Traditionally, IT Operations (ITOps) performed production system management and incident response manually. But as enterprises increasingly adopted cloud-native distributed computing environments, the number of hosts increased significantly, which made it challenging for the operations team to manage the IT environment. Also, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated digital services adoption by customers and has led to an increase in customer-reported outages, which is the most common trigger for incidents.
Site reliability engineering (SRE) originated at Google in 2003 when the company formed a team of seven engineers for the sole purpose of improving the reliability and scalability of their websites. SRE has since then become a globally accepted practice and can be grouped into four main categories; availability, performance, monitoring, and incidence response. SRE relies on automation and tools to address operational problems for ensuring enterprise IT stability. Automated incident management ensures faster incident resolution, which improves application availability and lowers downtime translating into an enhanced customer experience.
What is incident management in SRE?
In the Information Technology (IT) context, an incident is an issue that disrupts normal operations or service quality. Incident management is the process by which ITOps or SRE engineers resolve the issues to bring back normalcy to the system and services. It is one element of the broader discipline of ITSM (IT Service Management) that also includes six other components. ITSM defines processes and activities to facilitate the end-to-end delivery of IT services to customers.
What is the incident management process?
The incident management process is a sequential series of steps that an organization takes to resolve an incident and restore regular services. The incident management process is initiated the moment any incident is noticed by the team or reported by a user and it ends with the resolution. The five steps in the incident management process include identification and logging, categorization, prioritization, response, and closure.
- Identification and logging
An incident can arise in any part of the project and it is identified through solution analysis or user reports. After identification, the incident is logged and categorized to decide the priority and approach for handling incidents.
Incident categorization refers to classifying incidents into a category/sub-category based on the issue type and urgency. It helps in the timely resolution of incidents and the team can leverage the data to identify trends and take proactive steps to prevent issues from recurring in the future.
The incidents are prioritized based on their impact on users or businesses. Prioritization is important for ensuring adherence to incident resolution SLA (Service Level Agreement) and business continuity.
After incidents are correctly categorized and prioritized, the incidents are assigned to the team most equipped to troubleshoot. If the assigned team cannot resolve the issue, it is escalated to a different team for further analysis and troubleshooting.
After the issue is resolved to everyone's satisfaction, the incident is then logged as complete, and the ticket is closed. The incident closure involves evaluating steps taken to resolve the issues and documentation, for future reference. The evaluation helps in identifying areas of improvement and proactive efforts required to prevent future incidents.
What is the need for automated incident management in SRE?
An automated incident response system refers to a systemic and calibrated response to issues to prevent any business disruption. The SRE team uses orchestration and automated tools to manage the responses. Automated incident management is required for the following reasons.
- Digital resilience
Digital resilience is the ability of an organization to rapidly adapt to business disruptions by using digital technologies. It ensures business continuity in the face of disruptions and also capitalizes on the changed conditions.
Adopting automated incident management helps organizations improve their digital resilience, which enables them to prevail over disruption due to application outages or downtime.
- Availability of apps
App availability is a metric to assess if an application is functioning properly and meets the requirements of users or businesses. Organizations typically try to maintain high availability of applications to ensure acceptable service levels for their users. When an incident occurs, the amount of time taken to resolve the issues has an impact on the overall availability of the applications. Automation incident management ensures timely detection and quick resolution of issues leading to the high availability of applications.
- Reliability of platforms
A streamlined process for responding to and resolving application problems ensures the reliability of platforms, which is critical to maintaining the quality and availability of the applications. With multiple options, available customers have little incentive to continue with applications or services that experience frequent issues.
Automation helps to streamline the process of alerting, contextualizing incident data, and facilitating efficient resolution.
- Facilitates continued innovation by the team to build new products and services
According to a research by xmatters on the state of automation in incident management, 72% of the respondents reported that half of their team's time is spent on resolving issues compared to time spent on innovation. Automated incident management eliminates repetitive manual tasks and frees up the time of the SRE team, who can devote greater efforts to continued innovation to build out new products and services.
What are the complexities in identifying incidents in cloud-native environments?
- Too much data
The evolving computing landscape with enterprises increasingly becoming hybrid, has created multiple data sources. A typical IT computing environment generates a large amount of data, such as ITSM tickets, logs, network data, and alerts which are difficult to collate and correlate for pattern analysis. The siloed data residing with different teams and tools prove to be a challenge for fast incident resolution.
- Complex app/architecture
Hybrid cloud computing offers flexibility; however, the increased complexity creates risks and adds a host of other management issues which impact swift incident resolutions. Hence, enterprises need IT strategies to seamlessly monitor and manage IT systems located on-premise, in the cloud, and at the edge.
Even as many enterprises maintain incident information in tools like ITSM, their systems lack the capabilities to scan data algorithmically to suggest a solution automatically when a similar incident is detected in the future.
A postmortem or post-incident review is a process for analyzing incidents and capturing lessons for future reference. It involves different stakeholders coming together to discuss details of the incident: the cause, its impact, what actions were taken to resolve, and future mitigation plans. The distributed computing in cloud-native environments makes it difficult for the team to collect all the requisite information and assign ownership for an effective incident postmortem.
What are the common examples of incidents that can be automated?
Automated incident management is beneficial for time-critical incidents and infrastructure issues. Time-critical incidents are primarily technical issues affecting application performance that impact the customer directly, calling for a quick resolution. Infrastructure issues can be simple incidents such as hardware failures that can be resolved by automation without human intervention.
- Application performance issues impacting customer experiences
Enterprises use multiple applications to run their businesses. If any technical issue or bugs prevent an application from performing optimally, the organization would like it to be resolved at the earliest.
Once a technical issue is identified, an employee logs a ticket in the system that triggers the workflow. The bot assesses the information and depending on the severity, escalates the incident to the engineering team that triggers a ticket in the work management tool. A member of the development team handles the bug and after the resolution, they close it and the employee who had logged the issue gets notified.
- IT Infrastructure issues
Infrastructure issues such as a server not responding or printer failure can be addressed with automation saving time and effort. An event is created that automatically triggers the service resolution workflow. The bot values the incident information and proceeds with the resolution as outlined in the previous section.
What are the steps to automate incident management?
The key steps that need to be taken to automate the incident management process are:
- Create incident management workflow
The workflow is a sequence of connected steps replicating the different stages of an incident lifecycle. It captures all the data types, forms, actions, and responsibilities involved in your incident investigation process. Though standard incident work templates are available, you should build your own unique workflow that includes all the steps that go into your incident management process.
- Standardize root cause analysis to prioritize incidents
The second step involves developing a standardized process for prioritizing incident responses and completing a root cause analysis. The two interrelated steps are integral for incident resolution. The priority is indicative of the severity of the incident, and root cause analysis not only helps in the immediate resolution but also prevents the incident from occurring in the future.
- Automate corrective and preventive actions - Runbook automation
It consists of improvements in organizational processes intended to eliminate non-conformance to established practices. It is at the core of the incident management system and needs to be managed effectively to enable the whole system to work on expected lines. You can automate CAPA using one of the different methods depending on the complexities of the workflow.
A runbook is a guide for managing common tasks within a specific process. Runbook automation enables the steps and checks of the runbook to execute automatically, thereby improving efficiency.
- Standardize reports and metrics - for reports and postmortems
Standardized reports enable you to assess the success of an incident investigation process. The report highlights the goal achievements and encourages continuous performance improvement. The standard metrics help in better evaluation of risks and opportunities and highlight areas of concern that need to be addressed.
- Centralize the process and integrate it with third-party tools
You need to integrate with third-party tools such as JIRA to improve data sharing and management of multiple systems. It simplifies access to a cluster of different applications since switching between applications and different communication tools are time-consuming and there is a likelihood of you missing critical information.
What are the benefits of automated incident management?The benefits of automated incident management include faster response times, higher efficiency, and lower cost. The four main benefits are as follows.
- Reduce false positive alerts
In incident management, a false positive alert refers to an alert that incorrectly indicates the presence of a vulnerability or issue. A false positive alert adds to the employee workload and can lead to alert fatigue. In automated incident management, the tool analyses alert and screens out false positives. It then assigns the actionable alerts to the appropriate team members saving valuable time and resources.
- Predictive/preemptive monitoring to reduce risk
Predictive incident management involves analyzing large data sets to identify patterns to understand events before they happen and take corrective actions. Preemptive risk monitoring minimizes downtime and revenue loss compared to reactive incident management. However, the distributed computing environment is a challenge for the organization since their systems and data span both on-premise and off-premise in the cloud, which makes it difficult to standardize data analysis and pattern recognition.
However, enterprises can use machine learning algorithms to predict behavioral patterns in vast data volumes across all platforms and leverage AI-enabled operations to preempt any risks before they disrupt services.
- Reduce MTTD (Mean Time to Detection)
Mean Time to Detection is a measure of how long an issue or a problem exists in an IT environment before it is discovered or identified by the appropriate team. It is a key performance indicator (KPI) for IT incident management with a low value indicating an efficient response mechanism. The automation ensures alerts and threats are quickly analyzed, leading to an optimized MTTD.
- MTTR (Mean Time to Resolution)
Mean time to resolution refers to the average time duration to fully resolve an issue and return to a normal operational state. The metric is defined differently based on the business classification of the start and end point of incident resolution. Automated incident management improves MTTR by minimizing human interventions in issue resolutions.
What are the advantages of Srijan?
As enterprise adoption of cloud-native applications increases and distributed computing continues to evolve, SRE practice will become indispensable for the organization. SRE has become integral to organizations, digital transformation initiatives, and delivering exceptional customer experiences. As a digital experience company, SRE capabilities are adjunct to our core services. Our capabilities span the entire SRE spectrum including incident management, monitoring, and other services. You can engage with us as an SRE partner to take your SRE function and scale it, as per the future needs of your organization.
For more information, get in touch with us today.