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Service Level Objective Development Life Cycle - Handbook


Just as the Software Development Life Cycle enables repeatable, reliable processes for creating good software, the Service Level Objective Development Life Cycle (SLODLC) is a repeatable methodology for defining reliability and performance goals for software services across an enterprise. This handbook provides detailed explanations, how-tos, and resources to make it easy for you to adopt the SLODLC. It would enable you to create shared context for your organization.

You might think that the adoption of SLO concepts is risky and complicated, but this handbook and the methodology it outlines will clarify what to do to reduce those risks and help you discover a practical and realistic path forward in your SLO adoption journey. For more on the topic of adoption, see the SLO Adoption Framework document (to be published soon).

How to Use This Document

This document covers the essential aspects of the SLODLC:

  • The “SLO Development Life Cycle” section describes the methodology and how to apply it.
  • The “SLO Knowledge” section describes knowledge artifacts and knowledge management.
  • The “Templates” section contains ready-to-use templates that you can adapt to real-world situations.

Read through the document, familiarize yourself with the terms and practices it describes, then copy the templates and customize them for your own use.

Dedicated templates underpin the SLODLC Handbook. You will find references to them throughout. Moreover, along with the templates, we provide a complete set of examples. The templates were built in tight alignment with the SLODLC process, so all the steps you’ll have to navigate during SLO adoption are reflected. Keep in mind these simple rules:

  • Use one Discovery/Design/Implement Worksheet per service.
  • Use one SLI/SLO Specification Template per SLI with related SLOs.
  • Combine all documents into one SLI/SLO Repository.

All SLODLC templates, together with examples, can be found here.

An Introduction to Service Level Objectives (SLOs)

You’re probably familiar with reliability in general and why it’s important for modern businesses - but for a better understanding of Service Level Objectives (SLOs), we need to define some common terms that set out the fundamentals.

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is a set of reliability principles and practices applied in IT development and operations, a mindset. You can also think of it as Smart Resource Engineering: a data-informed approach to delivering what customers want, within the bounds of the imperfections they’re willing to accept. From an organizational and staffing perspective, a Site Reliability Engineer (also abbreviated SRE) is an employee with responsibility for internal reliability; meanwhile, a customer-oriented reliability engineer would be called a CRE. An interesting example of SRE practices might be Chaos Engineering, an approach that involves testing scenarios based on various failure events using reliability metrics as predictive indicators.

A user journey is an entire customer/user experience related to activities leading to achieving a particular goal - for example, purchasing an online newspaper subscription. There might be several services underpinning the journey. A service is a dedicated functionality of a particular technical component providing a single role within a platform. Referring to the above user journey example, the related services might include an account creation service, shopping cart service, and payment service, each of which would be provided by a different component in a modern microservices architecture.

A Service Level Agreement (SLA) is a formal, legally binding contract between a service provider and its customers defining the level of reliability that they can expect. If the service provider breaks this contract, they can incur penalties. For example: I guarantee that this website will be available 1426 minutes a day (99% uptime).

A Service Level Indicator (SLI) is a direct measurement of a service's behavior, defined by a formula and implemented as a data query. It is possible to collect two types of SLI metrics: threshold metrics, where a single time series is evaluated against a threshold, and ratio metrics, where two time series are compared. With ratio metrics, we compare the results of the first query (the numerator) against the total returned by the second query (the denominator). For example: Website availability = number of minutes up / total minutes.

A Service Level Objective (SLO) is a target (one level higher than the SLIs) applied to an SLI and considered over a specified time window. The SLO time window might be rolling (a period of defined length, typically a certain number of days, that moves as time progresses) or calendar-aligned (for metrics measured on a calendar-aligned basis, such as per year, month, or day). The error budget is 100% of a given metric, minus the defined SLO target percentage - it allows you to calculate how long the service can fail to meet its objective within the defined time window without adversely affecting customers (that is, the room for error). Two error budgeting methods exist: Occurrences (a count of good attempts vs. all attempts) and Time Slices (a count of good minutes achieved out of the total minutes in the time window). For example: Website availability at 99.9% (one "9" above the SLA) sets an availability target of 1438.5 minutes a day; the error budget is 1.5 minutes a day of downtime (1440 - 1438.5). SLOs are typically stricter than SLAs - if you miss your SLO, you will not be subject to the penalties associated with breaching your SLA, and this will provide a warning that action is required to avoid doing so.

Composite SLOs can take a few different forms. They include:

  1. SLOs crafted with:
    1. several SLIs from the same data source, or
    2. several SLIs each from different data sources.
  2. SLOs crafted from two or more existing SLOs to create a new composite error budget calculation aggregating the error budgets of each of those SLOs.
  3. SLOs combining variants 1 and 2. For example, you might have a very complex SLO built from three different SLOs from different services, each built with different composite SLI configurations for availability and latency thresholds (even from other data sources), to get an end-to-end view of overall reliability performance.

This topic will not be deeply elaborated on in this handbook because it is highly dependent on the SLO platform implementation, whereas the SLODLC methodology aims to be platform-agnostic.

DevOps engineers are employees who are responsible for the development, maintenance, and operation of technical solutions. They use the Agile mindset, methods, and techniques with the help of dedicated frameworks and tools for software and infrastructure.

Observability refers to the capability of understanding IT systems and their state using online monitoring, logs, and telemetry.

Toil, in the DevOps world, is distracting, repetitive, and troublesome manual work that can be automated (scripted, for instance) to give DevOps engineers more time for innovation and essential activities.

Recommended SLO resources:

Recommended books about SLOs:

The SLO Development Life Cycle (SLODLC)

Why do we need a methodological approach (accelerators, enablers) to SLO adoption? Experience shows that the most challenging aspects of SLO adoption are:

  • Incorporating SLOs into the organizational culture, so they shape decision making at all levels
  • Leveraging SLOs above and beyond service reliability to drive balance between go-fast and go-safe, making tradeoffs easier and more transparent
  • Fostering an SLO mindset across the organization over time, propagating from team to team and from department to department

This is why we decided to introduce the SLODLC, a repeatable methodology which will give you a guide to building the SLO capability in your or your client’s organization. With the SLODLC you can launch projects that will help automate and improve reliability and observability in house or for your clients. It can easily be extended and built into your practices and other consulting activities.

Software development follows a natural life cycle, usually referred to as the SDLC. The SLODLC is a similar concept, but applied to the life cycle of SLOs instead of software. It should therefore feel familiar to most software development practitioners and will provide a good framework for how to use SLOs in the organization.

We want the SLODLC to be a living project, evolving over time and incorporating the best industry ideas and new approaches to SLO adoption - a mission called continuous improvement. The SLODLC should be treated as a starting point, and we encourage you to experiment with this methodology: innovate and extend it, and feed your ideas back into the community. DLC can also stand for Downloadable Content, and in this spirit we will share examples and templates that can be used to speed up the adoption of SLOs. As with the SLODLC itself, we invite you to use them freely, adapt them to your needs, and share your changes with the SLODLC community.

service and software development and business life cycles

Phase 0: Initiate

In order to support an organization in adopting SLOs, you need to understand why the organization wants to take these steps and what outcomes are desired from this change. Perhaps the organization has suffered a number of incidents or outages which are frustrating customers and hurting its reputation, or employees are burning out from an overload of operational toil, or the organization needs to speed up feature delivery but can’t move beyond maintenance mode. Understanding WHY the organization is adopting SLOs will set the course for the adoption journey.

In this initial phase, you will formalize the scope, goals, and roles within the SLODLC to ensure the successful execution of the overall methodology. To accomplish this, you will Prepare a Business Case that lays out the expected investment of resources, Identify Stakeholders, and Define the Desired Outcomes.

Prepare Business Case

The first step is to create a short and compelling summary of why you are embarking on this journey. This document should be business- and outcome-focused and clearly articulate the required resources, schedule, roles, investments, and desired outcomes for the project. You will be updating this document as you progress through the SLODLC to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of progress and any changes in direction as the scope is refined. Ideally, you will have several stakeholders review and approve the document at the outset of the project, and more will join the charge later.

Lay out the business case in your SLODLC Business Case Worksheet.

Identify Stakeholders

There are three primary personas (stakeholder groups) in any SLO: the User, the Business, and the Team. For your SLO adoption journey you will need to have people representing each of these stakeholder groups to ensure a clear balance between their competing but complementary needs. For example, the User may desire fast and perfect software, but will be satisfied with something slightly less than perfect. On the other hand, the Business knows that delivering overprovisioned software is expensive and will want to ensure efficient delivery and lower costs. The Team wants to satisfy both Users and the Business, while also maintaining their sanity – they want to work on meaningful tasks and new product innovation, not repetitive toil that cuts into their personal time.

The User

Every stakeholder interacting with a product or service is a User. The User might be a real-life person like a Customer, or it might be an interface or another service. Users could be internal stakeholders from your organization (engineers, sales representatives, or even customer support), or they could be external, as mentioned earlier - your customers, partners in business, vendors, etc. To capture the WHO, you will use user stories and customer journeys - these valuable assets (which you will create in the discovery phase) provide clear information on what is most important to users, what makes them happy, and how they can become successful. You need to quantify those “happy user moments” and turn them into SLOs.

The Business

Business stakeholders are any stakeholders responsible for the organization's business functions, at any level and in any domain. They can be leaders, functional and operational managers, product owners, and more, all of them fulfilling different roles along the hierarchical ladder. According to the strategy, goals, and vision, they drive the organization forward.

The Team

Generally speaking, all stakeholders working together to satisfy users and grow the business are the Team. You can find them contributing with dedication and hard work to service or product operation across the organization; they include technical people, engineers of different specialties responsible for development and operations, SREs accountable for reliability, and other supporting roles like analysts and testers.

Document all stakeholders in your SLODLC Business Case Worksheet.

Define Desired Outcomes

Adopting SLOs should not be an end unto itself; you are trying to solve a particular business/technology challenge. Perhaps your goal is to reduce customer churn by providing better reliability, or you need to ramp up feature velocity, or maybe you want to alleviate employee fatigue from on-call rotations. Working backward with the end purpose in mind when setting out on a new journey is best.

You may also need to address technical debt, replatform, or cut cloud computing costs. SLO adoption can support these goals, but prioritizing and articulating the underlying reason will add context and increase the organizational will to execute this critical project. It is worth mentioning that during organizational scaling, technical debt might pile up without notice, and SLOs might highlight this issue - helping to address strategic refactoring initiatives.

There is a section in the Business Case Worksheet for Defining Desired Outcomes. Once you have your business case created, stakeholders identified, and outcomes defined and thoroughly vetted, you can move on to the next phase of the SLODLC: Discover.

Phase 1: Discover

Before you start building SLOs, you need to understand the system and collect information about what matters to your stakeholders. Prioritize User Journeys to focus your efforts, Analyze Dependencies to see how the chain of reliability fits together, and Observe System Behavior to ground yourself in the state of the current environment. This phase will provide context for the following phases of the SLODLC and help you decide what to concentrate on.

The SLODLC Discovery Worksheet is available here.

Prioritize User Journeys

If everything is important, nothing is important. To create meaningful SLOs, you need to understand what matters to users. In particular, you’ll want to measure behavior changes, like shopping cart abandonment or user complaints which indicate that the reliability or latency of the system is below the expectations of customers in a given scenario.

User journeys represent the user's entire experience while interacting with a particular product or service. In most cases, these organizational assets are well documented by different kinds of diagrams mapping interactions. As an alternative, or for better understanding to enrich the whole interaction big picture, investigate user stories, process flows, and use cases. Being fully aware of how users interact is a good starting point for prioritization.

The next step takes place in group workshops with key stakeholders. The potential list of products or services with eventual metrics should be prioritized to ensure the best outcomes related to the defined goals of SLO adoption. User expectations should be considered to carefully choose the target levels of reliability that each product or service needs. Incorporate business intelligence insights into prioritization to assess unique user needs. Find your own way with prioritization, don't copy what others suggest without criticism - each organization is unique. Critical infrastructure and user-facing products/services are two areas that are great to start with. Put those at the top of your list, regardless of what else is on it.

Document your priorities in the SLODLC Discovery Worksheet.

Analyze Dependencies

To understand the reasons for a system's behavior, we need to understand the dependencies that might influence the system and the expectations that are set on that service. The same is true of user journeys; they might impact one another, and we need to understand those interactions. Work with your user journey priority list and conduct three essential iterations:

  • The first iteration focuses on architectural and technical dependencies and constraints; identify and note them.
  • The second iteration focuses on cross–user journey dependencies and constraints; identify and note them.
  • The third interaction focuses on reprioritization - there is a high chance that you will identify dependencies and constraints that will impact your initial prioritization, and you’ll need to rethink it.

Document the results of this prioritization step in the SLODLC Discovery Worksheet.

Observe System Behavior

For successful SLO adoption, you must ensure that you have monitoring and observability systems in place and that they are functioning well (e.g., that the data sources used for SLI query definition are reliable). Analyzing historical outages will provide additional context for your prioritized user journey list, from a pain point perspective. What recent outages have occurred, and what was their business impact? Understanding this will give you fundamental insights into system behavior.

Document the results of this investigation, and write solid case studies for selected outages. Ensure you have access to all the essential related data and collected history - that is, that the required data sources are available to you, you understand each data source’s data retention policies, and you know what metrics are in place. This information can be captured in the SLODLC Discovery Worksheet and shared with stakeholders, and referenced in the future phases. This is also an excellent opportunity to review your data collection and metrics storage practices and identify any gaps.

Document your observations in the SLODLC Discovery Worksheet.

Phase 2: Design

During the Design phase, you’ll concentrate on several activities related to SLO craftsmanship: this is when you will Define Meaningful SLIs, Define Achievable and Aspirational SLOs, and Establish Error Budgets. Consider those activities iterative, as any design effort should be tested, verified, and validated according to key stakeholder feedback (iterate and improve). Use your SLODLC Discovery Worksheet as input for this phase.

Work backward - it's easy to use the wrong metric or focus on the wrong workflow. Concentrate on customer/user needs instead of implementing new solutions right away. Working backward from the customer experience ensures your SLOs are aligned with your business, product, and service owners expectations. Remember that perfect is the enemy of good - so don't rush for perfection from the beginning of the Design phase. Collective learning is the best way to learn from mistakes and failures. Start with small steps when working with your first SLIs and SLOs, and grow your SLO culture along with SLO adoption.

The Design phase has two important dependencies. First, all deliverables will be implemented in the Implement phase, and during those activities you might receive additional feedback that will lead to another design iteration. Second, during this phase you will receive feedback from the periodic reviews (discussed in “Review Periodically” below). Reviewing and modifying your SLO targets is normal and expected, so be prepared for it. Remember that the Design phase is not a one-off process. As you implement the SLODLC, you will likely revisit this phase multiple times as the deliverables are implemented and improved. The SLODLC requires you to review your SLOs and SLIs at each step and act if changes need to be made, similar to the “Plan, Do, Study, Act” or Deming Cycle.

The SLODLC Design Worksheet is available here.

Define Meaningful SLIs

The first activity of the Design phase involves key stakeholders collaborating to define meaningful, goal-oriented, and testable SLIs. But what does “meaningful” mean? Generally speaking, something that is meaningful is important to stakeholders - particularly the Business, Teams, and Users - and has a direct impact on their daily duties or tasks, making work more efficient and less disruptive. Meaningful SLIs should be:

  • User-centric - critical to user experience and happiness
  • Challenging - not setting the bar too low
  • Simple - easily understandable
  • Shared - bounding different groups of interest
  • Specific - without ambiguity, self-explaining

When we're measuring the performance of services, we want to focus on key indicators (Service Level Indicators) that will tell us the most about the user experience and where we are going to draw the line when we need to make potential tradeoffs. It will help if you aim for SLIs that are helpful in aggregating vital bits of information, and that can tell you about multiple subsystems through a single metric (for example, ratio indicators).

Remember that all defined SLIs should have an owner who is accountable for their life cycle and exploitation (you’ll find more on ownership in the SLO Adoption Framework document).

While defining SLIs and SLOs, 100% should never be a target. 100% is impossible to achieve in a cloud-based world where we are so often dependent on underlying services from third-party providers. It’s also important to be aware that, in general, the more reliability we want, the more it will cost. As a rule of thumb, each additional "9" of reliability (e.g., going from 99.9% to 99.99%) will cost up to 10 times more.

Uptime Percent Downtime per Year Downtime per Day
90 % 36.5 Days 2.4 Hours
99 % 3.65 Days 14 Minutes
99.9 % 8.76 Hours 86 Seconds
99.99 % 56.2 Minutes 8.6 Seconds
99.999 % 5.25 Minutes 0.86 Seconds
99.9999 % 31.56 Seconds 0.0086 Seconds
Ratio Metric Number of Requests Error Requests
90 % 1 000 000 100 000
99 % 1 000 000 10 000
99.9 % 1 000 000 1000
99.99 % 1 000 000 100
99.999 % 1 000 000 10
99.9999 % 1 000 000 1

The four most essential types of metrics to monitor in customer-facing systems (what Google’s Site Reliability Engineering calls the “four golden signals”) are:

  • Latency - the time it takes to service a single request, with a clear boundary between what time is considered “good” and what time is “bad”
  • Traffic - the volume of requests per time unit; for instance, how many requests per minute the service can handle
  • Errors - failed requests, described as the ratio of failed requests to all requests (this could also be looked at from the opposite: Success - successful requests, described as the ratio of good requests to all requests)
  • Saturation - how fully an element of the service is utilized; for instance, high CPU utilization might trigger scaling

According to the SRE pioneers at Google, another good practice to help you define meaningful metrics is to use the “SLI Menu,'' presented in the table below: this provides guidelines for what aspects of reliability you are likely to want to measure depending on the type of user journey you are considering.

Request/Response SLIs Data Processing SLIs Storage SLIs
Availability Coverage Throughput
Latency Correctness Latency
Quality Freshness Durability

Document each of your SLI in the SLI/SLO Specification Template. Establish your SLI/SLO Repository.

Define Achievable SLOs

Achievable SLOs set targets at practicable and reasonable levels with full stakeholder agreement and collaboration. Those SLOs are a good starting point for future benchmarks and references - and for setting aspirational SLOs (explained in the next section). Keep in mind that aiming for too much of a good thing is not a good strategy. Fortunately, you have your SLODLC Discovery Worksheet with its prioritized list of user journeys. This will help you carefully choose achievable SLO targets for each service.

What are the two or three most mission-critical user journeys? You may opt for an SLO of four or five nines for these services, while setting less stringent objectives for services that are clearly of lower priority? For example, for an e-commerce site you might prioritize the checkout experience over the experience of simply browsing the catalog, choosing an SLO of five nines for purchasing and four nines for browsing. You might end up with a mix of SLO targets ranging from three to five nines.

Your goal should be to keep customers happy without wasting time and money trying to achieve a level of performance that doesn't deliver commensurate benefits, while prioritizing the critical services that merit extra investment for automation, redundancy, testing, and other reliability enhancements. That's a wiser approach than arbitrarily setting SLOs of five nines for everything.

During your SLO journey, your SLO targets will evolve. Don’t be surprised if they fluctuate up and down in response to stakeholder feedback; they’re not written in stone. In addition to keeping your SLOs meaningful and achievable, you’ll also want to ensure that they are testable.

At this point it’s a good idea to conduct a risk assessment to help you figure out what's achievable, what's aspirational, and what the mitigations could be. During a risk assessment, you identify the services that are critical for customer/user happiness and success in your organization, determine the potential impact of downtime or problems with those services, and plan mitigation strategies (bubbling up quantifiable reliability improvements is a great way to get them funded). To conduct your risk assessment, you can use the Risk Analysis Template by Google; it’s a free, public tool based on years of SRE experience that is available at The template includes all the definitions and instructions you’ll need to complete the exercise. It’s a great tool to use for training purposes or real-life risk assessments that will help you address many critical questions, such as:

  • What are the risks that might affect reliability?
  • How will failures in the critical user journeys impact the business?
  • Can that impact be quantified?
  • Are there relevant measurements in place for that?

We recommend this as a group workshop exercise with key stakeholders.

Document your achievable SLOs in the SLI/SLO Specification Templates. Update your SLI/SLO Repository.

Define Aspirational SLOs

Aspirational SLOs represent your ambitions to achieve a certain level of reliability. They set the bar higher than achievable SLOs, driving effort and helping teams reach new organizational goals. Setting aspirational SLOs also helps with benchmarking, enabling you to understand how SLO adoption in your organization progresses over time. Once you've set achievable and aspirational SLOs, you'll see a clear gap between today's risk profile and your desire to deliver a more reliable service. As with achievable SLOs, you'll want to ensure that your aspirational SLOs are meaningful and testable.

This is a good point to talk a little more about testing. It is recommended to test SLOs early and often, regardless of which step of the SLODLC you are at. Stakeholders should collaborate to test SLOs in real-life scenarios against expectations, formal assumptions, and goals, as well as verifying that they are meaningful. Consider which type of time window is more appropriate for each SLO (rolling or calendar-aligned), and which budgeting method makes more sense (Occurrences or Time Slices). Depending on the type of metric you select, test thresholds vs. best practices and expectations, or test the ratio of good/bad to total requests or minutes.

Document your aspirational SLOs in the SLI/SLO Specification Templates. Update your SLI/SLO Repository.

Establish Error Budgets

You can think of an error budget as a conceptual model for understanding acceptable risk in your services - the SLOs you set effectively establish the level of risk (or error rate) that you consider acceptable. The difference between the SLO target and 100 is your error budget. Because of the diminishing returns of forced error rate reduction, you should not set your SLOs too high. It’s called a “budget” because your organization can allocate or spend it and track its current balance. When the error budget is exhausted, you reach the tipping point where a happy customer becomes unhappy. Therefore, it's important to keep an eye on the burn rate.

Error budgets only have value if stakeholders take them seriously, so there should be consequences when the error budget is burned. This is why it’s important to formulate an error budget policy. This policy states what a team must do when they deplete their error budget and how to handle ongoing budget utilization and correlated alerting.

The general remedy is to focus on improving reliability if you are utilizing your error budget, although teams may create more sophisticated policies with various thresholds and escalation rules. On the flip side, if a service consistently exceeds its SLO (and leaves an error budget in the bank), the team can take on more change risk or possibly increase the SLO to tighten the tolerance for error. This approach allows the team to self-police and make effective decisions around reliability.

An important operational function of the error budget is the dynamic burn rate. It considers the following factors: current error rate, remaining error budget, and time until the error budget is refreshed. The goal of the burn rate calculation is to understand if the current burn rate will deplete the available error budget, and how fast. The team should set up error budget triggers in the attached policies to alert them when the burn rate increases for more than a short period.

Document error budgets along with your SLOs in the SLI/SLO Specification Templates. Update your SLI/SLO Repository.

Phase 3: Implement

Now it’s time to implement your work by making all your defined, meaningful SLIs and SLO live. Start with the implementation of SLIs in your monitoring solutions, and update old ones if needed. Work with the SLODLC Design Worksheet - it's all there. In this phase you’ll Collect SLIs to get insights from your production environments and systems and Publish Your SLO Goals, making them visible on the SLO platforms and to the whole organization. It’s the SLO Adoption Leader and SLO Owner's responsibility to ensure the SLOs are published successfully (both roles are explained in the SLO Adoption Framework document), using a defined communication strategy (explained in the same document). You’ll also need to Enforce Your Error Budget Policies. As mentioned in the previous section, these policies should cover everything related to your established error budgets, including how to handle budget utilization and correlated alerting, escalation thresholds, and the actions to take.

The SLODLC Implement Worksheet is available here.

Collect SLIs

Most large, modern enterprises have not one monitoring solution, but several (perhaps even a few dozen) to boost business awareness. This can cause information overload - what is the one single point of truth? Where can one find the big picture? This is a challenge nowadays.

When collecting SLIs, monitoring and observability are key. Monitoring is about collecting metrics from a system to understand what’s going on in it. The challenge of monitoring is separating the proper signals (the few critical things that need attention) from the noise (the many false signals that are, at best, a distraction). This becomes even more difficult as your system scales. Observe defined SLIs implemented as queries: What measures are collected? Are those meaningful? Will they help achieve goals? Can they be tested? Ensure that the full history of metrics is collected from the beginning. Observability is similar to monitoring but slightly different. Observability measures how well we can understand the internal system state by looking solely at its outputs. In other words, it’s an indication of how well we can deduce internal causes by observing external symptoms.

Document your data sources and related information in the SLODLC Implement Worksheet. Update your SLI/SLO Repository.

Publish SLO Goals

SLOs must be published. There are two different topics to cover here. The first one is the physical deployment of SLOs into monitoring platforms. You can do that either by adding them manually using a friendly user interface, or by deploying your SLOs as code. The second topic to consider is communication. Communication about your SLOs should be planned by defining responsibilities for roles and methods and strategies for spreading awareness and promoting engagement. You can find more about this topic in the SLO Adoption Framework document, as it’s a very important aspect of SLO adoption.

SLOS-as-Code is a method of defining and setting up SLOs using the command-line interface (CLI) instead of a user-friendly web interface, in a YAML or JSON format (both are programing language-independent data formats). Nobl9 provides a dedicated CLI tool, sloctl, for creating or updating multiple SLOs simultaneously. You can use sloctl to integrate Nobl9 into your CI/CD pipelines. More about sloctl can be found in the sloctl User Guide.

Document how you will publish each SLO in the SLODLC Implement Worksheet. Update your SLI/SLO Repository.

Enforce Error Budget Policy

Error budgets are what transform metrics into action, but only if they are collectively understood and taken seriously, with well-defined consequences when they are exceeded. General understanding of policy enforcement should be guaranteed by appointed roles (SLO Owners and the SLO Process Owner, defined in the SLO Adoption Framework document). Policies should be published in the workplace and reviewed during periodic SLO reviews (discussed in “Review Periodically” below). You might consider providing training for stakeholders, especially supervisors and managers, in how to apply error budget policies and include it when onboarding new hires.

An SLO culture with error budgets changes the conversation to balance the tradeoffs. While error budget policies might sound like bureaucracy, this is the opposite of politics, where investment decisions are made based on the influence of particular stakeholders. The most challenging situation comes when a team is forced into a reliability-work-only state by depleting their error budget, but a senior stakeholder wants to overturn the policy in favor of a feature release. Management needs to understand the implications.

Plan how to enforce policy usage in the SLODLC Implement Worksheet. Update SLI/SLO Repository.

Phase 4: Operate

The Operate phase in the SLODLC represents the ordinary, day-to-day business-as-usual SLO use across the organization. This is when your working SLOs trigger events and you have to Respond to Error Budget Events & Alerts. Teams are establishing countermeasures for data bias and degradation to Ensure SLI Data Cleanliness. During this stage, you should already have well-established habits of periodic reviews - weekly or monthly according to the necessity and context of your business - the results of which you can use to Adjust the Targets. And you can use the metric data your monitoring systems are collecting to Gain SLO Insights as often as possible.

The SLODLC Periodic Review Checklist is available here.

Respond to Error Budget Events & Alerts

All potential error budget events should be identified and defined during the Design phase, and noted accordingly in error budget policies. Deliberate actions should be taken in response to these events - escalation thresholds (priorities) are a great way to automate responses without wasting time. For instance:

Threshold Error Budget Action
1 1-day error budget is exhausted Automated alerts notify SRE of an at-risk SLO
2 7-day error budget is exhausted SRE concludes they need help to defend SLO and escalate to devs
3 30-day error budget is exhausted The root cause has not been found; SRE blocks releases and asks for dev support
4 90-day error budget is exhausted The root cause has not been found; SRE escalates to executive leadership

Alerting is based on monitoring triggers - automated alerts defined in error budget policies. When a particular service has an elevated burn rate that puts an SLO at risk (for example, when the error budget is approaching a critical threshold), stakeholders can be informed automatically by the selected alert method. Alert policies can be defined separately from error budget policies, but each error budget policy should have an adequate alert policy. Different alert and event policies might use different communication channels to alert the relevant stakeholders via the appropriate notification engines or tools (for example, Jira, PagerDuty, Slack). Alerts improve awareness of your system and enable you to do better contributing factor analysis when something goes wrong, as an input to the incident management process that is in place or to a postmortem.

Be careful with alerts. If the interruptions are too frequent or if they are viewed as unnecessary noise in the organization, they can lead to distraction and more errors, or simply be ignored. Smart SLO and error budget design and implementation will help ensure that they are instead viewed as a valuable incident prevention tool.

Ensure SLI Data Cleanliness

Data quality is essential. You should think of SLI data (query data) as a critical asset that helps maintain reliability, and prioritize ensuring the cleanliness of this data. Data cleanliness can be achieved by a consistent, correct, and usable data collection process. Clean data has many advantages. It removes significant errors and inconsistencies and makes workflows more efficient, as you can quickly get what you need from the available data. Fewer mistakes means happier customers/users and less frustrated employees. No matter what information you use and from what data source - even the most trusted one - you should always monitor for data errors and check the correctness of the data. Standardize your data collection and data cleaning process, remove duplicated data, and review your data manually from time to time (examining statistical samples, for instance). Beware: most data cleaning can be done with dedicated tools, but some require manual work, and this task can be overwhelming. You might need additional team members dedicated to this role.

Adjust the Targets

Daily work with SLOs will generate feedback. In the SLODLC, there is an iterative feedback loop from the Operate phase to the Design and Implement phases (iterative relation). You'll get operational feedback that will impact your SLOs in various ways - this is okay, it means the SLOs are doing their job. One common pitfall is setting aspirational SLOs rather than achievable SLOs. For example, if you've never measured before, you may aspire to have three or four nines for a particular SLO. Then, when you see the real-life data, you may find that only two-and-half or three nines are achievable in the current state. Adjust the target! The aim is to have meaningful SLOs that stakeholders have provided feedback on and that have been adjusted and validated with actual data.

In the Operate phase, you should also verify whether the preliminary assumptions about your SLIs and SLOs are still valid. Work with your live SLIs to check for anomalies or repeatable spikes. Investigate those; it might lead you to discover some new constraints or dependencies. Newly introduced SLIs often expose valuable information that was not even considered while they were being defined. This is a way to continuous SLO improvement: learn and adapt, iterate and improve.

Gain SLO Insights

SLO insights - the deep understanding and knowledge gained from analyzing information from SLO data - help your organization make data-driven decisions, rather than relying on instinct. These insights, gleaned by analyzing data to understand the context of a particular SLO, allow you to derive conclusions that you can translate into actions you can apply instantly. To gain these insights, start with data visualization. Display your data in a data visualization platform and try to identify patterns. Focus on samples; don't get fooled by averages and totals - look beyond.

Reports and dashboards are common ways to present data. The insights provided by SLOs can enrich business intelligence and organizational wisdom on many levels - operational, economic, and leadership, to name a few. Remember to add appropriate activities to the SLO process to gather insights and review them. You can define and describe your SLO process using the SLODLC Process Template - more about this topic in the SLO Adoption Framework document.

Review Periodically

Reviews are what make the Design and Operate phases interact iteratively. This activity should be an ingrained habit. Reviews are about stakeholders collaborating in an iterative way to refine established SLOs; all input is welcome, whether it’s related to SLIs, SLOs, error budgets, happiness, or the overall SLO process. SLOs are not a project or a system; they are constantly evolving entities that change along with your services and evolving customer/user demands, with the goal of ensuring the happiness of all stakeholders (Business, Teams, and Users). You may believe that you have the best SLO ever, but the feedback you receive during the following periodic SLO review (for example, on whether the initial SLI/SLO assumptions are still valid) might cause you to refine it.

Reviews should be conducted at a weekly or monthly interval. You may experiment with this cadence at the beginning of SLO adoption to find the best way for your organization. During reviews, use the SLODLC Periodic Review Checklist; this template will provide a useful set of checkpoints ensuring the completeness of your review meeting.

One of the most intriguing challenges you may encounter as your SLO adoption journey progresses is how your service scaling affects your SLOs. At first sight, this topic might seem a bit overwhelming. You might think you need a dedicated SLO scaling policy - but we have a better solution. First, you must understand that your SLO target will remain the same whether your service is handling 100 requests or, as it scales up, 10,000 requests - 99.5% is 99.5%. Second, as mentioned previously, SLOs are not static; you’ll want to revisit and iterate on your objectives as time passes. Your service, during its life cycle, might experience changes in functionality and utilization that have different effects. For example, increased utilization can lead to more requests, more failed requests, and slower responses), while decreased utilization can have the opposite effect. There are nuances to how scaling affects your SLOs, and scale cannot be considered in isolation. Moving toward a solution, what is needed is a process to guide organizations to create better SLOs. The SLODLC, with its built-in feedback loops and periodic reviews, will help with this. Of course, scaling should trigger reflection on your SLOs, and because your organization will eventually experience such changes, you should plan ahead and include it in your SLODLC documentation as a driver for future SLO adaptation.

The SLODLC Periodic Review Checklist is available here

Align with Service & Software and Business Development Life Cycles

The SLO adoption and, later, the SLO Process (explained in the SLO Adoption Framework document) do not operate in a vacuum. They operate in parallel with other processes, and in close relation to the Service and Software Development Life Cycles. The Service Development Life Cycle is an ongoing parallel process - the SLODLC is strictly related to products and services (and related user journeys), so it's wise to be familiar with those services and their life cycles and, most importantly, to interact with involved stakeholders. Knowing when a particular service will be retired is important, as this will also signal the end of some SLOs on your radar, letting the SRE workforce be assigned somewhere else. On the other hand, the SLODLC itself will have a significant impact on the Software Development Life Cycle. It forces a reliability focus from the beginning of the SDLC, shifting reliability to the left and making it a key concern in the architecture, design, test-driven development, test automation, and development stages.

From a business alignment perspective, be sure to monitor closely for emerging business ideas. In most cases, the ideas will be related to new product development. Some new concepts or ideas might be already during prototyping, or maybe someone is developing new marketing strategies - look for those. Stay alert. Listen to business stakeholders when discussing customer feedback and screening new ideas to fulfill market needs. Don't wait until the commercialization stage - start with SLOs as early as possible, to create a good first impression and avoid losing time to market momentum. A good practice is to be familiar with the business work pipeline: watch product backlogs and stay up to date with planned Scrum sprints. Most importantly, make SLOs visible to business stakeholders; attract their attention to the topic and show them the potential benefits of using SLOs.

Listen and Engage Users and Stakeholders

SLO adoption is about people - feedback is crucial when change involves a shift in culture and mindset. Listen to users and stakeholders to build a general awareness of the customer/user base and their happiness. Be open to feedback during the whole SLODLC. Keep your key stakeholders close - the Users, the Business, the Teams. Let them speak, let them be heard. Remember their roles and responsibilities and what they may bring to the table. SLO adoption on an organizational level will impact different groups in different ways. The key to success is to understand those groups, understand their incentives, and address them accordingly, providing additional motivational drivers to encourage adoption. The SLO Adoption Leader should analyze the incentives for the overall cultural and mindset shift, for implementing SLOs, and for continuous SLO improvement. This role and these activities are explained in the SLO Adoption Framework document.

Different groups should know each other’s positions on SLO adoption and what each group can gain from it. That's why it's important to work simultaneously with all of those groups, letting them learn from each other. This can also help identify new cross-organizational benefits or synergies; one group's SLO might benefit another group, and groups might discover new, unexpected dependencies and constraints. Additionally, they might learn what they might miss by ignoring the SLOs of other groups.

Transparency and clear communication will attract supporters, increasing buy-in. Understand what people's concerns are and address them. Build engagement by allowing full participation of all stakeholders interested in SLOs. Invite them to periodic review meetings and establish a communication channel; let them join formal or informal SLO communities, if any are established at a given time. While listening and engaging, focus on good relations and flawless interactions; ensure clear communication without double standards and ambiguity, build trust and honesty, ask questions and provide feedback.

Share Learnings from the SLO Journey to Align Practices and Standards

Let's start with the organization's learning culture. One of the most important values is supporting employees and encouraging them to acquire knowledge and experience. This is crucial with SLO adoption, as it might be a new concept for some. There should be no fear of asking stupid questions about SLOs and reliability in general, or about any topic, for that matter. Understanding and willingness to provide advice in any challenging situation are excellent tools for building trust and good communication. Promoting a willingness to learn isn’t entirely enough, though; it's also essential to develop a sense of urgency, for example, by explicit demonstration of potentially lost SLO benefits.

Incorporate your SLO practices into a standardized way of work to guide others interested in SLO adoption. Your hands-on experience may provide a solid foundation for the internal standardized SLO process; conduct dedicated retrospective meetings or write down SLO lessons learned - whatever you think will be beneficial for managing and sharing your SLO knowledge.

Celebrate SLO success cases, and spread the word about them! Publish your related work frequently. Exchange, share all relevant SLO information, and share valuable resources with the whole organization, including both internal and external communities. Don't build SLOs, or work with them, in isolation.

SLO Knowledge

Whatever adoption path you follow (paths are explained in the SLO Adoption Framework document), SLO knowledge management will be a part of your SLO adoption process. To achieve the best outcomes, you have to be familiar with the basic knowledge management process. Focus on four universal steps:

  1. Capture all SLO knowledge artifacts.
  2. Define how you want to organize those artifacts and how to store them.
  3. Limit access, distribution, and publishing rules.
  4. Make practical use of knowledge and encourage stakeholders to learn and share the SLO experience.

The table of SLO knowledge artifacts presented here is mapped to the SLO Maturity Model (explained in the SLO Adoption Framework document). It details the solidly established artifacts that you should have at each maturity level.

SLO Maturity Level Knowledge Artifacts
Maturity Level 1 \ Monitor and React
  • SLI/SLO Documentation - a comprehensive SLO documentation repository, documents, and links; a combination of SLODLC templates
  • SLI/SLO Repository - a single storage location for all defined and implemented SLIs and SLOs connected to SLO metadata like feedback, satisfaction surveys, visualized history data, and any other related information, as well as completed SLODLC templates
  • SLO Use Cases Repository - a collection of all SLOs defined in the organization with case descriptions for general understanding of all stakeholders
  • SLI/SLO Templates - ready-to-use templates
Maturity Level 2 \ SLO Concepts
  • Library of Resources - an organizational SLO/SRE library with various relevant resources available to employees; for example, digital versions of books and other materials
  • Case Studies Repository - an extension of the SLO Use Cases Repository with examples and references from the industry
  • Dashboards - combine your organization SLOs into dashboards, make them accessible and visible
  • Discussion Board/Forum - an online place for internal SLO-related discussions
  • FAQs - a collection of frequently asked questions related to SLOs
  • Meetups - different types of meetings in the different formulas (for the SLO community), those might be internal or external, one-time or recurring
  • SLO Reports - a dedicated repository of pre-prepared ones or dedicated solution for ad hoc report generation
Maturity Level 3 \ Full SLO Adoption
  • Blog Posts - you might have an internal portal for the organization and/or an external one (on the company website or in social media)
  • Conferences - your SLO practitioners might attend as speakers, or you can establish a closed internal conference for your organization
  • Newsletters - there should be outbound communication about every successful organizational change; newsletters are one possible avenue
  • Postmortems/Runbooks SLO References - those artifacts are vital for successful incident and problem management enriching postmortems and runbooks for extra SLO insights
  • Social Media - your organization might be an active social media participant and share knowledge freely; it's a good idea to select one social media platform and manage outbound social media communication regarding your SLO experience
  • Benchmark Repository - keep an up-to-date collection of information related to SLO experience in the industry
  • Large-Scale Reviews - from time to time, put SLOs at the center of a town hall or other large organizational gathering
  • Established SLO Process Repository - this should include tools for continuous improvement, historical and statistical data, recommendations for improvement, etc.

You may wish to establish SLO Training Programs or more advanced Workshops or Bootcamps. Doing so builds strong motivation for the target audience to learn more about SLOs by highlighting their benefits, opportunities, and success stories. During any training program, monitor participant feedback - what are the reactions, and what is the general level of interest? Conduct a survey when the training is complete, and evaluate the program based on the gathered feedback. There are several practices for developing a successful SLO training program that we can share, as Nobl9 has a long history of conducting SLO Bootcamps. To begin, you’ll need a qualified, professional SLO trainer - an SLO Champion (also known as advocate or coach) - who is responsible for the outcome of the training program. This might be someone in your organization with relevant experience, or you might choose to hire an industry consultant with training experience.

SLO trainers should assess organizational training needs with regard to different SLO topics, taking the organization’s SLO adoption goals and vision into consideration. They may also interview people from different functional units in the organization who can provide input for the training syllabus. SLO Champions are the leaders and subject matter experts responsible for smooth and successful SLO adoption. Depending on the organizational and adoption context, they might be internal employees (someone with SLO experience and knowledge) or external industry experts hired to help with SLO adoption.

SLO training programs might require customization based on assessment results and on the target audience. For instance, the training structure, scope, and ratio of lectures to practical exercises may need to be adjusted. Training programs should be planned with training metrics in advance; the trainer should track different factors like the number of participants, the ratio to the whole population to be trained, general feedback, and changes made according to feedback. The key to success is to get buy-in from organizational leaders and involve them in the learning process, to drive home its importance. Having a functional manager with the team during a Bootcamp is a recommended practice.

A Train the Trainer program can also be useful. In this model the trainer or SLO Champion trains employees and simultaneously teaches them to train others. An internal certification process is something to consider, to distinguish employees’ achievements.

Coaching is another excellent way to develop SLO competencies. Coaching requires the participation of an SLO Champion who will help individuals or groups achieve development goals. Coaching might be provided as a service; this is a good starting point when an organization is at the beginning of its SLO journey.

A mentoring program requires the participation of an SLO Champion in the role of mentor (someone with experience and expertise in the SLO/SRE area) who will teach mentees (people who are new to SLO concepts). It is recommended to build an internal mentoring program, where employees with SLO experience teach new employees or those without SLO experience. For example, one team member could mentor the other team members who are new to SLOs. You can achieve great results with mentoring because it's based on collaboration and trust.

SLO Communities of Practice are organized groups with a shared interest in SLOs. Participants collaborate to learn, teach, and exchange knowledge and experience. This is another level of professional networking; participation is voluntary and motivated by the will to share with the community. Communities of Practice might be role oriented (connecting employees with the same role to help them grow within the role) or cross-organizational (connecting employees from different units and with different roles so that they can collectively solve complex organizational problems). As an SLO Adoption Leader, establishing the first Community of Practice should be one of your foremost goals. Grow it and foster it as SLO adoption progresses along its path (explained in the SLO Adoption Framework document).

Final Thoughts

The Good SLO, the Bad SLO, and the Ugly SLO - yes, you’ll be able to find all of these in your organization. Let's start with the Good SLO. The team fully understands its importance and can react swiftly to error budget changes, accelerate development, experiment, and fail in a friendly, safe environment. SLO feedback is used to improve and grow, and the root causes of incidents and problems are identified and addressed quickly. The Good SLO is a meaningful SLO that aims to ensure customer/user happiness.

What about the Bad SLO? Imagine a situation where something has gone wrong - maybe it was the SLI definition (the wrong query), or a data source is not working properly and is feeding the SLI with random data, and then you get the wrong SLO with the wrong error budget… There are so many places where things could go awry, where a single decision could destroy all your efforts. During SLO adoption, pay attention to every step; don't avoid recommended activities. Of course, we encourage you to experiment and do some things creatively, in your own way - you may even add more steps to ensure effectiveness, efficiency, and quality - but don't skip steps without any reflection about their importance. If you do, you can easily end up with Bad SLOs that will bring you no benefit.

That leaves the Ugly SLO. This is somewhere between the Good SLO and the Bad SLO. Perhaps you did your best - you did everything right, according to the SLODLC - but in the end, something is just wrong. Double-checking will only convince you that you followed the process correctly. Ask yourself a question, then: Do you have organizational buy-in? Are all your close collaborators engaged? Did you work with other stakeholders, or did you work alone? Is your SLO meaningful? Do people care about it? Is it only meaningful to you? The Ugly SLO is typically done correctly by the book, but missing the “soft” side of SLOs - stakeholder involvement and meaningfulness. It’s ugly, so no one wants to use it. If you find yourself in this situation, you may need to go back to the beginning and focus on building and nurturing the SLO culture in your organization. This will ultimately lead you to success.

One final thought: don't focus on default SLOs. Look at your products and services, data, customer journeys, and dependencies. Find your own way. Don't copy SLOs without reflection. Each organization is unique, with its own critical infrastructure and user-facing services. You might think those two areas are the best places to start with SLOs, and indeed they should be prioritized once you’ve gotten rolling, but if you take this approach from the outset you might encounter lots of internal resistance because of unknown risks, and the process will move incredibly slowly. Your organization probably already has a lot of metrics and alerts in place for critical services. We encourage you to look first at services with a high rate of false positive alerts. This is an excellent place to start - reducing false positives is exactly what SLOs excel at. If you’re revisiting SLOs instead of starting from scratch, run your new SLOs in parallel with the old ones and compare both. Tune your new ones according to the insights you gain from this comparison - you should see a significant reduction in the number of false positive alerts, signaling that it’s an excellent time to replace the old SLOs with new ones.

This is the end of the SLODLC Handbook - you’ll find more about SLO adoption in the SLO Adoption Framework document. We hope you’re able to make good use of all you’ve learned from this handbook, and we wish you all the best in your own SLO journey!