Human Errors

Humans design and build software systems, and the operators who keep the systems running are also human. Even when they have the best intentions, humans are known to be unreliable. For example, one study of large internet services found that configuration errors by operators were the leading cause of outages, whereas hardware faults (servers or network) played a role in only 10-25% of outages [13].

How do we make our systems reliable, in spite of unreliable humans? The best systems combine several approaches:

  • • Design systems in a way that minimizes opportunities for error. For example, well-designed abstractions, APIs, and admin interfaces make it easy to do “the right thing” and discourage “the wrong thing.” However, if the interfaces are too restrictive people will work around them, negating their benefit, so this is a tricky balance to get right.
  • • Decouple the places where people make the most mistakes from the places where they can cause failures. In particular, provide fully featured non-production sandbox environments where people can explore and experiment safely, using real data, without affecting real users.
  • • Test thoroughly at all levels, from unit tests to whole-system integration tests and manual tests [3]. Automated testing is widely used, well understood, and especially valuable for covering corner cases that rarely arise in normal operation.
  • • Allow quick and easy recovery from human errors, to minimize the impact in the case of a failure. For example, make it fast to roll back configuration changes, roll out new code gradually (so that any unexpected bugs affect only a small subset of users), and provide tools to recompute data (in case it turns out that the old computation was incorrect).
  • • Set up detailed and clear monitoring, such as performance metrics and error rates. In other engineering disciplines this is referred to as telemetry. (Once a rocket has left the ground, telemetry is essential for tracking what is happening, and for understanding failures [14].) Monitoring can show us early warning signals and allow us to check whether any assumptions or constraints are being violated. When a problem occurs, metrics can be invaluable in diagnosing the issue.
  • • Implement good management practices and training—a complex and important aspect, and beyond the scope of this book.

How Important Is Reliability?

Reliability is not just for nuclear power stations and air traffic control software— more mundane applications are also expected to work reliably. Bugs in business applications cause lost productivity (and legal risks if figures are reported incorrectly), and outages of ecommerce sites can have huge costs in terms of lost revenue and damage to reputation.

Even in “noncritical” applications we have a responsibility to our users. Consider a parent who stores all their pictures and videos of their children in your photo application [15]. How would they feel if that database was suddenly corrupted? Would they know how to restore it from a backup?

There are situations in which we may choose to sacrifice reliability in order to reduce development cost (e.g., when developing a prototype product for an unproven market) or operational cost (e.g., for a service with a very narrow profit margin)—but we should be very conscious of when we are cutting corners.

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