How Not to Go Boom: Lessons for SREs from Oil Refineries

How Not to Go Boom: Lessons for SREs from Oil Refineries

Bad software doesn’t explode. You can describe it as exploding when it throws an exception, corrupts some data, or makes your computer unusable, but it doesn’t explode. When code doesn’t work, the solution is to figure out where the logic is incorrect and fix it. While SREs may be called engineers, we rarely face the consequences of engineers in other industries.

In contrast, when a chemical engineer makes a mistake designing a refinery, the consequences are very different. We’ve all seen videos of the repercussions online. Big, loud explosions reducing massive facilities to chunks of twisted metal. The reality is working with unstable chemicals is a lot harder than keeping track of pointers in C.

Yet despite the differences, industrial process plants can be surprisingly similar to a complex software system. Where refineries will use pressure relief valves, web services will degrade gracefully. Regardless if you’re protecting against thermal runaway in a plant or a cascading failure in a data center, the fundamental ideas can be shared by both domains.

In this talk, I’ll explore the techniques and ideas used to build and operate refineries and how we can use them to make our software systems more resilient and reliable.


Emil Stolarsky

March 29, 2018