7 steps to identify and implement effective Service Level Objectives (SLOs)

Service level objectives (SLOs) are a common method to set and maintain agreed-upon service levels of applications in modern cloud environments. SLOs have evolved beyond basic target measurements; they are powerful guidance tools for site reliability engineers (SREs) and DevOps platform teams to help direct areas of improvement in both CI/CD as well as production processes of every organization.

However, creating effective SLOs can be difficult. According to the 2022 State of SRE Report from Dynatrace, 99% of SREs say they encounter challenges when defining and creating SLOs. Identifying and implementing effective SLOs requires a thoughtful and structured approach for success. Here are our recommended steps for implementing the right SLOs for your platform and services.

Step 1: Understand service level agreements, internal business goals, and external stakeholders

Service level agreements (SLAs) are contractual financial agreements between vendors and their customers. These agreements define the service levels that customers and end-users expect, making them a great starting point to understand how IT can ensure the overall business objectives are being met. SLA violations lead to financial penalties, impact revenue, and damage your company’s reputation. Therefore, it is critical to align your SLOs to meet customers’ needs.

Step 2: Identify and prioritize critical services that affect SLAs

Pinpoint the necessary services to meet SLAs, especially the ones that customers frequently interact with or could cause the most amount of pain if failures occur. It’s important to then prioritize these services in order of customer and financial impact. For example, a “checkout” service for purchasing a product is a higher priority than a “compare service” for comparing products.

Step 3: Identify internal stakeholders and align with the different teams

Identify which team or person will own the responsibility of ensuring that services are running as expected. This includes identifying who creates the services, who is responsible for monitoring the service, and who is responsible for remediation. Documented, agreed-upon roles and responsibilities between stakeholders are key to avoiding finger-pointing or confusion when problems occur. Internal alignment ensures that teams know which services they own and, more importantly, who needs to fix something when it breaks.

Step 4: Identify key metrics to use as service-level indicators (SLIs)

Once you have an internal process established, you can then start measuring services. SLO measurements are based on service-level indicators (SLIs), which are quantifiable measurements that help you determine whether a service is working. Work with your SRE and Operations teams to understand what key metrics your observability platform provides and which ones you would need to track. There are many types of SLIs to choose from, such as Google’s Four Golden Signals, RED metrics (Rate, Error, Durability), or USE metrics (Utilization, Saturation, Errors).

Step 5: Identify key SLOs

Once you have identified the critical services and SLIs, you can create your SLOs. Ensure that each objective is measurable with realistic, attainable thresholds set for a particular timeframe (example: hour, week, month). Unrealistically high thresholds for SLOs will face constant violations. Conversely, easily achievable, low SLO thresholds make it difficult to know when service disruptions occur. SLOs must be meaningful and drive business outcomes, not exist as mere targets to reach. A good way to determine thresholds is by looking at historical trends of how the service has performed.

Step 6: Define your error budgets

Error budgets define the amount of tolerable service failure with no contractual consequence. If you burn all of your error budget, customers will likely start complaining and be unhappy with the service. Defining the error budget is a powerful way to proactively measure the health of your SLO and avoid the shock of an SLO turning from green to red instantly.

Step 7: Ensure proactive SLO monitoring and alerting

Monitoring is the final step to ensuring you are meeting your SLAs and business objectives. In addition to receiving alerts when SLOs violations occur, a better and more proactive approach would be receiving alerts when error budget burn rates appear faster than normal. This method allows you to address potential issues before they cause problems. Either way, alerts should route to the right team or individual to speed up triaging issues and reduce MTTR.

Ensure resilience through proactive SLO monitoring and automatic remediation with Dynatrace

Dynatrace provides native and proactive SLO monitoring. With AI-powered observability, organizations achieve meaningful insight into how their key business services and applications are performing. Teams can visualize and display SLIs on dashboards while Dynatrace automatically monitors them against SLO targets without extra manual oversight.

For more information about how your SRE team can get more out of SLOs, read the full the 2022 State of SRE Report.