published on Thu, Nov 3, 2022
author: Cian Butler
tags: SREcon, Notes

SREcon EMEA 2022


At the start of October i attended, along with many other SREs, SREcon 2022 EMEA in Amsterdam.

This post is some notes and references from the talks i attended. I suggest watching the actual talks to actually understand and learn from.

Conference Theme

SREcon 2022 had a theme of “What could SRE be?”. The Conference committee wanted to encourage a “forward-looking” conversations. This was in the hope to try to help establish a pathway forward for the industry. But true to form you cant look forward with out looking at where we are currently and where we came from.

The re-occurring message that every speaker decided to also bring was that of the SRE book being aspirational. It was written cherry-picking the best of the best from google. It was not a prescriptive guide that everyone must follow to be considered an SRE. This sentiment was not shared at the time of release and unsurprisingly this has caused some friction.

image of a tweet asking google to apologise for the SRE book


Completely coincidentally, this year’s Call of Duty launch has a level in Amsterdam - see the Walk through.

So of course we had to go visit the area for lunch, and because most of the restaurants happened to be in the area.

The Oude Church in Amsterdam

Square in front of the Oude Church in Amsterdam

(Captain Price is cropped out of the right for operational security.)

Some of the biggest insights and takeaways

(In no particular order)

“SRE is what happens when you ask a software engineer to design an operation team”. A concept mentioned in multiple talks. Operational tasks don’t just disappear overnight and firing everyone who can’t code equals bad things happening.

Superheroes are universally viewed as a bad thing. The issue gets worse the more management calls out people for achievements during times of pressure as it encourages more times of pressure to demonstrate value. Worse if heroes operate in incidents or on call as this can block others from learning critical information. See Is Our Team as Resilient as Our Systems? for more.

Quick reference

(Again in no particular order)

Table of Contents

Tuesday, 25 October

Opening Remarks

Daria Barteneva, Microsoft, and Niall Murphy, Stanza

Talked through the theme of the conference around what is SRE and what it could be. It understandably opened on a positive and hopeful note.

They are the someone in someone should do something.

They are a force multiplier, the glue to allow people to do things, helping everyone else scale.

Knowledge and Power: A Sociotechnical Systems Discussion on the Future of SRE

Dr. Laura Maguire, Jeli, and Lorin Hochstein, Netflix.

Knowledge itself is power. Those who have it can control the events.

Organisational knowledge can be lost from employee churn if not handled correctly. The more stable a system is, the more likely this can happen too. Everyone’s knowledge is different and fragments of the whole system. We hold these partially incomplete pieces of knowledge in our head and to gain a full understanding of our systems we need to pull this knowledge across multiple different domains and people.

In incidents, small, seemingly meaningless things can combine together to result in bad things happening. There was a good walk through of a Netflix outage where a migration removed a small wait state resulting in an outage. The user who had originally added the wait had left so the knowledge behind the wait was lost. I’m not sure why there wasn’t a comment on the wait and it wasn’t mentioned either.

The ability to recall what we know is key and can be gained from storytelling about incidents. Create detailed vivid incidents reports, ask targeted questions to draw out what you’ve not shared.

SREs, and engineers in general, all have different knowledge and experience. This colours how people will see a system or incident meaning everyone’s via will be partial and incomplete. Working together we can build up a more complete view of the system. Important as people generally don’t know how they know things, especially during incidents.

The last part of the talk covered making changes in the organisation and how just because you are an expert in your field does not mean you can make changes in it. Management are finite local so can and will only pay attention to so much given the limited hours in the day. It also means proximity tends to play an outside impact on this. Think those who shout the loudest get listened to.

Related to this is the implicit incentives that organisations place on things. OKRs will directly influence where people focus their efforts however some things do follow on to a point. If your system isn’t reliable “enough”, the OKRs won’t matter. But if you don’t do the OKRs, the reliability won’t matter either.

The talk ended by looping back towards organisational knowledge and how by increasing reliability you end up with few incidents, and these incidents will trend to being more complex. This will leave people less prepared to deal with them just from lack of experience. Ops is a muscle. Over abstractions can lead to this muscle weakening, and the obvious realities are the hardest to see, it’s our jobs as SRE to surface them.

SRE as She Is Spoke

Andrew Clay Shafer

There is power in language and the narratives we tell. The language we choose to use shapes how we think about problems. If we don’t use clear language to communicate a problem people will never truly understand the problem and when engineers implement a solution without understanding it will unsurprisingly fail.

Engineers need to be at a level of fluency in their problem domains to communicate effectively. This fluency that comes from experience, it’s not something that can be bought. People will build fluency to their level of necessity, once their needs are met progress will stop.

Andrew on stage with a slide saying “SRE Fluency is not translating old to new but the ability to express any context like a native”

The Language of our domains allow us to effectively communicate with each other. The more fluent we are in these shared languages the easier it will be for us to share our problems and learnings with one another.

Take away from this talk is “Good SRE copy. Great SRE steal”

Oncall: An Equal Opportunity Waste of Time

Dave O’Connor, Twilio

There are some pretty important points here such that anyone who has any control over their own work should watch it. If you are oncall or control oncall, it can be considered a must watch.

doc standing on stage with a slide saying “the Fetishisation of incident response”

One of the core points is how as engineers, the reward for good work is simply more work. In a general sense, you want to be doing different work next year than you are doing today - because you have automated away today’s work enough that it is no longer a concern.

Combined together, this leads to a very strong balancing act around the type of work you should be taking on and how it fits into core SRE principals.

From the oncall perspective itself, remembering that there is a difference between a waste of time and a bad idea. Oncall does cause impact, to your timelines, your team, your coworkers, your own sanity, and that impact is generally a waste of time in that nothing truly productive comes from it. But oncall itself isn’t a bad idea. No matter how much automation magic you build, shit happens and someday, sometime, something unexpected will happen and oncall will need to fix it.

The balancing act continues when staffing oncall as well. Oncall itself shouldn’t be scary, however if the team is well run, removing tasks and changing the general nature of responsibilities over time, each new oncaller will have a different experience and will know different, if not also less things. As 90% solutions can remove a task from oncall leaving only the awkward edge cases, it is important to understand this is fine, prepare the runbooks and escalation paths for when required. You want to aim for something manageable, not easy.

Measuring Reliability: What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There

Štěpán Davidovič, Google

A standing room only talk which gave some obvious in highsight views on SLO and reliability measuring. So obvious, most people fall into the same pitfalls.

It covered how reliability is a lagging indicator, monitoring what has happened, not what will happen or even what is currently happening as it watches the, typically, time series data.

When aggregation is used, and it must be used, it will hide a lot of information. You could have 99.999% of requests working, but those that are failing are for a subset of users. Those users will be having a pretty bad experience while you think the app is functioning fine. Similarly a single 1000 minute outage will impact users much differently than 1000 1 minute outages depending on your application.

Asking if SLO/SLIs are good is the wrong question. They are purely a tool, providing information around the questions you ask of them. You should match your tool to the problem, don’t start with the tool and match the problem.

Crayon Drawing Is a Vital Engineering Skill

Murali Suriar, Snowflake

Every engineer when asked to create a diagram of a system will create a different drawing to each other. These diagrams are often created in isolation and can appear confusing to someone coming in cold. Creating standard diagrams of your systems together as a team builds a shared understanding of your systems.

We shouldn’t strive for 100% accuracy in all our diagrams, but rather they should be consistent and show the important components at a high level.

This practice has positive effects:

  • Improve the onboarding experience for new team members
  • Ability to reason about our systems together
  • Understand the impact of proposed changes

Mermaid.js inline drawing tool, you can add these to your markdown:

Building Dynamic Configuration into Terraform

Isabelle Miller and Hosh Sadiq, LaunchDarkly

LaunchDarkly talked through the issues they faced using terraform to manage their ever growing infrastructure. Scaling resources and changing settings by hand become a laborious task given the large config repos.

They talked about how they simplified their usage of terraform by outsourcing configuration and resource management by creating a custom terraform resource so they could leverage their own configuration management service. Once they had this set up they simplified their deployment pipeline and made their engineers more efficient.

Hunting for Risky Dependencies in the World of Microservices

Theo Klein, Google LLC

A story from google talking about how they used distributed tracing to track down unintended dependencies in their system. During investigation into the reliability of their Maps service they discovered specific calls from a service on the critical path was hitting a service with unreliable 9s.

A drawing showing an overview of the risky systems they found

Once they discovered this they managed to rework the call path to use a more reliable service. They found multiple other occurrences of this using tracing and eventually remediated them all with a combination of migrating to more reliable service, making calls optionals or deprecating the services

How We Implemented High Throughput Logging at Spotify

Lauren Muhlhauser, Spotify

This talk was eerily similar to the issues we’ve encountered in our logs stack. Everyone encounters the same problems sooner or later. Collecting and storing 100% of the data can be very expensive for high traffic services.

A brief and incomplete history of loggging at spotify slide

Spotify initially used FluentD to ship logs from their containers on GKE into GCP’s log storage solution, GCL. Once they hit >1700 namespaces things started to go south and FluentD was maxed out. Resulting in delayed or simply dropped logs, they did not really have a clear picture of how much data was being lost (which became important later)

Migrating to the more performant, multithreaded FluentBit resulted in much more efficient log shipping.

It was not without its problems, however

  • OOM issues with some versions of FluentBit
  • Limit of 256 outputs
  • Worked too well once the true volume of logs began to get shipped to GCL and costs increased

Automated sampling of logs:

  • GCP check monitors for high throughput in a project
  • The alert is sent to a pubsub which is monitored by their sampling service
  • The service automatically drops sampling to 10% and notifies the user

Consider if logs are the appropriate solution for your service and look at alternatives such as metrics or tracing.

Purposeful logging: Is this log information immediately useful in some way, and will it provide the details I need to understand the underlying cause and make decisions?

Life after The Chocolate Factory

Murali Suriar, Snowflake, and Emil Stolarsky, Wave Mobile Money

This talk is about life after working at a FAANG type company and how engineers will sometimes feel like stepping back to another planet as everything is so different.

It is a truly amazing intro. No words other than just watch it.

There are lessons to be had from the larger companies. While they do have hundreds or thousands of people following their processes like onboarding, you too can follow and update it. As a new user, small things that don’t work are a new level of painful. Onboarders should not have to tweak or configure things to get the initial bits setup. To achieve this it is important for continuous improvement, feeding back everything to the documentation. It is likely the mentor needs to do it as the new person will not know what they don’t know.

Transparency matters too. Failing clearly and obviously will help your engineers who should be focused on adding value not trying to figure out how to login to system X.

Code reflects the organisation, and the organisation reflects Jira. Yes the Jira hate was a continual theme throughout however a number of good points were made on how it has an outsized impact on projects.

Is Our Team as Resilient as Our Systems?

Effie Mouzeli, Wikimedia Foundation.

We tend to build resistant systems, where the loss of a node is routine, but rarely apply this to teams. Some of it is down to the scale of the team itself, and some to the incremental cost of adding more people. The talk covers how the hero culture that exists at times directly impacts this, creating a low bus factor.

Right from the onboarding process, teams and organisations tend to create a feedback loop where more experienced people get more experienced and newer people struggle to catch up. The different skill levels and backgrounds mean an engineer will experience the process differently but we would rarely go improve the process to help account for the difference. Lots of time we turn the gaps into tribal knowledge, sharing the undocumented bits via word of mouth.

On more established teams, you will start to see generational gaps between the people who joined at different times. Similar generations will have built up similar habits. This is even more pronounced when normal automation principles are applied as entire blocks of knowledge can be lost as there will be no need to transfer them as the tasks get automated away.

Superhero culture is a serious problem. The superheros pick up more work. Work hard. Define the direction. This can unwillingly prevent growth of the team or organisation. Worse, when these heroes eventually move on the gap left behind can be giant. Instead of simply looking for a single person to replace them, you might realistically be looking for 2 or 3 people just to make up the skill sets.

Mentorship is good. It needs sponsorship and incentives. No one has ever been promoted for mentoring people. While it directly contributes to shared knowledge, levelling up both engineers involved, and assists in the creation of human connection and trust. Management needs to recognise the effort and compensate it accordingly given the benefits it can bring to the company.

What SRE Could Be: Systems Reliability Engineering

Laura Nolan, Stanza

SRE is having an identity crisis. There is a lot of ritual without reason. Just because is not a reason to do.

The talk progresses through the underlying concepts of systems design, and how standardised problems and the building block which progress comes from.

While the industry can standardise, there are slight differences in every system - different quirks so cookie cutter solutions will rarely be drop-in. This is more important in the context of dynamic systems. They have a moving state and may not be the same next week as they are this week.

SRE is more than the tools we use, it is understanding systems and making appropriate interventions to make them function better. Fixing problems before they become problems.

SRE itself is changing too. We are not astronauts anymore, we are mission control. As the complexity increases, we are building the systems that manage the systems that run our systems. We’ve started to become abstracted away from the abstractions and layers we used to build.

There was also a section on how modelling a system will produce different views, from different people or at different times. Just because they are different doesn’t mean they are wrong. Different information is required when looking at a problem from a different view.

These systems models can then be used for risk analysis and to fill in the gaps our current data models have.

Some book recommendations from the talk

  • Handbook of systems thinking methods.
  • Thinking in systems
  • Engineering a safer world

Wednesday, 26 October

Diamonds with Flaws: Examining the Pressures, Realities, and Future of Site Reliability Engineering

Alex Hidalgo, Nobl9

Alex’s talk is almost like therapy for any non FAANG engineer in the industry. It covers what people think SRE is and what is not. Truth is SRE is and do a Lot of things.

You shouldn’t feel bad for not being the newest or fastest. Your solution could be the best solution for your situation. However this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try to improve.

While we always see the behemoth that the FAANGs are, if you add up all the engineers across all the companies, FAANGs are less than 1% of the industry now. Yet they have had an outsized impact, and not all of it good. They can still be a source of inspiration though.

The second part of the talk focused on some questions around if we, as an industry, could try to establish some common principles. The speaker took the view that we could probably agree on the principles but definitely not on how to actually implement them everywhere, something I agree with.

How We Drained Every Backbone Router Simultaneously

Francois Richard, Meta

This talk was about the large outage on 4th Oct 2021 where everything Facebook related went off line for a number of hours.

While the underlying cause of the routers draining incorrectly wasn’t covered well, there are a number of learning points in the talk. They had never anticipated that they would lose all access to all data centres like this which led to some comical failures like their access control into the datacenters failed as it couldn’t access the central network. Similarly their out of band access also failed as it assumed some domains would be online but those had disappeared when all the DNS servers fell off the internet.

COVID had helped lower the scale of the outage as they had implemented different DEFCONs switches which let them reduce the load across the stack when they restarted the traffic. Because of the longer outage, things like caches started going cold meaning the load was a lot higher on start up.

They did talk about the blameless culture which let the original engineer come forward when the outage started, saying it could have been their command to check capacity. Although they refused to confirm the person still works at Meta so read into that as you will.

The Q&A part touched on the decision for the validation checker to fail open rather than fail closed with some examples, but this could have been a talk all by itself given enough time.

Break Free of the Template: Incident Writeups They Want to Read

Laura Nolan, Stanza

How we present a narrative and a story that people will want to read.

Laura’s talk was a well constructed case for using storytelling techniques in incident reports.

An image of Laura on stage with a slide saying the TL;DR of the talk

Started with explaining the value of written incident reports. Nothing to argue about here. A written artefact allows us to:

  • Share knowledge and context
  • Help org Understand and adapt
  • Encourages reflection
  • Long term store of knowledge
  • Good for on-boarding!

A good source of public incident reports: VOID - Verica open incident database. All of the examples cited in the talk can be found there.

There is an issue with the templated incident report process: the value of incident report is in the LEARNING not the process.

“Cookie Cutters are for cookies, not for learning”.

A Incident report template with lots of cookies on it

No one truly likes filling out forms or templates. They are daunting and people end up rushing to fill them and tick boxes. This results in the learnings gained from them being very shallow (5 whys for example). Stories on the other side are powerful, they provide reference. A good incident report should be like a detective story.

Example for bad Incident Report:

An incident report for Jurassic Park

“Some people died”

Examples of good Incident Report:

A slide overview of the Firefox outage from January 13 2022

So what can you do to write a good incident report?

Support the reader.

Write so that any engineer can read and comprehend it, not just the experts. Explain jargon and system names, explain WHY things are how they are. Weave concise explanations into the narrative as needed, link out to more detailed documentation where appropriate.

Example: Gocardless: outage 25 October 2020

Be visual.

A picture is worth 1000 words. They reinforce the text, helping the reader to understand. An Image will add pacing to the report, breaking up the wall of text and adding texture while helping to keep the reader interested. Don’t limit yourself to architecture diagrams, use anything to tell the story, graphs, seq diagrams, closed loops etc.


Give good analysis If the incident report is the story, the analysis is the moral of the story. Sharing analysis and lessons learned is a satisfying way to wrap up the incident report. It creates a feeling of resolution.

Craft - or how to do all of this. A bit of practical advice:

  • Create something that people read and enjoy.
  • Titles: a title helps your reader to remember and reference. Think of it like the index for your brain.
  • Use simple and clear language.
  • It’s not an Academic paper, don’t be too formal - or too informal.
  • Avoid walls of text - break it up with headings.
  • Use sentence rhythm: use a few shorter sentences, then pace it with one longer sentence.
  • Use a consistent tense - just past tense is fine.
  • Avoid confusing or obscure cultural references and metaphors.
  • “Your incident report is not a sales pitch!” Be humble, be honest, write for your fellow engineer.

A slide listing a TL;DR of what to do

Pay attention to style!

If you need to fill out a form, do it after, write the story first then put it in the form.

Interesting Q/A bits:

Q: But forms are useful!

A: Yes, but it is not a checklist

Q: Headings?

A: Only rule is to format it in a way it is readable

Final comment from the speaker - Put effort only into gnarly, interesting incidents.

Deep Dive: Azure Resource Manager Outage

Benjamin Pannell and Brendan Burns, Microsoft.

From Demonware Alumni Benjamin Pannell.

The Azure Resource Manager experienced a 35 hour outage.

The outage was triggered by updating a legacy component in the azure resource manager service. This change was introduced in December but not actually rolled out until January - interesting effect here, engineers had lost most of the context around the change by the time it went to prod.

At the same time, a new type of worker (vNext) was deployed. Having multiple changes in play simultaneously made it hard to determine impact. This change appeared more significant and as such was initially identified as a possible cause of the issues. However, rolling it back only exacerbated the problems as it removed the only healthy workers in the system.

Config artifacts required by the web-queue-worker service weren’t present on machines. The config files were present in tests however, so the change appeared safe to deploy.

For anyone who ever deals with workers processing a queue of data, there are some really important life lessons in the talk. While the talk could use some additional graphs to highlight these points, they are still well made.

The failure was all around the poison pill job which kept locking up and crashing workers, making the system seem like it was slowing down rather than showing increased error rates. And as the workers were processing multiple job types, including other types that could be processed correct, the monitoring showed the workers healthy.

Passing the Torch - Building a New Grad Program to Mentor the Next Generation of SRE

Chris Stankaitis, The Pythian Group

SRE hiring is hard. Even for big companies.

One big takeaway from the talk is that the more senior person is rarely the one you need. Interview processes tend to focus on trying to find the most skilled and experienced person possible, but teams benefit from diversity in skill sets. And there is a lot of work that doesn’t require years upon years of experience.

Pythian - the company the speaker works at - decided to set up an SRE graduate program to expand the pool of candidates that could look at hiring. They see it as very cost effective as grads are cheaper than seniors which can offset the time required from the seniors.

Similarly any improvements for the grads in the on-boarding and training will also benefit other future senior SRE that join the team, as well as help level up the people doing the mentoring.

The pitfalls they went through for the new grads is a good watch for anyone involved in on-boarding of junior engineers or interns as it covers all the areas you just assume a new start has, but doesn’t. Seemingly simple things like Jira or Google Workspace can all be new. It may even be the first time they’ve done a technical interview

A key lesson was to hire with a growth mindset and critical thinking, something that applies at all levels and areas. Technology changes, and even in areas where someone has experience, your company’s experience will usually be somewhat different so raw experience rarely matters. Being able and willing to learn new things is the most important part.

The interview process should focus on evaluating the foundational technology rather than specific knowledge.

The Speaker goes on to talk about what they found best to focus on when on-boarding and growing their graduates. They brought them to conferences, like SRECON, ensured they got hands-on experience and helped them to learn the philosophies and histories of SREs. The graduates learned rapidly, given they’d just spent 4 years learning, and seemingly excelled in this structure.

Slack’s DNSSEC Rollout: Third Time’s the Outage

Rafael Elvira, Slack

If you already read the Slack Blogpost on DNSSEC outage, you won’t learn anything new from the talk.

Some main points

  • It is always DNS, even when it isn’t.
  • DNSSEC is hard, seemingly by design.
  • Slack was really helped by having telemetry on a separate domain away from This let them get the client information of the Chromium browser, including the important netflow logs.
  • Rolling back can make things worse.

Principled Identification of “Root Causes” Using Techniques from Safety Engineering

Laura de Vesine, Datadog Inc

For anyone dealing with RCAs, this provides an almost funny overview of how finding the “root cause” is a flawed process.

It started off talking through some made up examples, walking through the five whys, getting good conclusions and then everyone dies. Repeatedly.

When you go far enough down the chain - the root cause of every outage is the big bang. What we need to do is separate the environment from the system when we ask questions.

There are things that are not in our control and blaming them will result in the event recurring.

At its core, the talk explains how finding the related triggering events is more important. Where at all possible, removing the possibility of the failure is better than automating the fix.

It also covers how and why you need to analyse the near misses, not just the events that turned into outages. You can stop a lot of serious events from ever becoming serious events by doing this.

The Repeat Incident Fallacy: What Jurassic Park Can Teach Us about Incidents

Emily Ruppe,

Emily does a Live review of the 2 Incident reports from the events that occurred in the dinosaur themed amusement park based on Isla Nublar. She talks about how SRE can learn from the failures to avoid failure in our own systems.

The talk goes into how despite how similar the incidents may appear, we can see what lessons were learnt in the years between each event and how the park strived to learn from their mistakes.

Each time we respond to an incident we are different to the us that responded to the last incident. We can take what we learnt or did in a previous incident as tools into future ones.

Repeat problems in large socially complex systems don’t really exist. Even if the system itself doesn’t change, the surrounding bits do.

Thursday, 27 October

SRE in Enterprise

Steve McGhee and James Brookbank, Google Cloud

Talk raised a premise that for things like noc’s, removing it just means you end up with a shadow version, doing similar types of things. While the arguments hold for some functions, they did almost disprove some of it later on.

“Reliability isn’t the most important thing to everything.”

There is likely a strong bias going on into some of their research here that might be skewing the results. Other talks had highlighted how reliability for a startup can be very different from reliability for an established company. Sometimes reliability is a feature.

Section 4 talked about how to build a platform of capabilities, which is improved over time, adding more functionality.

There are many lessons anyone dealing with platforms can learn, especially around how to expand and get other teams along the adoption path.

A core SRE principle is gradual change. SRE is dynamic and evolves over time. What works today will need some changes to stay working tomorrow.

FAANG-type companies operate at the bleeding edges - the rest of us have simpler needs.

Unified Theory of SRE

Emil Stolarsky, Wave Mobile Money

Instead of unified theory, this was more of a history lesson that covered the bits we thought we knew, but didn’t.

Like in other talks, the Google SRE book was picked on due to its missing premise and how when it launched, people thought this is how it was, not the aspirational goal to work towards.

Startups have to know the difference between future proofing and over engineering, like in other companies, but with startups the difference is a lot more pronounced as the company may not exist when the future comes around. In a startup, velocity can be more important than resilience.

Q: Are SLO’s relevant for a startup?

A: Yes if they define value for the product.

Q: Do you need to do incident reviews for everything?

A: No, but always do one if there’s an opportunity to learn something.

An argument was made, strongly, for using the best technology for the problem you are facing. This is rarely the most complex or hottest tech of the day.


The talk ended with an unanswered question that many teams face: For oncall, what does a healthy rota look like when you don’t have enough people.

Caching Entire Systems without Invalidation

Peter Sperl, Bloomberg

This is definitely a more developer focused talk rather than ops as the changes involved were all in code design. The speaker goes into how to take Functional programming concepts and apply them to system design to build a more resilient system.

Cache invalidation is one of the harder problems in computing, the speaker suggests never invalidating the cache. They talk about splitting state out from a method to create pure functions which can be run once and cached forever. In effect defining boundaries in the system with state and without state, to allow for better caching.

Overall while the concepts are good and do provide some good thinking points, the different levels of scale in the system really showed. Some of the designs would start to break down in the millions of users but that doesn’t mean they are not worth consideration. The concept of moving what to cache to a different level, and using different keys that change based on the user data is a good one.

Over Nine Billion Dollars of SRE Lessons - the James Webb Space Telescope

Robert Barron, IBM

This is the talk that could explain SRE principals to your mother, or maybe just your manager? Also Lego models, so hide your wallet ahead of time.

The core SRE principals have their basis in systems designs and are applicable outside of pure software systems.

It covers how the principles were applied to the design, build, launch and operation of the James Webb Space Telescope, over the more than 20 year project lifespan thus far.

More than that, there are some very understandable examples of how SLO/SLAs were applied to the operation and the design factors that allows it to achieve that.

Better yet was the explanation of how 100% reliability is rarely the real goal, even for systems that may seem life critical on the face of it.

As an example, Robert shared how the International Space Stations oxygen systems do not have a 100% uptime design goal, across all of the systems combined. Even though humans need oxygen to survive, the larger system of the ISS has enough redundancy built in that this isn’t a true requirement.

An SRE Guide to Linux Kernel Upgrades

Ignat Korchagin, Cloudflare

Not directly a guide but more a justification on why you should and how safe it is. The more often you upgrade, the safer it is given the number of changes in each release.

One of the core points was that while one vulnerability might not apply to you, attackers can be highly motivated to chain different exploits together in seemingly unrelated ways to get access.

The presenter also went through some of the anti-patterns that people often apply around kernel upgrades (this could cover any software upgrades really):

  • Only looking for items in a changelog that apply to you
  • “This vulnerability does not affect us, no need to upgrade”

The Math of Scalability

Avishai Ish-Shalom

A talk called “The Math of Scalability” started, unsurprisingly, by explaining scale but also how we as people can rarely properly comprehend the numbers of scale. Things that seem logical can and do make things slower at times.

When you deal with truly large numbers, one in a million events happen all the time. You start to see emergent behaviour where interactions between different elements cause outages in ways that would be edge cases of edge cases.

One premise put forward was that all large systems are essentially stateful. Your stateless app servers in the middle of it are just a component of the system and there is state held in other parts. This is how contention starts creeping in causing latency increases.

As the scale increases, combined failures can quickly snowball. Your latency increases bring timeouts, which brings retries, which brings more load, which brings more timeouts…

The ending part of the talk covers how to actually deal with this through some (IMO) badly named concepts. At its core it was sharding to separate traffic or requests to spread the load.

SRE Is Weird, Down the Stack

John P. Looney, Reddit, Inc.

There be scary dragons down the stacks. John talks about some of the issues he’s encountered running massive hardware platforms over the years and why we should all be scared. John tells the legends of why firmwares are never updated, why you can never upstream a change and change takes time.

A slide quoting node dev “#YOLO” and von Moltke “One does not improvise the deployment of millions”

The talk also covered a very valid point where teams fall into a trap from their own lack of support. Customers think, why bother logging a bug if they aren’t going to fix it anyway, leading the team to think they are awesome as no one reports any bugs.

SRE and ML: Why It Matters

Todd Underwood, Google

Does it Matter? No*

[*] Yet.

Todd Underwood is an SRE for Google’s Machine Learning platform gives a live reenactment of his attempt to have Google’s AI (played by Niall Murphy) write him a talk on why ML matters.

An image of Niall and Todd acting out Todd’s conversation with the AI

Todd then goes on to talk about what SRE’ing in an ML world might look like. He discusses a number of the challenges facing engineers that are going to run ML in production, including difficulty measuring successes and the dangers in data sensitivity a Model faces.

A slide showing the hype cycle for AI in 2022