How an Error Budget Measures Teams With SLOs

Learn how error budgets can measure team performance on SLOs and ensure high-quality service from IT and DevOps teams.

Digital Quality
7 min
Digital Quality
How an Error Budget Measures Teams With SLOs

Service-level agreements (SLAs) have long been used to set expectations between customers and service providers. However, in recent years, businesses have increasingly turned to service-level objectives (SLOs) — to gauge their performance and ensure high-quality service. SLOs, central to microservices and site reliability engineering (SRE) practices, provide valuable insights into team performance and their ability to deliver exceptional service.

SLOs, distinct from service-level indicators (SLIs), are less formal than SLAs and focus on the internal goals of a service provider rather than the mutually agreed-upon commitments with customers. SLOs play a crucial role in assessing team performance and evaluating the delivery of high-quality service by IT and DevOps teams.

A valuable method for evaluating team performance based on SLOs is through the utilization of an error budget. An error budget represents the allocated time during which a system can experience failures without adversely impacting customers or violating SLAs. By leveraging an error budget, we can effectively monitor team performance and ensure that IT and DevOps teams are effectively maintaining system uptime, response time, and other critical factors. Delve deeper into the significance of error budgets in measuring team performance aligned with SLOs in the following sections.

What is an error budget?

Understanding the concept of an error budget is crucial before delving into its application for measuring team performance. Simply put, an error budget represents the maximum allowable time that a system can experience failures without causing any impact on customers or violating an SLA (Service-Level Agreement). Let's illustrate this with an example: Suppose you have an SLA with a customer that guarantees your system will be operational 99% of the time. If your system fails to meet this requirement, you would have breached the SLA and might need to compensate the customer. In this case, your error budget would be 1%.

Error budgets are not only significant for meeting SLO (Service-Level Objective) targets but also tend to be more stringent than SLAs. For instance, you might have an SLO that mandates your system to maintain an uptime of 99.9%. In this scenario, your error budget would be 0.1%.

Think of an error budget as a 'margin of error' or an acceptable timeframe within which systems can experience failures or malfunctions. IT and DevOps teams play a crucial role in maintaining their error budgets by effectively managing system downtime, addressing outages, and continuously improving system reliability through various tasks and strategies.

Moreover, teams can leverage their error budget as a designated 'maintenance window' to conduct crucial activities such as testing systems or implementing performance fixes without impacting SLAs and SLOs. For example, if your error budget is set at 1%, teams can allocate 1% of their time to manage release velocity and complete essential maintenance tasks.

How to use an error budget to measure teams with SLOs

To effectively measure team performance in meeting service-level objectives (SLOs) and maintaining reliability, follow these steps:

Determine your SLOs

Start by setting your SLOs, which are the internal performance targets for your team. These objectives should align with the service-level agreement (SLA) you have with your customers. For example, your SLOs might include metrics such as latency requests  completed per millisecond, disaster recovery time, live communication response time, first call resolution rate, and application availability.

Communicate your SLOs

Clearly communicate your SLOs to all relevant stakeholders, including system engineers, DevOps engineers, and SRE team members. Use concise and understandable language to explain the objectives and the consequences of not meeting them or violating an SLO. Also, address any factors that may impact SLOs, such as client-side delays.

Measure your SLOs

Implement a robust measurement process to ensure teams are meeting the defined SLOs. Collect monitoring data from incident management tools and other software that provide real-time metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). Setting up alerts, such as receiving incident response notifications, can also help monitor systems effectively. However, be mindful of alert fatigue and avoid excessive false notifications.

Decide on your error budget

Unlike SLAs, an error budget for SLOs is not bound by a legally binding agreement. Nevertheless, it is crucial to set an SLO error budget that is higher than the SLA error budget. For example, if your SLA error budget is 1% to guarantee 99% uptime, set your SLO error budget to something like 0.5% or 0.1%. This ensures that teams failing to meet SLOs won't breach the SLA.

Communicate your error budget policies

Clearly explain the decision-making process for determining the error budget to everyone on your team. Emphasize the importance of service reliability and how adhering to the error budget ultimately improves the customer experience. While an error budget may impose restrictions, highlighting its role in maintaining high system uptime and service performance will help foster understanding and buy-in.

Ensure Feasibility of Your Error Budget

While an error budget of less than 1% is manageable, consider the trade-off between SLO compliance and system maintenance tasks. Smaller error budgets leave less time for IT and DevOps teams to perform necessary maintenance activities. Strike a balance that allows for both SLO compliance and system reliability. Avoid setting a maintenance window that is too narrow, as it may limit the ability to add system integrations, implement new features, or experiment with system elements.

In conclusion,

Error budgets are an effective way to measure team performance in meeting SLOs. They reveal how employees maintain system uptime, response time, and other critical factors. By following the above tips when establishing SLOs and error budgets, you can ensure your IT and DevOps teams deliver the highest level of service.

Adservio is a tech consulting company specializing in helping businesses meet their SLAs and SLOs, while enhancing system reliability and resiliency. Contact us to learn more about how we can assist in solving and optimizing issues related to error budgets.

Published on
June 15, 2023

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