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chaos engineering

What Exactly Is Chaos Engineering?

Whether they know it or not, Chaos Engineering has become an essential practice in the DevOps workflow of a large number of teams. In principle, it refers to the introduction of “controlled failures” to find out if the production is likely to suffer from hidden weaknesses and vulnerabilities. All DevOps engineers and teams have their own ways of experimenting with these controlled failures but the rapid adoption of DevOps calls for a more institutionalized approach.

Hence, Chaos engineering. It allows teams to identify and address blind spots, improve incident response, and ultimately deliver more reliable software to end users. In this article, I will walk you through the ins and outs of Chaos engineering from the perspective of a DevOps team that is yet to formalize it but has its fair share of truces with the concept. 

Let’s get started:

What is Chaos Engineering?

Chaos Engineering is a disciplined approach to identifying DevOps failures before they become outages. Instead of waiting for issues to occur in the production environment, the DevOps engineers introduce disturbances into the system in a controlled environment. These scenarios help  teams to test how the systems and workflows they’ve built so far handle unexpected disruptions.

Like many cultural innovations in the software industry, Netflix was the pioneering force behind chaos engineering. They introduced a tool that went by the name Chaos Monkey which randomly shuts down servers in their production network. This was done to test the resiliency and recoverability of Netflix’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure. Hence the driving force behind this idea was uninterrupted and fail-proof software delivery.

The Need For Chaos Engineering In DevOps

Chaos engineering helps DevOps engineers streamline their scalability efforts and capacity planning. This capability allows them to be confident when handling unexpected growth in load or sudden loss of resources. It does so by:

  • Helping proactively detect and resolve failures before they affect users.
  • Providing a deeper understanding of system behavior.
  • It validates the effectiveness of existing monitoring and alerting systems.

Chaos Engineering: The Principles and Methodology That Drive Chaos Engineering

Despite being termed as “chaos engineering” there is a fine amount of scientific principles that determine these controlled experiments and the insights that entail:

  1. Defining Steady State: The first step in chaos engineering is to establish a baseline. This is done by defining the expected behavior and performance of the system under “normal conditions.” This steady state serves as a reference point for evaluating the impact of the introduced chaos.
  2. Formulating Hypotheses: Once the steady state is defined, DevOps engineers must formulate hypotheses about how the system will respond to specific failure scenarios. Defining the scope and relevance of these hypotheses is the toughest part due to the obvious room for error.
  3. Injecting Chaos: Naturally, the next phase is to inject “controlled chaos” in the system. This could take various forms including simulating network outages, resource exhaustion, or even component failures. The goal is to create as many realistic scenarios as possible to mimic real-world challenges. 
  4. Observing and Analyzing: Then, the team must observe how the system responds and see if it conforms to their understanding and estimations. Using the data recorded during monitoring. They must either validate or disprove the initial hypothesis and generate insights into the system’s resilience. These activities ultimately pave the way for identifying areas for improvement.

The Benefits Of Embracing Chaos

Here, we will go through the advantages of embracing chaos in DevOps:

  • Increased Resilience and Reliability: Chaos engineering will strengthen your systems by revealing vulnerabilities. This will result in a proactive stance that helps systems endure actual disruptions, reducing downtime and ultimately boost customer satisfaction.
  • Faster Incident Response and Recovery: Conducting chaos experiments will equip your teams with practical skills in failure management. This will in turn enhance their ability to swiftly diagnose and rectify issues in production, thereby lowering mean time to recovery (MTTR).
  • Continuous Improvement and Innovation: Since your team will be in a perpetual mode of finding faults and fixing them, learning and system refinement will become a part of your culture. Hence, your team will be able to pinpoint optimization opportunities and advance their architectures. These improvements will lead to innovative practices and solutions that foster organizational growth.
  • Enhanced Collaboration and Shared Responsibility: Chaos engineering cultivates cooperation between development and operations teams due to the nature of activities involved. Conducting experiments jointly deepens system understanding and collective capacity to pinpoint and remedy weaknesses.
  • Proactive Risk Mitigation: Integrating chaos engineering into the DevOps cycle allows for early risk identification and mitigation. This will lessen the potential impacts on service quality and customer experiences.
  • Competitive Advantage: Adopting chaos engineering will help you get a competitive advantage as your team will be able to deliver more reliable and resilient software. This results in higher customer trust and thereby supports your organization’s business objectives.

Integrating Chaos Engineering Into The DevOps Pipeline

The integration of chaos engineering into DevOps pipelines requires a structured approach which may vary from team to team but here’s a good starting point:

  1. Build a Hypothesis-Driven Approach: To get started, you must first define a clear  hypothesis about how the system should behave under certain conditions. You should do so by considering baseline metrics like latency, throughput, and error rates.
  2. Automate Chaos Experiments: Next, you must run your predefined chaos experiments as a part of the CI/CD pipeline. This way, you can ensure that they are a regular part of testing before deployment and it also helps you catch potential disruptions early.
  3. Scope and Impact Analysis: Once you start conducting experiments  with limited scope in a controlled environment, you can slowly increase the scope and scale of these chaos experiments to get a more refined understanding of the system’s resilience.
  4. Monitoring and Observability: Now, you must formally implement monitoring tools and practices to detect and diagnose issues quickly during and after chaos experiments. Remember, observability will play a crucial role in understanding the impact of the controlled chaos experiments on the system.
  5. Learning and Adaptation: Lastly, you must document the lessons learned from each chaos experiment and integrate these insights into your software development lifecycle. 

Though you might need a certain degree  of improvisation based on your organization’s specific needs and desired outcomes, this methodology will help you refine system architecture and improve resilience.

In order to integrate chaos engineering, you may use tools like Netflix’s Chaos Monkey, Gremlin, Chaos Toolkit, or LitmusChaos. 

Challenges in Implementing Chaos Engineering

While beneficial, implementing Chaos Engineering is not without challenges:

  • Cultural Hurdles: The idea of intentionally breaking things in production is often met with resistance. Hence, you must be ready to face cultural hurdles and struggles before expecting anything fruitful.
  • Technical Complexity: It is incredibly difficult to design chaos experiments that are effective and provide meaningful insights without causing undue disruptions.
  • Resource Intensive: It requires significant time and resources in the initial phases to set up and run chaos experiments.

Summing Up

Chaos Engineering, from a DevOps perspective, is not merely about breaking things randomly. It is in fact a sophisticated, hypothesis-driven approach that is aimed at maintaining the customer experience despite unforeseen issues. I hope that this article acts as food for thought and helps you understand if you stand to benefit from implementing Chaos engineering in your DevOps workflow.

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Neel Vithlani

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