Julian Canlas
Julian Canlas

Founder of the SEO content marketing agency, Embarque.
julian@embarque.io @jic94

Reliability Engineer Explained: Role, Goals, & Techniques

Companies that are concerned with the stability and reliability of their infrastructure and services have happier customers. If your SaaS software is plagued with service disruptions it may be time to address the issue head-on – consider taking your credibility to the next level by hiring a reliability engineer. In the meantime, build user trust during outages or service disruptions by incorporating a user-friendly informative status page with Instatus.

Despite a hefty salary tag, a reliability engineer provides invaluable IT operations expertise to your company. A good RE will optimize equipment effectiveness and improve system performance and stability. Continue reading to learn more about the roles, goals, and techniques of reliability engineers.

What is Reliability Engineering?

Reliability engineering is a subfield of engineering focused on improving equipment reliability. This engineering field is most common in the manufacturing, production, and information technology spaces. This article is concerned with reliability engineering as it relates to IT operations.

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) applies software engineering principles to information technology operations. SRE is a specific branch of reliability engineering coined by Ben Treynor Sloss, now VP of Google Engineering.

Sloss introduced the concept of SRE in late 2003, shortly after joining Google, and when he began leading a team of 7 engineers to solve IT issues that system administrators were handling. Check out Google’s Ebook on SRE to learn more about their experiences and successes.

Before Site Reliability Engineering, there was minimal communication between software engineers/developers and the IT department. The software was developed independently without consulting IT professionals. A finished project was then handed off to the IT team responsible for building systems to suit the project. IT handled deployment and maintenance and was responsible for managing any downtime or unforeseen production issues.

The concept of SRE has spread widely throughout the software development industry. There are currently over 210,000 open positions listed for ‘Site Reliability Engineer’ on LinkedIn in the United States. Companies of all sizes are starting to incorporate this role into their teams where possible.

What is the role and the goals of a Reliability Engineer?

A reliability engineer solves operations problems with engineering work. To meet this goal, SREs are responsible for tracking and monitoring latency, performance, availability, and other metrics for their sites and services.

Interestingly, reliability engineers meet these responsibilities by building tools and services that reduce the operations workload. Reliability engineers are expected and rewarded for fixing issues and then finding a way to automate that fix.

According to Google’s Director of SRE Dublin, Dave O’Connor, the best reliability engineers are regularly automating themselves out of a job. His engineers are lazy, therefore when they identify a problem, they solve it and find a way to automate the solution so that they don’t need to revisit that issue again.

Site Reliability Engineers develop the IT systems to be reliable, automated, and scalable to suit the business's needs. The SRE skillset differs from traditional software developers. SREs need a thorough understanding of monitoring, logging, configuration management, metrics, and automation.

SRE vs DevOps?

DevOps is another methodology for handling software development and IT operations. DevOps surfaces as a new software development methodology in 2008 and has gained significant traction. DevOps is the combination of ‘development’ and ‘operations’.

Despite some overlap in principles, DevOps is not the same as SRE. DevOps is primarily focused on developing a core product. DevOps is working to involve IT systems development with the software design.

At the same time, Site Reliability Engineers are more focused on minimizing downtime, automating IT operations, and reducing the workload of system administrators. SREs will engage the primary development team to provide feedback on IT systems integrations that are not working as intended.

DevOps and SRE are non-competing methodologies. Any Site Reliability Engineering team will benefit if the primary software development team incorporates DevOps principles because the team will be more IT aware during development.

What techniques does a Reliability Engineer use?

Reliability Engineers cannot do their job without data. REs rely on tools that collect data from the application for monitoring and analysis. Once the data has been analyzed, SREs can develop actionable areas to improve IT performance and user experiences. Some of the techniques that reliability engineers incorporate are:

1. User Experience

The most important goal for REs is to increase uptime and limit service disruptions. This involves understanding which services are more valuable and popular with users.

Site Reliability Engineers use SLIs or Service Level Indicators to provide a quantitative value to a specific service or feature. SLOs or Service Level Objectives is the preferred value or target being measured by SLIs.

The most classic and typical example of SLIs and SLOs is availability. If users are happiest with an uptime of 99.5%, your availability SLO is set to 99.5%. The actual uptime metric is the SLI measurement. Maybe it’s 99.25%, so your SRE understands there is room to grow in this area.

2. Change Management

Change is the friend of SREs, but can also cause significant issues and downtime if not appropriately managed. Most unexpected outages can be attributed to a change made without proper management.

Up to ‘80% of unplanned outages are due to ill-planned changes made by administrators (‘operations staff’) or developers’ according to IT Process Institute’s Visible Ops Handbook. Human error is costly and SREs are focused on reducing this impact.

SREs will develop precise procedures for rolling out changes, planning downtime, using version control, and necessary rollback steps. Outage procedures will also incorporate incident management principles so that the affected users are notified quickly and efficiently. Removing manual deployment of updates is one of the best methods to reduce unplanned outages.

3. Automate Everything

The value of automation is enormous for Site Reliability Managers. When processes or services are developed using automation, there is a higher level of consistency, less labor needed, and a quicker recovery. SREs that integrate automation into their systems will save time and labor each time that automated tasks are executed. Usually, automation is a positive feedback loop that dramatically improves uptime and user experiences.

4. Standardize Tools

Standardizing the SRE toolset is a must for any organization. This standard will differ across different organizations. If you run an eCommerce application, you may be incorporating a different group of tools than if you are responsible for a social media application. Regardless of the specific tools, most teams will need the following type of tools:

  • Application Performance Management & Monitoring
  • Real-Time Communication
  • Configuration Management
  • Automated Response Systems

5. Blameless Culture

Successful SRE teams don’t play the blame game. Understandably it’s disappointing when someone’s mistake leads to costly downtime, but blaming that individual creates a culture of fear.

A culture of fear often breeds a culture of stagnation. It’s best to assume that the engineer made the best decision possible with the information they had access to at that time. The downtime costs can be recuperated more quickly than a damaged team culture.

Instead, the postmortem incident record should be used as a learning experience. The team now knows a failure method and can focus on building a solution to prevent this failure again.

What tools does a Reliability Engineer Use?

Reliability engineers use various tools to manage the systems, applications, devices, and servers they are responsible for. There are endless options available in the market for automation and software tools to aid SREs in their job, but these are some of the popular tools:

Application Performance Management & Monitoring Tools

Application Performance Management (APM) software is used to manage the performance of an application. APM tools provide usage and performance data, server metrics, framework metrics, logging data, plus custom metrics. Application Performance Management tools are budget-friendly and should be adopted by businesses of all sizes.

Take a look at some of the top APM and monitoring tools in the Site Reliability Engineering space:

  1. Datadog
  2. Instatus
  3. New Relic
  4. Prometheus & Grafana

Automated Response Systems

Automated Response Systems (ARS) are incident response systems that will automatically notify any SREs on-call in case of a failure. Following Lowe’s incorporation of SRE principles including an automated incident response system, the number of releases increased dramatically. The Site Reliability Engineers are able to push over 20+ releases a day and have decreased MTTR (mean-time-to-recovery) by an astounding 80%!

  1. Pager Duty
  2. Ops Genie

Real-Time Communication

Use messaging software to keep the SRE team in constant communication with each other, the primary development team, IT professionals, and business leaders. Slack is the most popular real-time communication program in the software development space. There are many other great options, including Microsoft Teams and Amazon Chime.

  1. Slack
  2. Microsoft Teams
  3. Amazon Chime

Configuration Management

Configuration management is the process of maintaining systems, servers, and software in a consistent configuration. If you know how a design will perform with a specific configuration, you want that configuration applied across all systems within the organization. Mismatched configurations can lead to downtime and performance issues.

For example, there should be no differences in server configurations for a specific service. Configuration management will identify the systems that are out of configuration and recommend the correct configuration or patching if necessary.

  1. Ansible
  2. Chef

What is the salary of a Reliability Engineer?

According to Indeed, the average base salary of a Reliability Engineer in the United States is $99,762. This salary is artificially low because it includes Reliability Engineer roles for facilities and manufacturing environments.

Comparatively, the average base salary for a Site Reliability Engineer in the United States is $131,787. Experienced SREs can easily command salaries in excess of $200,000.

If you are looking to hire a Site Reliability Engineer, be aware of your competitor's offers. Smaller companies may opt to hire under the job title of Reliability Engineer to reduce costs but expect a talent drop.

Incorporate Site Reliability Engineering With DevOps

SRE and DevOps are a perfect pair. If your software development team is already integrating DevOps principles, it will be a natural extension to add Site Reliability Engineering. Before these methodologies, information technology was considered an afterthought. Product development timelines and service uptimes will improve by centering development around IT systems.

Instatus status pages
Hey, want to get a status page?

Get a beautiful status page that's free forever.
With unlimited team members & subscribers!

Check out Instatus

Start here
Create your status page or login

Learn more
Check help and pricing

Talk to a human
Chat with us or send an email

Statuspage vs Instatus
Compare or Switch!

Updates
Changesblog and open stats

Community
Twitter, slack, now and affiliates

Policies·© Instatus, Inc.