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Service Level Objectives: A Complete Overview for Beginners

By: Justin Reynolds
  |  June 21, 2024
Service Level Objectives: A Complete Overview for Beginners

DevOps engineers are under intense pressure to provide reliable, high-quality services to teams and stakeholders. In large part, this is because end users today demand seamless access to  software and a great user experience – a trend that will only increase as digital transformation accelerates and we move further into the future. DevOps professionals rely on various metrics to meet performance and reliability goals, one of the most important being service level objectives (SLOs). Continue reading to learn the benefits of tracking service level objectives, how they work, and why they are essential to software development success.

What Is a Service-Level Objective?

An SLO is a target or objective that establishes the necessary level of quality, performance, and availability for a software application or system. Setting SLOs enables businesses to measure performance over time and determine whether they create reliable and satisfactory experiences for end users.

DevOps teams across all industries use SLOs to analyze their digital services and communicate with stakeholders more effectively. However, SLOs are especially important in regulated industries like healthcare and finance, where companies must meet specific quality standards.

With that in mind, let’s examine some common SLOs that DevOps professionals use to measure software.

Data Durability 

Data durability concerns the level of data reliability and integrity within an application or system. Businesses set data durability SLOs to measure the likelihood of data corruption or loss. This is particularly important in systems that handle sensitive customer data.

Availability 

Availability refers to the amount of time a service is up and running. For example, a business might set an availability target of 99.99%—meaning it has virtually no downtime. Customers often use this SLO to determine a digital product’s overall reliability.

Response Time

Speed is one of the first things that a user notices when using a digital product. As a result, DevOps professionals must ensure applications remain optimized and highly responsive. Response time refers to the maximum amount of time a service has to respond to user inputs and requests.

Throughput

All services have finite resources. When incoming requests exceed a service’s available bandwidth, performance issues and system crashes can rear their ugly heads. The throughput SLO measures how many transactions or requests a service can handle within a specific time period. This measurement helps manage workloads and avoid processing issues.

The Top Benefits of SLOs

DevOps professionals use SLOs to analyze software and systems for quality, performance, and availability. Setting SLOs is critical for meeting project deliverables and benchmarking progress throughout a service’s lifecycle.

Set Quality Levels

Service providers use SLOs to determine quality levels and set performance and reliability goals. For example, SLOs may track error and crash rates and response times.

Enable Continuous Improvement 

DevOps is all about continuously improving software quality, delivery speed, and cost savings. But to track progress, you need to have target goals in place. Monitoring SLOs allows you to track performance and identify performance issues like bottlenecks.

Allocate Resources Efficiently

Setting SLOs requires investigating the foundational elements of a service. By doing this, organizations can better understand how to allocate resources to meet SLO requirements and optimize performance.

Improve Communication

DevOps teams use SLOs to break down silos and improve communication and collaboration with other departments and units. Product teams, operations teams, and developers must all work together when defining objectives and setting SLOs.

How SLOs Work

Companies tend to have different processes and procedures for managing SLOs. However, the process typically involves going through the following steps:

1. Define SLOs

First, DevOps teams work with other stakeholders and teams to define SLOs around objectives. At this stage, it’s necessary to outline the SLOs that you need to track, such as throughput and availability.

2. Set Targets

Once you define your SLOs, setting specific target objectives is next. For example, you might set a data durability goal of more than 99.9%.

3. Track and Monitor SLOs

DevOps professionals typically use monitoring dashboards to track and monitor system performance against SLOs. Analyzing performance daily makes it easier to conduct proactive maintenance and overcome challenges before they turn into larger issues. Many teams also choose to deploy alerting and monitoring systems that notify users about changes and action items whenever they occur.

4. Improve Performance

It’s critical to regularly review SLOs and align them with evolving business and user needs.  After all, SLO targets may fluctuate as a business grows and changes. For example, a small business may need to adjust its throughput, security, and response time SLOs when scaling and taking on new customers.

What are Logs and Traces?

Logs and traces are two key components that DevOps teams use to manage SLOs:

  • Logs contain information about system and application actions, events, and notifications. DevOps teams use system logs to understand how an application is performing and to troubleshoot issues
  • Traces are records of system transactions and requests. DevOps teams rely on traces to understand how transactions use various services within an underlying system. Analyzing traces can help to identify bottlenecks and other performance issues

What’s the Difference Between an SLO, SLI, and SLA?

SLOs work alongside service level indicators (SLIs) and service level agreements (SLAs). Here’s a quick overview of how they work together:

  • SLIs are metrics that have to do with a system’s reliability and performance. The metrics typically come from analyzing data points within a system. They correlate with SLOs and enable DevOps teams to understand how a system is behaving
  • SLAs are legally binding contracts between service providers and customers. SLAs typically outline a service’s SLOs and explain what happens if the service doesn’t meet them. SLAs may change from time to time

It’s important to note there is no limit to the number of SLOs or SLIs that you can track. The metrics you choose will depend on your specific industry and service. However, it’s important to be selective when choosing metrics and only monitor ones that are relevant to your operation.

Tips for Managing SLOs 

Take a look at any high-performance DevOps team, and you’re bound to find an efficient system for managing SLOs and tracking performance. SLO management is critical for optimizing services and ensuring customer satisfaction.

With this in mind, there are a few critical things to remember when managing SLOs.

Involve Internal Stakeholders

When setting SLOs, it’s necessary to involve internal stakeholders. This is important for understanding business goals, addressing concerns, and outlining key metrics. To achieve this, teams can host workshops, collect surveys, and share draft versions of SLOs to collect feedback.

Be Realistic About Thresholds 

Stakeholders may have different opinions about acceptable thresholds. As such, it’s important to be realistic about SLOs and avoid making promises that the system can’t deliver. Overpromising can lead to unhappy customers, SLA violations, and resource constraints, among other bad outcomes.

Automate Monitoring and Measurement

Many teams are now automating SLO monitoring and measurement. Automating SLO management reduces manual labor and frees team members to focus on other tasks and workflows.

How Retrace and Netreo Help With SLO Management

Having the right tools makes all the difference when managing SLOs. Diversifying your toolkit and deploying different platforms can improve visibility and give you a better understanding of how your system is performing.

For example, many customers choose to use the combined strengths of Retrace APM and Netreo IT Infrastructure Monitoring (ITIM) side-by-side. Retrace ensures your applications deliver expected service levels, combining code-level tracing, comprehensive error tracking, fully integrated alerts and much more. Netreo extends monitoring with end-to-end visibility into hybrid, cloud and on-premises infrastructures with advanced metrics on the critical resources that support a great user experience and business needs.

Together, these two platforms complement one another, providing deep SLO observability and helping DevOps team unlock their full potential. To experience the Netreo difference, start a free Retrace trial or schedule a Netreo demo today!

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