in Computing

Invest in operational tooling

When you operate an evolving distributed system in production for a long time, you often accumulate a runbook of weird hacks for responding to rare events.

Three examples at random:

  • A service my team was on-call for would occasionally get into a specific weird state, and start intermittently dropping requests. Getting it healthy again was a complex multi-step process. It was also expensive and had its own production impact, so you didn’t want to do it by mistake!
  • Setting up new clusters for a different service required building multiple databases with very specific, environment-dependent configurations.
  • Another system had very complex internal state, and inspecting that state involved some fairly arcane and expensive SQL queries. We didn’t have to dig into it often, but this was needed for certain debugging and auditing processes.

Given enough years of operation and a complex enough environment, you can accumulate a long list of these kinds of rare procedures.

Fully automating these procedures is often difficult, because they might require some human inputs or judgement. This is especially true when the situation is rare and occurs only in production, so the causes are poorly understood. Faced with these problems, I’ve seen a lot of teams end up with a big pile of wiki pages instead… which are not fun to parse at 3am when prod is broken.

However, I’m a big fan of building partial automation to handle these kinds of procedures. Instead of making someone copy/paste their way through a complex wiki page at 3am, they should have a tool that can guide them through the procedure. This tool can ask for user input in the places it’s needed, and build in guard rails and confirmation prompts when you’re doing something dangerous.

The downside to building this tooling is that you now have a whole new software project to maintain! Because in my experience, you really do have to treat this as a first-class software project in its own right, maintained alongside your production services.

To put it another way, I’m not advocating for a big pile of scripts. (though that’s better than nothing…) I’m saying you should build something like a kubectl or mysqladmin for your own services.

In the long run, though, I find that this investment really pays off. Having good tooling improves the maintainability of your systems and makes the on-call experience easier. It also translates institutional memory into code, which I’ve found makes onboarding easier and gets people more comfortable with dealing with prod.

Write a Comment