The importance of reliability

In the past seven years I worked at Google as a Site Reliability Engineer. I’m actually leaving the company — I’m writing this during my notice period. I’m currently scheduled to join Facebook as a Production Engineer at the end of May (unless COVID-19 makes things even more complicated). Both roles are related to reliability of services – Google even put it in the name – so you could say I have more than a passing idea of what is involved in maintaining (if not writing) reliable software and services.

I had to learn to be an SRE — this was my first 9-5 job (well, not really 9-5 given that SREs tend to have very flexible and very strange hours), and I hadn’t worked on such a scale before this. And as I wrote before, the job got me used to expect certain things. But it also made me realise how important it is for services and systems to be reliable, as well as secure. And just how much this is not fairly distributed out there.

During my tenure at Google, I’ve been oncall for many different services. Pretty much all of them have been business critical in one way or another — some much more than others. But none of them were critical to society: I’ve never joined the Google Cloud teams, any of the communication teams, or Maps teams. I had been in the Search team, but while it’s definitely important to the business, I think society would rather stay without search results than without a way to contact their loved ones. But that’s just my personal opinion.

The current huge jump in WFH users due to COVID-19 concerns has clearly shown how much more critical to society some of the online services are, that even ten years ago wouldn’t be found as important: Hangouts, Meet, Zoom, Messenger, WhatsApp, and the list goes on. Video calls appear to be the only way to get in touch with our loved ones right now, as well as, for many, the only way to work. Thankfully, most of these services are provided by companies that are big enough to be able to afford reliability in one form or another.

But at least in the UK, this has shown how many other services are clearly critical for society, but not provided by companies who can afford reliability. Online grocery shopping became the thing to do, nearly overnight. Ocado, possibly the biggest grocery delivery company, had had so much pressure on their system that they had to scramble, first introducing a “virtual queue” system, and then eventually taking down the whole website. As I type this, their website has a front page that informs you that the login is only available for those who already have a slot booked for this weekend, and otherwise is not available to anyone — no new slots can be booked.

In similar fashion online retailers, surgery online systems, online prescription services, and banks also appeared to be smothered in requests. I would be surprised if libraries, bookstores, and restaurant websites who don’t rely on the big delivery companies weren’t also affected.

And that had made me sad, and at least in part made me feel ashamed of myself. You see, I have been interviewing at another place, while I was looking for a new job. Not a big multinational company, a smaller one, an utility. And while the offer was very appealing, it was also a more challenging role, and I decided to pass on it. I’m not saying that I’d have made a huge difference for them from any other “trained” SRE, but I do think that a lot of these “smaller” players need their fair dose of reliability.

The problem is that there’s a mixture of different attitude, and actual costs, related to reliability the way Google and the other “bigs” do it. In the case of Google, more often than not the answer to something not working very well is to throw more resources (CPU, memory, storage) at it. That’s not something that you can do quickly when your service is running “on premise” (that is, in your own datacenter cabinet), and not something that you can do cheaply when you run on someone else’s cloud solution.

The thing is, Cloud is not just someone else’s computer. It’s a lot of computers, and it does add a lot of flexibility. And it can even be cheaper than running your own server, sometimes. But it’s also a risk, because if you don’t know when to say “enough”, you end up with budget-wrecking bills. Or sometimes with a problem “downstream”. Take Ocado — the likeliness it that it’s not the website that was being overloaded. It was the fulfillment. Indeed, the virtual queue approach was awesome: it limited the whole human interaction, not just the browser requests. And indeed, the queue worked fine (unlike, say, the CCC ticket queue), and the website didn’t look overloaded at all.

But saying that on-premise equipment does not scale is not trying to market cloud solutions — it’s admitting the truth: if you start getting so many requests at short notice, you can’t go, buy, image, and set up to serve another four or five machines — but you can tell Google Cloud, Amazon, Azure, to go and triple the amount of resources available. And that might or might not make it better for you.

It’s a tradeoff. And not one I have answers for. I can’t say I have experience with managing this tradeoff, either — all the teams I worked on had nearly blank cheques for internal resources (not quite, but nearly), and while resource saving was and is a thing, it never gets to be a real dollar amount that, as an SRE, you end up dealing with. While other companies, particularly smaller companies, need to pay a lot of attention to that.

From my point of view, what I can do is try to be more open with discussing design decisions in my software, particularly when I think it’s my experience talking. I still need to work actively on Tanuga, and I am even considering making a YouTube video of me discussing the way I plan to implement it — as if I was discussing this during a whiteboard design interview (since I have quite a bit of experience with them, this year).

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