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SRE vs. DevOps: Key Differences Explained

Today, seizing opportunities to streamline software development and IT operations is essential. Often, this brings companies to one of two solutions: site reliability engineering (SRE) or DevOps. Usually, the SRE vs. DevOps debate occurs because both methodologies are incredibly adept at providing exceptional results. However, choosing the right solution for specific needs is vital.

In this article, we’ll provide information that makes that decision easier. We’ll discuss what each of the terms means and the key differences between SRE vs. DevOps, ensuring companies can select a path that’s ideal for them.

What does SRE stand for?

SRE stands for site reliability engineering. It’s a concept initially launched by Google, entering the tech world as a term in 2003 and becoming an industry-leading practice in 2004. In a broad sense, SRE encompasses handling IT operations using a software engineering approach.

In many ways, SRE is a tool- and metric-based strategy, a functional set of best practices designed to incorporate software engineering and automation to improve scalability and reduce friction during the development process. Automation typically targets incident response and production system management, among other processes.

Overall, the goal is to reduce manual workloads for increased efficiency, allowing for the use of code-based solutions instead of physical, hands-on management. As a result, it’s often considered a critical strategy for balancing system reliability — including relating to the end user experience — while creating opportunities to design and release new features.

However, system reliability is also at the core of SRE. The strategy focuses on ensuring functionality and availability. The image below highlights the main elements that support reliability, ranging from some traditional tech responsibilities to more advanced expertise:

A pyramid with the key SRE components
Source: https://sre.google/sre-book/part-III-practices/

Generally, SRE harnesses two core concepts to ensure reliability: automation and standardization. Through the automation of operational tasks, development timelines speed up and workloads diminish, all while ensuring that critical processes occur when triggered. With standardization, you accelerate development by embracing essential best practices, all while maintaining a higher degree of cumulative consistency.

Additionally, SRE isn’t traditionally just a concept or methodology; it’s a particular role. Site reliability engineers specialize in this form of development. They have skills relating to both development and operations, reducing the need for multi-disciplined teams. While projects are underway, site reliability engineers are focusing on system reliability and availability throughout the process, as well as seizing opportunities to boost efficiency.

What is DevOps about?

DevOps stands for development operations, reflecting a set of tools and practices that aims to expedite software development when compared to many traditional models. The concept began gaining traction in 2007–2008, eventually becoming the most popular software development methodology in the world according to Statista.

Similar to SRE, the DevOps goal is to functionally close the gap between operations and development. However, its approach varies. Speed and continuity are often at the center of DevOps, though it’s designed to ensure quality meets the necessary standards, as well.

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DevOps also embraces continuous integration. The methodology is designed to ensure agility, allowing companies to adapt to various shifting factors that occur as development moves forward. For example, it can accommodate changes to end-user needs or expanding business operations.

Security and reliability are crucial parts of DevOps, as well as ensuring that speed doesn’t lead to unintended quality- or security-related compromises or shortcomings that can harm the final result. DevOps is also viewed as highly collaborative.

DevOps teams are often multi-role or even multi-discipline, depending on the nature of the project. While there are an increasing number of DevOps-specific professionals, and a team can benefit from that expertise, having one on board isn’t technically a requirement as long as all participants understand and embrace the DevOps methodology.

With DevOps, there are also well-defined stages that guide development. While the names of the phases may vary, DevOps classically features seven distinct stages that operate as a repeatable cycle, as demonstrated below:

a loop illustrating DevOps phases
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Devops-toolchain.svg

Essentially, DevOps covers the complete product lifecycle, beginning at the concept and continuing through the final release, all while leaving space for necessary changes during the broader development process. However, in many ways, DevOps functions as more of a mindset and development culture. It embraces generalization, giving companies the flexibility they need to use the best practices while adjusting the nuances to meet their unique needs.

DevOps vs. SRE as disciplines

When you look specifically at SRE and DevOps as disciplines, the two stand apart in several ways.

Generally, SRE focuses on reliability, ensuring that services are available to users above all else. With in-house DevOps pros or DevOps services, agility is often prioritized. Additionally, speed is a larger part of the equation, ensuring quick development of new applications or faster releases of needed improvements.

The two disciplines also target a slightly different problem set.

Problems solved by DevOps

1. Removing bottlenecks in the SDLC

DevOps engineers adopt the Agile methodology to ensure all processes flow smoothly and meet no obstacles in the workflow. This is partly done with automation, which makes routine tasks more efficient.

2. Faster time-to-market and cost reduction

The DevOps culture promotes the Agile methodology and continuous development model. Applying this cultural shift increases the number of releases per year by speeding up all processes. Companies save money daily due to automation, minimized downtime, better security, and lower operations costs.

3. Improved software quality with continuous testing

DevOps engineers automate each step and ensure continuous testing is applied after every bit of progress. Combining this with customer feedback and the integration of new features lets the team detect all types of issues during the development process. As a result, the client gets a high-quality application and saves money on maintenance.

Problems solved by SRE

1. Removing toil by applying automation

SRE aims at automating repetitive tasks to let engineers focus on actual engineering and innovation. This way, efficiency is boosted, and teams can concentrate on high-value work to generate better results.

2. Improving monitoring

SRE teams focus on monitoring the system’s “health” to detect performance issues and service availability errors. The challenge is finding what and how to monitor. Not all metrics represent the general picture, so engineers apply the best practices based on their analysis and experience.

3. Establishing healthy incident management

When comparing site reliability engineering vs. DevOps, you will see that the former also focuses on how to fix discovered issues. This is usually a three-step process consisting of visibility, containment, and response. Teams must know how to act whenever an incident occurs, and SRE experts provide guidelines for these situations.

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SRE vs. DevOps metrics

Another difference between site reliability engineering and DevOps involves metrics. In DevOps, measuring everything isn’t uncommon. When it comes to DevOps KPIs, there’s typically a greater focus on cycle time, change failure rates, defect escape rates, percentage of code subjected to automated testing, deployment frequency, change lead times, application traffic, application availability, mean time to detect, and mean time to restore.

With SRE, there are four golden signals relating to monitoring that serve as critical KPIs. Those include latency, traffic, errors, and saturation. However, other metrics often come into play, including time to detect, time to engage, and time to fix. Repair or technical debt may also be part of the equation.

DevOps vs. SRE benefits and culture

When it comes to the benefits of DevOps, there’s a more fearless approach, turning failure into learning experiences and quickly taking lessons learned to improve the next iteration. When it comes to change, DevOp favors a small but frequent approach. This allows for gradual shifts over time instead of large, cumbersome releases in massive batches.

The multi-discipline strategy you find in DevOps is also effective at breaking down silos, while the continuous approach to change provides extra agility. DevOps relies strongly on measuring as much as possible, leading to incredibly valuable data.

DevOps is also looser than SRE. It's more of a set of guidelines and best practices coupled with a particular culture. Since that’s the case, DevOps is adaptable, allowing companies to mold the strategy into custom processes designed to meet their unique needs.

With SRE, all team members have similar knowledge, which can allow every person to take ownership of the project and cover practically every required functional area. Since reliability is a priority, SRE uses a steady approach to managing change, ensuring thorough testing is complete before anything new is integrated into an application. Optimization is also a priority, as it often brings efficiency.

According to SRE principles, operations and software are viewed as interconnected, treating operations as a problem that software can solve. That unique perspective is often beneficial and is one of the reasons why reliability is a top concern. However, guaranteeing a 100% uptime isn’t part of the equation. Instead, reasonable availability is defined in advance through research and collaboration, ensuring services work to the needed degree.

Finally, SRE aims to reduce the workload of everyone involved. If it’s possible to use automation to tackle a task, SRE will find a way to make it happen. This can lead to additional value, as professionals working on a project aren’t wasting any time on tedious tasks that don’t genuinely require the human touch.

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DevOps and SRE tools

Many DevOps/SRE tools are used for different purposes. We have gathered a list of the most popular tools for both options.

Tools for DevOps

1. Keysight Eggplant

This tool helps DevOps engineers automate the testing and debugging by implementing artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced analytics. It is considered to be a data-driven utility.

2. Jenkins

Jenkins is one of the most popular automation servers for development, testing, and deployment. It primarily benefits the continuous integration and continuous development pipelines.

3. Vagrant

This utility is applied for creating virtual machine environments in the workflow. It has a simple interface and puts a significant focus on automation. Vagrant is used to quickly set up a development environment and boost production parity.

Tools for SRE

1. Kibana

Kibana is a tool for data visualization and research. Monitoring and operational intelligence are among the most prominent use cases. It provides multiple ways to depict data like graphs, charts, etc.

2. New Relic

New Relic is a SaaS utility that helps SRE engineers monitor system performance and availability. The tool gets data from all available sources, helping teams build better software using reliable insights.

3. NetApp Cloud Insights

NetApp Cloud Insights is another tool used to monitor IT infrastructure. The utility lets engineers work with troubleshooting and optimizing resources to increase the system’s reliability.

Tools common to both DevOps and SRE

1. Datadog

Datadog is used to monitor infrastructure and get advanced analytics covering performance metrics and other data. It helps teams from DevOps to SRE to find security vulnerabilities and minimize threats.

2. AppDynamics

AppDynamics helps teams build a correlation between system metrics and business results. The solution boosts the understanding of technical challenges in an application, ensuring teams find a way to prioritize their attention.

3. Prometheus

Prometheus is another monitoring tool that detects events and critical alerts. The software saves all metrics in its database for future use. Everything includes timestamps, so you could think of it as a backlog.

DevOps vs. SRE: key points compared

How different are DevOps vs. a site reliability engineering? Check out the key comparison points below.

DevOps

SRE

Development pipeline

Reliability and scalability

Improves teamwork

Improves operations

Microservices

Chaos engineering

Horizontal collaboration

Vertical collaboration

Measures failure rates and success rates

Measures service level indicators and service level objectives

Assessing risks to deployment targets

Assessing risks to reliability targets

Focusing on velocity

Focusing on reliability

Team includes QA, developers, engineers, etc.

Team includes SRE engineers with operational and development backgrounds

Site reliability engineer vs. DevOps engineer as a project role

In many cases, SRE and DevOps function differently at a project level. Often, this is because professionals in those niches have differing priorities and, potentially, somewhat unique skill sets.

SRE vs. DevOps skills

When it comes to the skills required, site reliability engineers typically have mixed expertise in software development and operations. This can include developers with operations experience or IT operations professionals with knowledge of development. Often, teams will consist of both types of professionals, ensuring the cumulative expertise is appropriate.

SRE also requires knowledge of system architecture, automation, and system monitoring. In many cases, all team members are also involved in the deployment and maintenance of new or updated solutions. Additionally, they approach change management as a team, requiring expertise in that arena as well.

DevOps engineer skills usually encompass some of the capabilities you need in SRE. For instance, automation and monitoring are critical to both. However, there are differentiators. Often DevOps engineers need familiarity with the agile methodology. Additionally, they may not have a significant need for IT operations-related skills.

However, a project team is typically multi-disciplined. Instead of every team member having a similar skill set, DevOps professionals often specialize in a particular area. As a result, those working in DevOps roles can have surprisingly diverse skill sets. However, an understanding of DevOps is always a critical component, ensuring everyone can effectively embrace the methodology.

DevOps project responsibilities

When comparing DevOps and site reliability engineers at the project level, team composition is a significant differentiator. As mentioned above, SRE generally requires all team members to have knowledge of development and operations, though some may have more expertise in one area than the other.

With DevOps, specialization is the norm. Software developers may solely focus on code while using DevOps principles. Quality assurance engineers will use their knowledge to implement processes to ensure quality. Cloud architects will focus on the cloud-based infrastructure.

How projects unfold also varies, mainly because there’s a different focus with each strategy. SRE concentrates on reliability above all else, though it uses mechanisms designed to increase efficiency, security, and more. With DevOps, you have a strategy for the entire product development lifecycle. The approach also involves continuous integration and creates ample room for change, creating an inherent level of agility.

A DevOps engineer combines the following responsibilities throughout the whole development process.

1. Designing pipelines and workflows

One of the major DevOps and SRE differences is that the former focuses on developing the best practices for creating, testing, and deploying software. This involves optimizing a variety of factors like the usage of talent and tools.

The DevOps pipeline usually involves the standard SDLC stages following the continuous integration, continuous delivery, continuous testing, and continuous deployment models. This means that each part is completed equally after every change or update.

As a result, a well-organized pipeline lets the team focus on innovations and strategic work while all repetitive tasks are automated. The DevOps engineer must find the ideal balance and approach.

2. Working with CI/CD tools

This responsibility is tightly connected with designing pipelines. The DevOps engineer is required to utilize tools like Jenkins, Gradle, or others. The goal is to automate development, testing, and deployment. Many tools consist of various plugins that a DevOps expert must know. It is essential to boost speed and quality.

3. Vulnerability assessment and risk management

The development of modern technologies constantly increases the requirements for security. A DevOps engineer is responsible for performing regular vulnerability assessments to ensure the software has no critical weak spots. This also involves risk management.

However, the main goal isn’t about removing existing bugs. It’s about preventing potential security issues in the future. There are many possible blind spots to target. Security standards and legal policies force companies to comply with all requirements. Thus, the DevOps expert monitors these details.

4. Maintaining transparent workflows

A DevOps is also a communicator who coordinates both the client and the team, taking up the role of a mediator. The specialist understands the requirements placed by the client and sets relevant KPIs based on the technical assessment of the project.

The engineer is supposed to keep the communication between the customer and the team understandable. This requires some degree of project management skills. An experienced DevOps engineer knows the right ways to communicate with different people and translate requirements.

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SRE project responsibilities

Site reliability engineering may be seen as a more active form of QA that tries to improve the stability and reliability of software. And while many still argue about DevOps vs. SRE, the real thing is DevOps and SRE. Check the responsibilities below to see how they’re connected.

1. Creating automated solutions

Automation is a great help in managing IT operations. SRE aims at automating the CI/CD process, system monitoring, incident response measures, and notifications. This helps the specialists avoid toil and shift their attention to strategizing. Quite similar to DevOps, right?

2. Developing software that supports DevOps

As SRE experts always have a rich IT background, often as developers, they are sometimes required to create custom tools to support DevOps and internal operations. These could vary from monitoring utilities to incident management solutions.

The goal is to improve the existing environment and minimize the risk of failure. That’s why all measures must be preventive. Practices and tools should not be developed after a major issue; they must be created before it even occurs.

3. Reducing the cost of failure

One of the significant goals of SRE in DevOps combined is to make failure as cheap as possible. This is done by developing and implementing incident management solutions that make downtime almost unnoticeable.

4. Measuring service level indicators and objectives

SRE experts carefully watch a wide variety of indicators to ensure their systems work as intended. However, there is a common standard to pay the most attention to:

  • Latency — the time needed to respond
  • Traffic — how loaded the system is
  • Errors — the rate of failed requests
  • Saturation — the service’s maximum capacity.

It is necessary to determine the right levels for each metric and constantly monitor them for critical changes. Effective monitoring is one of the most crucial steps towards effective incident management and failure prevention.

Do you need SRE, DevOps, or both?

DevOps and SRE are not conflicting concepts. They both aim to create robust solutions in an efficient manner, though with slightly different priorities. SRE focuses on reliability, while DevOps prioritizes overall agility across the entire product development lifecycle.

Using DevOps and a site reliability engineer together is a common practice, allowing companies to capture the best of what both options have to offer. In some cases, using that approach is beneficial. For example, within one organization, DevOps professionals might concentrate on the creation of new solutions while an SRE team may maintain and support existing ones. That strategy is particularly useful for larger companies, as it allows them to divvy out responsibilities and harness the capabilities of different knowledge areas more effectively.

However, that strategy may not work well for small companies. As a result, they may want to look at alternatives. For example, using our DevOps outsourcing guide, they can secure the DevOps expertise they need at the proper time, potentially coupling that with an in-house site reliability engineer to cover both bases and ensure long-term support is available.

In some cases, you can also find a DevOps site reliability engineer. These professionals hone skills relating to both disciplines, which can make them an integral part of any company that wants to embrace both methodologies.

Ultimately, whether a company needs SRE, DevOps, or both is highly dependent on the project at hand and its goals. Both have clear benefits, though one may be more appropriate than another in specific instances. Still, bringing SRE and DevOps together can be a boon, allowing companies to take advantage of the best of what both strategies have to offer.

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