where you get your own dedicated hardware. With those you have your own nic as well, so no competition. Except wait there’s network storage! That’s right all the machines in the AWS environment use EBS now, which is all co-tenant. So your data is sitting alongside other customers, and you are all fighting for usage of the same disk read heads.

One way to mitigate this is to configure specific provisioned IOPS for your servers. But that costs more. It’s normally reserved for database instances where disk I/O is really crucial.

Granted the NewRelics of the world will certainly help us with this process. But they’re not giving us a hypervisor or global view of those servers, network or storage. So we can’t see how the overall systems performance may be impacted.

Related: Is AWS a patient that needs constant medication?

9. Operations can be invisible

When security is done well, you don’t have breakins, you don’t have data stolen, everything just runs smoothly. Operations is like that too. When it is done well it can be invisible.

It can also be invisible in a different way. When you deploy your application on serverless, all the servers & autoscaling is completely abstracted away. So when you get some weird outage because the farm of servers is offline, or because you hit some account limit in the number of functions you can run at once, then it quickly comes into focus.

Beware of invisible operations, because it’s harder to see what to monitor, and know how to stay ahead of outages.

Read: Is amazon too big to fail?

10. We can’t oursource true ownership

At the end of the day you can’t outsource ownership of your application or your business. The holistic view of your application in totality can only be understood by your engineers.

And that in the end is what operations is all about, no matter who’s wearing the hat!

Also: 5 reasons to move data to amazon redshift

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Top questions to ask a devops expert when hiring or preparing for job & interview

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Strip by Randall Munroe; xkcd.com

Whether your a hiring manager, head of HR or recruiter, you are probably looking for a devops expert. These days good ones are not easy to find. The spectrum of tools & technologies is broad. To manage today’s cloud you need a generalist.

Join 33,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

If you’re a devops expert and looking for a job, these are also some essential questions you should have in your pocket. Be able to elaborate on these high level concepts as they’re crucial in todays agile startups.

Check out: 8 questions to ask an aws ec2 expert

Also new: Top questions to ask on a devops expert interview

And: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

1. How do you automate deployments?

A. Get your code in version control (git)

Believe it or not there are small 1 person teams that haven’t done this. But even with those, there’s real benefit. Get on it!

B. Evolve to one script push-button deploy (script)

If deploying new code involves a lot of manual steps, move file here, set config there, set variable, setup S3 bucket, etc, then start scripting. That midnight deploy process should be one master script which includes all the logic.

It’s a process to get there, but keep the goal in sight.

C. Build confidence over many iterations (team process & agile)

As you continue to deploy manually with a master script, you’ll iron out more details, contingencies, and problems. Over time You’ll gain confidence that the script does the job.

D. Employ continuous integration Tools to formalize process (CircleCI, Jenkins)

Now that you’ve formalized your deploy in code, putting these CI tools to use becomes easier. Because they’re custom built for you at this stage!

E. 10 deploys per day (long term goal)

Your longer term goal is 10 deploys a day. After you’ve automated tests, team confidence will grow around developers being able to deploy to production. On smaller teams of 1-5 people this may still be only 10 deploys per week, but still a useful benchmark.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

2. What is microservices?

Microservices is about two-pizza teams. Small enough that there’s little beaurocracy. Able to be agile, focus on one business function. Iterate quickly without logjams with other business teams & functions.

Microservices interact with each other through APIs, deploy their own components, and use their own isolated data stores.

Function as a service, Amazon Lambda, or serverless computing enables microservices in a huge way.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

3. What is serverless computing?

Serverless computing is a model where servers & infrastructure do not need to be formalized. Only the code is deployed, and the platform, AWS Lambda for example, takes care of instant provisioning of containers & VMs when the code gets called.

Events within the cloud environment, such a file added to S3 bucket, trigger the serverless functions. API Gateway endpoints can also trigger the functions to run.

Authentication services are used for user login & identity management such as Auth0 or Amazon Cognito. The backend data store could be Dynamodb or Google’s Firebase for example.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

4. What is containerization?

Containers are like faster deploying VMs. They have all the advantages of an image or snapshot of a server. Why is this useful? Because you can containerize your microservices, so each one does one thing. One has a webserver, with specific version of xyz.

Containers can also help with legacy applications, as you isolate older versions & dependencies that those applications still rely on.

Containers enable developers to setup environments quickly, and be more agile.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

5. What is CloudFormation?

CloudFormation, formalizes all of your cloud infrastructure into json files. Want to add an IAM user, S3 bucket, rds database, or EC2 server? Want to configure a VPC, subnet or access control list? All these things can be formalized into cloudformation files.

Once you’ve started down this road, you can checkin your infrastructure definitions into version control, and manage them just like you manage all your other code. Want to do unit tests? Have at it. Now you can test & deploy with more confidence.

Terraform is an extension of CloudFormation with even more power built in.

Also: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters