Mark's Meanderings


The Root of All Evil

06 Jan 2014

It's a little pretentious to make a post in this blog and name it "The Root of All Evil". But that's what I'm doing, that's what you're reading. May I not regret this.

Today's subject is something that is, in fact, the root of everything that breaks, fails, or otherwise crumbles at three in the goddamn morning when you were just about to get to the good part of that dream, but no, your phone lights up like a demonic Christmas tree with an unholy tune (because you keep forgetting to change it back from that Bieber song your coworker changed it to when you left your phone unlocked and unattended and it started paging you and she had to deal with it).

Ring ring. PagerDuty is happy to let you know that Nagios alert "site: is this shit working" is DOWN. Would you like to Acknowledge, Resolve, or Spread The Pain To The Secondary?

You ack the alert and grab your laptop. Step 1: Check if shit is working. Well, it's not. Getting paged in the middle of the dream right before that really hot person takes off their shirt is really damned annoying, but at least it's not a false page. Something is actually broken and you, as the SRE On-Call, are now responsible for figuring out why.

Let's take a step back.

In the years I've been doing this job, there's one rule that seems to hold true no matter what: if I get paged and something is actually wrong, then something has changed.

This is an overly simplistic statement of the probably very obvious, but the day I really realized this it felt like a light burst from a cloud and I was thoroughly englightened (and roasted in ultraviolet radiation). Once I had this realization, I could start tuning my monitoring and alerting to highlight things that change: in essence, to find likely problem areas quicker and more accurately than I was before.

The primary source of change is humans going about their daily lives, and this is particularly true in the world of startups. Until you get into a world where you have fancy Change Management Processes and People Who Make Sure That Change Management Processes Are Being Followed, you instead live in this lovely world I like to call "hello I seem to have found myself on top of a raging bull that is trying to throw me off and I'm not sure how, is this the right number to call in the 4.3 seconds before I'm thrown unceremoniously to my face in front of millions of users?"

Being an SRE at a startup is like riding the bull. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it's at least guaranteed to be one hell of a time.


There are many things that change in the course of a day, and one of the most useful skills you can have is understanding how to quickly rank the likely sources of change and figure out which one is responsible for your current hair-pulling event.

A concrete example: my company pushes code out to the site pretty regularly, but it's generally always in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. This is a major change event and, statistically speaking, deployments are the most likely causes of outages (this is based on experience, I don't actually record the data, so it's as accurate as most statistic). Anyway, things are fine, your site is working, everybody is happy; then someone dares to do their job and write some code and then has the temerity to deploy that shit! To users!

Things break. Nearly inevitably, as the size of a codebase grows, the chances of something breaking during a deployment approach 100%. So, back to changes: if I get paged at 2PM on a Thursday, the very first thing I will do, before anything else, is ask "did someone just push the site?"

The answer is almost always "yeah, did something break?"

Engineers. Can't live without 'em.

(PS, I love you all even if sometimes I want to kick your puppies.)

More Changes

A relatively unsorted list of things that comes to mind when I'm reaching for the list of things that might have changed:

There's a million more. Really, it's quite hard to make a list like this. I think that most of us just do it for years until we've bashed our heads against the wall enough times that our brains have taken on the consistency of porridge and our forehead resembles cardboard after a night out in the rain.

Okay, that's gross, but it makes the point: learning through suffering is alive and well in the world of SRE. Nobody can write you a list, and, even worse: every service is different. Yeah, there are some common failure patterns, but every time you move to a new service you'll have to learn the new and interesting ways that it fails, too.


Stuff breaks when things change. Most changes come from humans or something in particular failing. Find what changed or broke and you'll probably find what's wrong and can get back to the business of sleeping.