Proactive monitoring requires concrete strategies that allow your team to operate proactively when managing performance and reliability.
Today, we’re told, mere monitoring is not enough. To achieve true performance and reliability optimization, you need to monitor proactively. As such, many companies are turning to proactive monitoring.
On its face, that’s kind of obvious. You don’t need to be a veteran Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) to know that it’s better to take a proactive approach to monitoring than to wait for things to go wrong before fixing them.
But the real question is how you actually monitor proactively. It’s easy to talk about the importance of proactive monitoring but harder to approach it in a practical way.
What is proactive monitoring?
Proactive monitoring is a monitoring strategy in which teams strive to identify and resolve problems before they turn into critical disruptions.
It’s different from conventional, reactive monitoring because, rather than waiting for something to go wrong before taking steps to resolve it, proactive monitoring centers on using monitoring insights to predict emerging issues and nip them in the bud before they turn into real problems.
In other words, rather than waiting for a server to crash or an application to be overwhelmed with traffic before taking remediation steps, proactive monitoring entails taking preventative action to stop the server crash or spinning up another application instance to avoid a failure.
Why is proactive monitoring important?
Again, the benefits of proactive monitoring should be obvious enough. When you prevent problems proactively, your users experience fewer disruptions. You deliver a much better customer experience — and, in turn, drive greater business value — when you avoid major outages entirely.
With reactive monitoring, the best you can hope to achieve is the fast resolution of outages after they have already occurred. That’s not ideal from a customer experience or business standpoint.
Proactive monitoring in practice
The following strategies and tools can help in evolving a monitoring strategy from a reactive to a proactive one.
Alert on trends, not thresholds
The default approach to alerting is usually to configure alerts to fire when metrics pass a certain threshold. You set up your tools to notify you when server CPU usage exceeds 80 percent, for example, or when an application’s average response rate surpasses 5 seconds.
The problem with these threshold-based alerts is that they tend not to raise awareness of issues until the issues are already well on their way to becoming disruptions. If your server is already close to maxed out on CPU, it may be too late to remediate the issue before it goes down.
A better strategy is to configure monitoring tools so that they alert you about relevant trends, like a steady increase in CPU usage or response time within a fixed period of time. That way, you’ll know earlier when a problematic trend is starting to emerge, which increases your chances of being able to react before something actually fails.
Post mortems, which are reviews or reports that teams prepare after an outage to assess what went wrong, are a great way to prevent similar issues from recurring in the future.
They’re also useful for applying a proactive approach to monitoring because they keep your team in tune with the trends and data that have been associated with outages in the past. By carefully evaluating past issues, your engineers are in a stronger position to recognize emerging problems within real-time monitoring data.
Response playbooks for proactive monitoring
It’s common for SREs and IT engineers to develop incident response playbooks, which guide them through resolving certain types of incidents. However, playbooks are often designed for remediating problems after they have already turned into incidents rather than proactively solving potential issues in their early phases.
That’s why it’s worth investing in playbooks that address early, proactive resolution needs, too. Don’t limit your playbooks to major incident responses.
Map metrics to business impact
Not all potential problems that your monitoring tools reveal will have an equal impact on the business. Sometimes, a server could fail, or an application could go down without actually disrupting users because there are backup resources in place.
For that reason, it’s wise to categorize alerts based on their level of impact on the business. Doing so will help your team know which emerging issues they should pay the closest attention to and which ones they can hold off on addressing until they collect more data. Otherwise, they may waste time trying to resolve non-critical issues proactively, making it harder to address the truly problematic ones.
Proactive monitoring is a great idea. But putting it into practice requires more than simply assuming a proactive mindset. You need concrete strategies that allow your team to operate proactively when managing performance and reliability.