Recently, Salesforce released a public incident writeup for a service outage that happened in mid-May. There’s a lot of good stuff in here (DNS! A config change!), but I want to focus on one aspect of the writeup, a contributing factor described in the writeup as Subversion of the Emergency Break Fix (EBF) process.
Here are some excerpts from that section of the writeup (emphasis in the original):
An [Emergency Break Fix] is an unplanned and urgent change that is required to prevent or remediate a Severity-0, a Severity-1, or a Severity-2 incident… Non-urgent changes, i.e. those which do not require immediate attention, should not be deployed as EBFs.
…In this situation, there was no active or imminent Severity-0, Severity-1 or Severity-2 incident, so the EBF process should not have been used, and standard Salesforce stagger processes should not have been ignored.
By following an emergency process, this change avoided the extensive review scrutiny that would have occurred had it been made as a standard change under the Salesforce Change Traffic Control (CTC) process. … In this case, the engineer subverted the known policy and the appropriate disciplinary action has been taken to ensure this does not happen in the future.
“What was the engineer thinking? “ a reader wonders. I certainly did. People make decisions for reasons that make sense to them. I have no idea what the engineer’s reasoning was here, because there’s not even a hint of that reasoning alluded to here.
Is this process commonly circumvented by engineers for some reason? (i.e., was this situation actually more common than the writeup lets on?) Alternately, was the engineer facing atypical time pressure? If so, what was the nature of the time pressure?
One of the functions of public writeups is to give customers confidence in the organization’s ability to deal with future incidents. This section had the opposite effect, it filled me with dread. It communicates to me that the organization is not interested in understanding how actual work is done.
Woe be it to the next engineer caught in the double bind where there will be consequences if they don’t work quickly enough and there will be consequences if they don’t conform to a process that slows them down so much that they can’t get their work done quickly enough.
Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldier knew Some one had blunder’d: Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred.
Flash’d all their sabres bare, Flash’d as they turn’d in air Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wonder’d: Plunged in the battery-smoke Right thro’ the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reel’d from the sabre-stroke Shatter’d and sunder’d. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell, They that had fought so well Came thro’ the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of Hell, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wonder’d. Honor the charge they made! Honor the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!
The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson
One of the challenges of building distributed systems is that communications channels are unreliable. This challenge is captured in what is known as the Two Generals’ Problem. It goes something like this:
Two generals from the same army are camped at opposite sides of a valley. The enemy troops are stationed in the valley. The generals need to coordinate their attack in order to succeed. Neither general will risk their troops unless they know for certain that the other general will attack at the same time.
They only mechanism the generals have to communicate is by sending messages via carrier pigeon that fly over the valley. The problem is that enemy archers in the valley are sometimes able to shoot down these carrier pigeons, and so a general sending a message has no guarantee that it will be received by the other general.
The first general sends the message: Let’s attack Monday at dawn, and waits for an acknowledgment. If he doesn’t get an acknowledgment, he can’t be certain the message was received, and so he can’t attack. He receives an acknowledgment in return. But now he thinks, “What if the other general doesn’t know I’ve received the acknowledgment? He knows I won’t carry out the attack unless I know for certain that he agrees to the plan, and he doesn’t know whether I’ve received an acknowledgment or not. I’d better send a message acknowledging the message.”
This becomes an infinite regress problem: it turns out that no number of acknowledgments and acknowledgment-of-acknowledgments that can ensure that the two generals have common knowledge (“I know that he knows that I know that he knows…”) when communicating over an unreliable channel.
One implicit assumption of the Two Generals’ Problem is that when a message is received, it is understood perfectly by the recipient. In the world of real systems, understanding the intent of a message is often a challenge. I’m going to call this the British General’s Problem, in honor of General Raglan.
Raglan was a British general during the Crimean War. The messages he sent to Lord Lucan at the front were misinterpreted, and these misinterpretations contributed to a disastrous attack by British Light Calvary against fortified Russian troops, famously memorialized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem at the top of this post.
This story is a classic example of a common ground breakdown, a phenomenon described in the famous paper Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity by Gary Klein, Paul Feltovich, Jeffrey Bradshaw and David Woods. In the paper, the authors describe how common ground is necessary for people to coordinate effectively to achieve a shared goal. A common ground breakdown happens when a misunderstanding occurs among the people coordinating.
If you do operations work, and you’ve been involved in remediating an incident while communicating over Slack, you’ve experience the challenge of maintaining common ground. Because common ground breakdowns are common, coordination requires ongoing effort to repair this common ground. This is the topic of Laura Maguire’s PhD thesis: Controlling the Costs of Coordination in Large-scale Distributed Software Systems (which, I must admit, I haven’t yet read).
The British General’s problem is a reminder of the challenges we inevitably face in socio-technicalsystems. The real problem is not unreliable channels: it’s building and maintaining the shared understanding in order to get the coordination work done.
One of my hobbies is learning Yiddish. Growing up Jewish in Montreal, I attended a parochial elementary school that taught Yiddish (along with French and Hebrew), but dropped it after that. A couple of years ago, I discovered a Yiddish teacher in my local area and I started taking classes for fun.
Our teacher recently introduced us to a Yiddish expression, hintish-kloog, which translates literally as “dog smartness”. It refers to a dog’s ability to sniff out and locate food in all sorts of places.
This made me think of the kind of skill required to solve operational problems during the moment. It’s a very different kind of skill than, say, constructing abstractions during software development. Instead, it’s more about employing a set of heuristics to try to diagnose the issue, hunting through our dashboards to look for useful signals. “Did something change recently? Are errors up? Is the database healthy?”
My teacher noted that that many of the more religious Jews tend to look down on owning a dog, and so hintish-kloog is meant in a pejorative sense: this isn’t the kind of intelligence that is prized by scholars. This made me think about the historical difference in prestige between development and operations work, where skilled operations work is seen as a lower form of work than skilled development work.
I’m glad that this perception of operations is changing over time, and that more software engineers are doing the work of operating their own software. Dog smartness is a survival skill, and we need more of it.
Author’s note: I initially had the Yiddish wording incorrect, this post has been updated with the correct wording.
Making the rounds is the story of how Citi accidentally transferred $900 million dollars to various hedge funds. Citi then asked the funds to reverse the mistaken transfer, and while some of the funds did, others said, “no, it’s ours, and we’re keeping it”, and Citi took them to court, and lost. The wonderful finance writer Matt Levine has the whole story. At this center of this is horrible UX associated with internal software, you can see screenshots in Levine’s writeup. As an aside, several folks on the Hacker News thread recognized the UI widgets as having been built with Oracle Forms.
However, this post isn’t about a particular internal software package with lousy UX. (There is no shortage of such software packages in the world, ask literally anyone who deals with internal software).
Instead, I’m going to explore two questions:
How come we don’t hear about these sorts of accidental financial transactions more often?
How come financial organizations like Citibank don’t invest in improving internal software UX for reducing risk?
I’ve never worked in the financial industry, so I have no personal experience with this domain. But I suspect that accidental financial transactions, while rare, do happen from time to time. But what I suspect happens most of the time is that the institution that initiated the accidental transaction reaches out and explains what happens to the other institution, and they transfer the money back.
As Levine points out, there’s no finders keepers rule in the U.S. I suspect that there aren’t any organizations that have a risk scenario with the summary, “we accidentally transfer an enormous sum of money to an organization that is legally entitled to keep it.” because that almost never happens. This wasn’t a case of fraud. This was a weird edge case in the law where the money transferred was an accidental repayment of a loan in full, when Citi just meant to make an interest payment, and there’s a specific law about this scenario (in fact, Citi didn’t really want to make a payment at all, but they had to because of a technical issue).
Can you find any other time in the past where an institution accidentally transferred funds and the recipient was legally permitted to keep the money? If so, I’d love to hear it.
And, if it really is the case that these sorts of mistakes aren’t seen as a risk, then why would an organization like Citi invest in improving the usability of their internal tools? Heck, if you read the article, you’ll see that it was actually contractors that operate the software. It’s not like Citi would be more profitable if they were able to improve the usability of this software. “Who cares if it takes a contractor 10 minutes versus 30 minutes?” I can imagine an exec saying.
Don’t get me wrong: my day job is building internal tools, so I personally believe these tools add value. And I imagine that financial institutions invest in the tooling of their algorithmic traders, because correctness and development speed go directly to their bottom lines. But the folks operating the software that initiates these sorts of transactions? That’s just grunt work, nobody’s going to invest in improving those experiences.
In short, these systems don’t fall over all of the time because the systems aren’t just made up of horrible software. They’re made up of horrible software, and human beings who can exercise judgment when something goes wrong and compensate. Most of the time, that’s good enough.
Laura Nolan of Slack recently published an excellent write-up of their Jan. 4, 2021 outage on Slack’s engineering blog.
One of the things that struck me about this writeup is the contributing factors that aren’t part of this outage. There’s nothing about a bug that somehow made its way into a production, or an accidentally incorrect configuration change, or how some corrupt data ended up in the database. On the other hand, it’s an outage story with multiple examples of saturation.
Saturation is a phrase often used by the safety science researcher David Woods: it refers to a system that is reaching the limit of what it can handle. If you’ve done software operations work, I bet you’ve encountered resource exhaustion, which is an example of saturation.
Saturation plays a big role in Woods’s model of the adaptive universe. In particular, in socio-technical systems, people will adapt in order to reduce the risk of saturation. In this post, I’m going to walk Laura’s write-up, highlighting all of the examples of saturation and how the system adopted to it. I’m going purely from the text of the original write-up, which means I’ll likely get some things wrong here.
Slack runs their infrastructure on AWS. In the beginning, they (like, I presume, all small companies) started with a single AWS account. And, initially, this worked out well.
As our customer base grew and the tool evolved, we developed more services and built more infrastructure as needed. However, everything we built still lived in one big AWS account. This is when our troubles started. Having all our infrastructure in a single AWS account led to AWS rate-limiting issues, cost-separation issues, and general confusion for our internal engineering service teams.
The above quote makes reference to three different categories of saturation. The first is a traditional sort of limit we software folks think of: they were running into AWS rate limits associated with an individual AWS account.
The other two limits are cognitive: the system made it harder for humans to deal with separating out costs and, it led to confusion for internal teams. I still see these as a form of saturation: as a system gets more difficult for humans to deal with, it effectively increases the cost of using the system, and it makes errors more likely.
And so, the Slack Cloud Engineering team adapted to meet this saturation risk by adopting AWS child accounts. From the linked blog post again:
Now the service teams could request their own AWS accounts and could even peer their VPCs with each other when services needed to talk to other services that lived in a different AWS account.
With continued growth, they eventually reached saturation again. Once again, this was the “it’s getting too hard” sort of saturation:
Having hundreds of AWS accounts became a nightmare to manage when it came to CIDR ranges and IP spaces, because the mis-management of CIDR ranges meant that we couldn’t peer VPCs with overlapping CIDR ranges. This led to a lot of administrative overhead.
To deal with this risk of saturation, the cloud engineering team adapted again. They reached for new capabilities: AWS shared VPCs and AWS Transit Gateway Inter-Region Peering. By leveraging these technologies, they were able to design a network architecture that addressed their problems:
This solved our earlier issue of constantly hitting AWS rate limits due to having all our resources in one AWS account. This approach seemed really attractive to our Cloud Engineering team, as we could manage the IP space, build VPCs, and share them with our child account owners. Then, without having to worry about managing any of the overhead of setting up VPCs, route tables, or network access lists, teams were able to utilize these VPCs and build their resources on top of them.
Fast forward several months later. From Laura Nolan’s post:
On January 4th, one of our Transit Gateways became overloaded. The TGWs are managed by AWS and are intended to scale transparently to us. However, Slack’s annual traffic pattern is a little unusual: Traffic is lower over the holidays, as everyone disconnects from work (good job on the work-life balance, Slack users!). On the first Monday back, client caches are cold and clients pull down more data than usual on their first connection to Slack. We go from our quietest time of the whole year to one of our biggest days quite literally overnight. Our own serving systems scale quickly to meet these kinds of peaks in demand (and have always done so successfully after the holidays in previous years). However, our TGWs did not scale fast enough.
This is as clear an example of saturation as you can get: the incoming load increased faster than the transit gateways were able to cope. What’s really fascinating from this point on is the role that saturation plays in interactions with the rest of the system.
As too many of us know, clients experience a saturated network as an increase in latency. When network latency goes up, the threads in a service spend more of their time sitting there waiting for the bits to come over the network, which means that CPU utilization goes down.
Slack’s web tier autoscales on CPU utilization, so when the network started dropping packets, the instances in the web tier spent more of their time blocked, and CPU went down, which triggered the AWS autoscaler to downscale the web tier.
However, the web tier has a scaling policy that rapidly upscales if thread utilization gets too high. (At Netflix, we use the term hammer rule to describe these type of emergency scale-up rule).
Once the new instances come online, an internal Slack service named provision-service is responsible for setting up these new instances so that they can serve traffic. And here, we see more saturation issues (emphasis mine).
Provision-service needs to talk to other internal Slack systems and to some AWS APIs. It was communicating with those dependencies over the same degraded network, and like most of Slack’s systems at the time, it was seeing longer connection and response times, and therefore was using more system resources than usual. The spike of load from the simultaneous provisioning of so many instances under suboptimal network conditions meant that provision-service hit two separate resource bottlenecks (the most significant one was the Linux open files limit, but we also exceeded an AWS quota limit).
While we were repairing provision-service, we were still under-capacity for our web tier because the scale-up was not working as expected. We had created a large number of instances, but most of them were not fully provisioned and were not serving. The large number of broken instances caused us to hit our pre-configured autoscaling-group size limits, which determine the maximum number of instances in our web tier.
Through a combination of robustness mechanisms (load balancer panic mode, retries, circuit breakers) and the actions of human operators, the system is restored to health.
As operators, we strive to keep our systems far from the point of saturation. As a consequence, we generally don’t have much experience with how the system behaves as it approaches saturation. And that makes these incidents much harder to deal with.
Making things worse, we can’t ever escape the risk of saturation. Often we won’t know that a limit exists until the system breaches it.
Here’s a question that all of us software developers face: How can we best use our knowledge about the past behavior of our system to figure out where we should be investing our time?
One approach is to use a technique from the SRE world called error budgets. Here are a few quotes from the How to Use Error Budgets chapter of Alex Hidalgo’s book: Implementing Service Level Objectives:
Measuring error budgets over time can give you great insight into the risk factors that impact your service, both in terms of frequency and severity. By knowing what kinds of events and failures are bad enough to burn your error budget, even if just momentarily, you can better discover what factors cause you the most problems over time. p71 [emphasis mine]
The basic idea is straightforward. If you have error budget remaining, ship new features and push to production as often as you’d like; once you run out of it, stop pushing feature changes and focus on relaiability instead. p87
Error budgets give you ways to make decisions about your service, be it a single microservice or your company’s entire customer-facing product. They also give you indicators that tell you when you can ship features, what your focus should be, when you can experiment, and what your biggest risk factors are. p92
The goal is not to only react when your users are extremely unhappy with you—it’s to have better data to discuss where work regarding your service should be moving next. p354
That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Look at what’s causing your system to break, and if it’s breaking too often, use that as a signal to address those issues that are breaking it. If you’ve been doing really well reliability-wise, an error budget gives you margin to do some riskier experimentation in production like chaos engineering or production load testing.
I have two issues with this approach, a smaller one and a larger one. I’ll start with the smaller one.
First, I think that if you work on a team where the developers operate their own code (you-build-it, you-run-it), and where the developers have enough autonomy to say, “We need to focus more development effort on increasing robustness”, then you don’t need the error budget approach to help you decide when and where to spend your engineering effort. The engineers will know where the recurring problems are because they feel the operational pain, and they will be able to advocate for addressing those pain points. This is the kind of environment that I am fortunate enough to work in.
I understand that there are environments where the developers and the operators are separate populations, or the developers aren’t granted enough autonomy to be able to influence where engineering time is spent, and that in those environments, an error budget approach would help. But I don’t swim in those waters, so I won’t say any more about those contexts.
To explain my second concern, I need to digress a little bit to talk about Herbert Heinrich.
Herbert Heinrich worked for the Travelers Insurance Company in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, he did a study of workplace accidents, examining thousands of claims made by companies that held insurance policies with Travelers. In 1931, he published his findings in a book: Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach.
Heinrich’s work showed a relationship between the rates of near misses (no injury), minor injuries, and major injuries. Specifically: for every major injury, there are 29 minor injuries, and 300 no-injury accidents. This finding of 1:29:300 became known as the accident triangle.
One implication of the accident triangle is that the rate of minor issues gives us insight into the rate of major issues. In particular, if we reduce the rate of minor issues, we reduce the risk of major ones. Or, as Heinrich put it: Moral—prevent the accidents and the injuries will take care of themselves.
Heinrich’s work has since been criticized, and subsequent research has contradicted Heinrich’s findings. I won’t repeat the criticisms here (see Foundations of Safety Science by Sidney Dekker for details), but I will cite counterexamples mentioned in Dekker’s book:
So, what does any of this have to do with error budgets? At a glance, error budgets don’t seem related to Heinrich’s work at all. Heinrich was focused on safety, where the goal is to reduce injuries as much as possible, in some cases explicitly having a zero goal. Error budgets are explicitly not about achieving zero downtime (100% reliability), they’re about achieving a target that’s below 100%.
Here are the claims I’m going to make:
Large incidents are much more costly to organizations than small ones, so we should work to reduce the risk of large incidents.
Error budgets don’t help reduce risk of large incidents.
Here’s Heinrich’s triangle redrawn:
An error-budget-based approach only provides information on the nature of minor incidents, because those are the ones that happen most often. Near misses don’t impact the reliability metrics, and major incidents blow them out of the water.
Heinrich’s work assumed a fixed ratio between minor accidents and major ones: reduce the rate of minor accidents and you’d reduce the rate of major ones. By focusing on reliability metrics as a primary signal for providing insight into system risk, you only get information about these minor incidents. But, if there’s no relationship between minor incidents and major ones, then maintaining a specific reliability level doesn’t address the issues around major incidents at all.
An error-budget-based approach to reliability implicitly assumes there is a connection between reliability metrics and the risk of a large incident. This is the thread that connects to Heinrich: the unstated idea that doing the robustness work to address the problems exposed by the smaller incidents will decrease the risk of the larger incidents.
In general, I’m skeptical about relying on predefined metrics, such as reliability, for getting insight into the risks of the system that could lead to big incidents. Instead, I prefer to focus on signals, which are not predefined metrics but rather some kind of information that has caught your attention that suggests that there’s some aspect of your system that you should dig into a little more. Maybe it’s a near-miss situation where there was no customer impact at all, or maybe it was an offhand remark made by someone in Slack. Signals by themselves don’t provide enough information to tell you where unseen risks are. Instead, they act as clues that can help you figure out where to dig to get more details. This is what the Learning from Incidents in Software movement is about.
I’m generally skeptical of metrics-based approaches, like error budgets, because they reify. The things that get measured are the things that get attention. I prefer to rely on qualitative approaches that leverage the experiment judgment of engineers. The challenge with qualitative approaches is that you need to expose the experts to the information they need (e.g., putting the software engineers on-call), and they need the space to dig into signals (e.g., allow time for incident analysis).
It’s 2016, and Uber engineers are facing a problem. Their software system has become brittle: many in the organization feel that it’s too hard to make changes to it without breaking things.
And so, they adapt: they build a new architecture, one that’s designed to enable teams to move more quickly. As part of the re-architecture, they reach for a new technology to rewrite the iOS client in: the Swift language.
The new architecture experiment is deemed a success, and is rolled out to the entire company. A florescence ensues in the organization, as teams excitedly migrate to the new architecture and experience a boost to their development productivity.
However, as development against the new architecture ramps up, anomalies related to Swift begin to emerge. Because of implementation details in the Swift linker, Apple recommends limiting the number of shared libraries to six: Uber has ninety-two, and the number is growing. The linker is saturated, and as a result, app startup is extremely slow. It takes eight to twelve seconds (!) to start up the app. The rewrite was supposed to yield a faster iOS app, and it’s slower than the previous version!
So the engineers adapt. They discover they can work around the problem by putting all of the code in the main executable instead of linking it via libraries, eliminating the startup delay. Unfortunately, to do this would require a huge code change because an implementation detail of Swift, but they find another workaround: an enterprising engineer writes a custom script to relink intermediate object files that avoids the need to change the code. And it works!
But they encounter another anomaly: the Swift-based iOS app binary is big… too big. It’s so big that they’re running into the Apple cellular download limit.
For users who want to download the Uber app to their iPhones over the cellular network, Apple places a hard limit of 100MB on the size of the download: any bigger, and the phone won’t let you download it unless you’re on wifi. Once again, the Uber engineers are hitting a saturation point, only now the limit is space instead of time. To add insult to injury, their workaround to deal with the startup time problem exacerbated the size problem!
There are further workarounds they can do to save space, like replace structs with classes. But it isn’t enough. The data scientists run an experiment to estimate the cost to the organization of the app breaching the cellular download limit: and the risk of catastrophic. It turns out that many people download the app for the first time on a cellular network. The estimated cost to the business is orders of magnitude more than the cost of the rewrite.
The engineers have to make some hard choices. Their original plan was to bundle the old and new versions of the app in the same app bundle, so that they could do a slow rollout to reduce the blast radius if there was a problem with the new version. They are facing a goal conflict, and so they make a sacrifice judgment. They remove the old version of this app. They call this the “Yolo” release strategy.
They face another goal conflict: they can take advantage of a new capability in iOS 9 that will reduce the binary size by 50%, but to do so they have to drop support for iOS 8. They estimate that this will decision will have a dollar of eight figures. With only a week to go before release, they drop iOS 8 and eat the cost to come get under the cellular download limit.
The engineers believe that dropping iOS 8 support should provide them with enough headroom to figure out a strategy for dealing with the 100 MB download limit, given the project slowdown in the growth of the app. But their model of the growth rate is wrong: the app is growing too quickly. There’s a risk of decompensation, of not being able to work around the growth rate of the app.
And so the engineers adapt. They form a strike team to come up with approaches for bringing the app size under control. They employ workarounds such as deleting unused features, checking for expensive code patterns, and rewriting the Apple Watch app in Objective C.
An Uber engineer in the Amsterdam office comes up with an innovative work around: he uses an annealing algorithm to re-order the Swift compiler’s optimization passes to minimize the size of the resulting binary. And it works! It also terrifies the Swift compiler engineers, as they haven’t tested running the optimization passes in arbitrary orders.
And yet, the risk of decompensation is ever-present: the strike team worries about their space saving wins will not be able to keep pace with the growth of the applications.
Fortunately, Apple moves the boundary: increasing the cellular download limit to 150 MB and introducing new size optimization features in the Swift compiler.
The above is my retelling of a Twitter thread by McLaren Stanley, a former Uber engineer. I highly recommend reading the original thread in full. My writing above is based solely on that thread, I don’t have any additional information, and I probably got some stuff wrong. I also created a concept map based on Stanley’s thread.
I wrote the post above using the frame of what the researcher David Woods calls the adaptive universe. I tried to cast events in terms of people undergoing pressure, encountering risks of saturation, and then adapting in the face of that pressure, and those adaptations leading to reverberations that introduce unexpected change in the system. Woods calls these adaptive cycles.
The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.
Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month
We software engineers don’t work in a physical medium the way, say, civil, mechanical, electrical, or chemical engineers do. Yes, our software does run on physical machines, and we are not exempt from dealing with limits. But, as captured in that Fred Brooks quote above, there’s a sense in which we software folk feel that we are working in a medium that is limited only by our own minds, by the complexity of these ethereal artifacts we create. When a software system behaves in an unexpected way, we consider it a design flaw: the engineer was not sufficiently smart.
And, yet, contra Brooks, software is a limited medium. Let’s look at two areas where that’s the case.
Software is discrete in a way that the world isn’t
We persist our data in databases that have schemas, which force us to slice up our information in ways that we can represent. But the real world is not so amenable to this type of slicing: it’s a messy place. The mismatch between the messiness of the real world and the structured nature of software data representations results in a medium that is not well-suited to model the way humans treat concepts such as names or time.
Software as a medium, and data storage in particular, encourages over-simplification of the world, because we need to categorize our data, figure out which tables to store it in and what values those columns should have, and so many items in the world just aren’t easy to model well like that.
As an example, consider a common question in my domain, software deployment: is a cluster up? We have to make a decision about that, and yet the answer is often “it depends: why do you want to know”? But that’s not what software as a medium encourages. Instead, we pick a definition of “up”, implement it, and then hope that it meets most needs, knowing it won’t. We can come up with other definitions for other circumstances, but we can’t be comprehensive, and we can’t be flexible. We have to bake in those assumptions.
Software systems are limited in how they integrate inputs
In the book Problem Frames, Michael Jackson describes several examples of software problems. One of them is a system for counting how many cars pass by on a street. The inputs are two sensors that emit a signal when the cars drive over them. Those two sensors provide a lot less input than a human would have sitting by the side of the road and counting the cars go by.
As humans, when we need to make decisions, we can flexibly integrate a lot of different information signals. If I’m talking to you, for example, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can also read the expressions on your face. I can make judgments based on how you worded your Slack message, and based on how well I already know you. I can use all of that different information to build a mental model of your actual internal state. Software isn’t like that: we have to hard-code, in advance, the different inputs that the software system will use to make decisions. Software as a medium is inherently limited in modeling external systems that it interacts with.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post titled programming means never getting to say “it depends”, where I used the example of an alerting system: when do you alert a human operator of a potential problem? As humans, we can develop mental models of the human operator: “does the operator already know about X? Wait, I see that they are engaged based on their Slack messages, so I don’t need to alert them, they’re already on it.”
Good luck building an alerting system that constructs a model of the internal state of a human operator! Software just isn’t amenable to incorporating all of the possible signals we might get from a system.
Recognizing the limits of software
The lesson here is that there are limits to how well software system can actually perform, given the limits of software. It’s not simply a matter of managing complexity or avoiding design flaws: yes, we can always build more complex schemas to handle more cases, and build our systems to incorporate large input sets, but this is the equivalent of adding epicycles. Incorrect categorizations and incorrect automated decisions are inevitable, no matter how complex our systems become. They are inherent to the nature of software systems. We’re always going to need to have humans-in-the-loop to make up for these sorts of shortcomings.
The goal is not to build better software systems, but how to build better joint cognitive systems that are made up of humans and software together.
You shouldn’t write up your own incident if you can avoid it. To write up an incident well, you need to be able to capture the perspectives of the different people who were involved. If the write-up author was also one of the responders, then the writeup will be biased towards their perspective, at the expense of capturing the perspectives of the other engineers who were engaged.
Unfortunately, most organizations haven’t committed the resources to support doing independent incident investigations. I happen to privileged enough to work at a company that has hired specialists who are skilled at doing independent incident investigations (J. Paul Reed and Jessica DeVita), Once upon a time (last year, to be precise), I was one of those independent incident investigators, before I transitioned back to being a software engineer.
However, even at my employer, we don’t have the resources to do an independent investigation for every single operational surprise that happens, and so the common case is still that a team has to investigate its own operational surprises.
Recently, I was one of the responders to one of these operational surprises. And, since I’m an advocate of teams putting in the effort to write up their operational surprises and share them with the org, I committed to doing that for my team.
During the operational surprise, we identified that certain database rows weren’t being updated, but we struggled to identify why they weren’t being updated. In the moment, We suspected the problem was somehow related to this function, which is responsible for updating those database rows. We believed (correctly, in hindsight) that the function was being called, because a log statement immediately preceding that function invocation appeared in the logs. But, somehow, the database updates weren’t taking effect.
In the moment, I was looking into whether there was something about the database itself that was preventing writes: perhaps some sort of database lock that was blocking updates? To investigate that, I manually translated the code from jOOQ library calls to raw SQL so I could run the queries directly against the database and see what happened.
In the end, it turned out that the problem was not related to the database itself, but to Kotlin code inside that function that was throwing an exception. It was erroring because the code made certain assumptions about the format of version strings, and those assumptions had become invalid over time. When this code hit a version string it couldn’t process, it threw an exception and triggered a transaction rollback.
After we remediated, when I looked back on the events of the day, I thought “Boy, I sure did waste a big chunk of time manually translating that code to SQL, when the problem wasn’t related to the database at all.“
Later on, when I put my incident investigator hat on and pored over the Slack messages, I discovered something. While I was working to understand the code to translate it, I discovered that one of the queries in that function was too broad. Under normal circumstances, the broadness of the query wasn’t impacting the correctness of the function (the query after it was narrower) or the performance, but during the operational surprise it was increasing the blast radius of the issue. Narrowing the scope of that query was an important part of remediating the incident.
The thing is, until I was investigating the incident, I didn’t realize that I had learned about the broad query issue because I was working to translate the code into SQL. That work I did had real value: it helped us resolve the issue.
Ever since I’ve been bitten by the learning from incidents bug, I’ve been a believer in the value of using an independent investigator. But this is the first time I really had this first-hand experience of I learned something new about my own work in resolving the incident, even though I was there, because of the post-incident investigation work. It was quite a visceral realization.
And so, while you really should take advantage of independent investigators if resources permit, if you’ve worked as an independent investigator and then transition to a role which includes incident response, I recommend trying to write up one of your own incidents, at least once. It really reinforces how much more can be learned from an incident by doing a good investigation.
We software engineers love the metaphor of the contract when describing software behavior: If I give you X, you promise to give me Y in return. One example of a contract is the signature of a function in a statically typed language. Here’s a function signature in the Kotlin programming language:
fun exportArtifact(exportable: Exportable): DeliveryArtifact
This signature promises that if you call the exportArtifact function with an argument of type Exportable, the return value will be an object of type DeliveryArtifact.
Function signatures are a special case for software contracts, in that they can be enforced mechanically: the compiler guarantees that the contract will hold for any program that compiles successfully. In general, though, the software contracts that we care about can’t be mechanically checked. For example, we might talk about a contract that a particular service provides, but we don’t have tools that can guarantee that our service conforms to the contract. That’s why we have to test it.
Contracts are a type of specification: they tell us that if certain preconditions are met, the system described by the contract guarantees that certain postconditions will be met in return. The idea of reasoning about the behavior of a program using preconditions and postconditions was popularized by C.A.R. Hoare in his legendary paper An Axiomatic Basis for Computer Programming, and is known today as Hoare logic. The language of contract in the software engineering sense was popularized by Bertrand Meyer (specifically, design by contract) in his language Eiffel and his book Object-Oriented Software Construction.
We software engineers like contracts they they help us reason about the behavior of a system. Instead of requiring us to understand the complete details of a system that we interact with, all we need to do is understand the contract.
Contracts, therefore, are a form of abstraction. In addition, contracts are composable, we can feed the outputs of system X into system Y if the postconditions of Y are consistent with the preconditions of X. Because we can compose contracts, we can use them to help us build systems out of parts that are described by contracts. Contracts are a tool that enable us humans to work together to build software systems that are too complex for any individual human to understand.
When contracts aren’t useful
Alas, contracts aren’t much use for reasoning about system behavior when either of the following two conditions happen:
A system’s implementation doesn’t fully conform to its contract.
The precondition of a system’s contract is violated by a client.
Whether a problem falls into the first or second condition is a judgment call. Either way, your system is now in a bad state.
A system that has gotten into a bad state is violating its contract, pretty much by definition. This means we must now deal with the implementation details of the system in order to get it back into a good state. Since no one person understands the entire system, we often need the help of multiple people to get the system back into a good state.
Since contracts can’t help us here, we deal with the complexity by leveraging the fact that different engineers have expertise in different parts of the system. By working together, we are pooling the expertise of the engineers. To pull this off, the engineers need to coordinate effectively. Enter the Basic Compact.
The Basic Compact and requirements of coordination
We propose that joint activity requires a “Basic Compact” that constitutes a level of commitment for all parties to support the process of coordination. The Basic Compact is an agreement (usually tacit) to participate in the joint activity and to carry out the required coordination responsibilities.
One example of a joint activity is… when engineers assemble to resolve an incident! In doing so, they enter a Basic Compact: to work together to get the system back into a stable state. Working together on a task requires coordination, and the paper authors list three primary requirements to coordinate effectively on a joint activity: interpredictablity, common ground, and directability.
The Basic Compact is also a commitment to ensure a reasonable level of interpredictability. Moreover, the Basic Compact requires that if one party intends to drop out of the joint activity, he or she must inform the other parties.
Intepredictability is about being able to reason about the behavior of other people, and behaving in such a way that your behavior is reasonable to others. As with the world of software contracts, being able to reason about behavior is critical. Unlike software contracts, here we reasoning about agents rather than artifacts, and those agents are also reasoning about us.
The Basic Compact includes an expectation that the parties will repair faulty knowledge, beliefs and assumptions when these are detected.
During an incident, the responders need to maintain a shared understanding about information such as the known state of the system and what mitigations people are about to attempt. The authors use the term common ground to describe this shared understanding. Anyone who has been in in an on call rotation will find the following description familiar:
All parties have to be reasonably confident that they and the others will carry out their responsibilities in the Basic Compact. In addition to repairing common ground, these responsibilities include such elements as acknowledging the receipt of signals, transmitting some construal of the meaning of the signal back to the sender, and indicating preparation for consequent acts.
Maintaining common ground during an incident takes active effort on behalf of the participants, especially when we’re physically distributed and the situation is dynamic: where the system is not only in a bad state, but it’s in a bad state that’s changing over time. Misunderstandings can creep in, which the authors describe as a common ground breakdown that requires repair to make progress.
A common ground breakdown can mean the difference between a resolution time of minutes and hours. I recall an incident I was involved with, where an engineer made a relevant comment in Slack early on during the incident, and I missed its significance in the moment. In retrospect, I don’t know if the engineer who sent the message realized that I hadn’t properly processed its implications at the time.
Directability refers to deliberate attempts to modify the actions of the other partners as conditions and priorities change.
Imagine a software system has gone unhealthy in one geographical region, and engineer X begins to execute a failover to remediate. Engineer Y notices customer impact in the new region, and types into Slack, “We’re now seeing a problem in the region we’re failing into! Abort the failover!” This is an example of directability, which describes the ability of one agent to affect the behavior of another agent through signaling.
Making contracts and compacts first class
Both contracts and compacts are tools to help deal with complexity. People use contracts to help reason about the behavior of software artifacts. People use the Basic Compact to help reason about each other’s behavior when working together to resolve an incident.
I’d like to see both contracts and compacts get better treatment as first-class concerns. For contracts, there still isn’t a mainstream language with first-class support for preconditions and postconditions, although some non-Eiffel languages do support them (Clojure and D, for example). There’s also Pact, which bills itself as a contract testing tool, that sounds interesting but I haven’t had a chance to play with.
For coordination (compacts), I’d like to see explicit recognition of the difficulty of coordination and the significant role it plays during incidents. One of the positive outcomes of the growing popularity of resilience engineering and the learning from incidents in Software movement is the recognition that coordination is a critical activity that we should spend more time learning about.