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Hazard analysis and Chaos engineering at Vanguard Group

Anticipating events that can cause a disruption to your system’s service is critical to building highly available, reliable systems.  Hazard analysis gives you a method to identify such events.  Chaos engineering gives you a method to confirm that a system behaves as expected in adverse conditions.  By combining these methods, Vanguard is building reliability into their systems.

Vanguard engineering teams perform hazard analysis on their systems and capture the identified events as failure scenarios.  They use the identified failure scenarios to create hypotheses to support chaos engineering experiments.  These hypotheses predict how the system will respond to failures and each hypothesis is then confirmed through experimentation to increase the team’s confidence in the system’s reliability.

In this article we will walk you through how Vanguard uses hazard analysis and chaos engineering.  We will also provide guidance on how you can employ these techniques on your applications.

Failure Mode & Effects Analysis

A hazard analysis can be performed using different methods.  At Vanguard, they have adapted the failure mode & effects analysis (FMEA) method to support their important services.

FMEA is a bottom-up approach to analyse an architecture and focus on the impact to system functions when one or more components of the system are disrupted. Members of the engineering team and architects responsible for designing and building a system brainstorm possible failure scenarios or failure modes, and document the impact of these failures on the system. Combined with a quantitative method for ranking the failure modes, the analysis process produces a prioritised list of failure modes which describes how the system would respond to individual or combined failures in its component parts or dependencies.

For each failure mode the team conducting the analysis will highlight what protections exist within the system to guard against the failure mode.  Sometimes, fault isolation boundaries have been put in place to prevent client impact in failure scenarios. In other scenarios, for one reason or another, there are hard dependencies in place for which the engineering team has decided not to build in fault tolerance. For example, a team responsible for a less-critical function may have architected its system to operate across multiple availability zones, but could decide not to implement other mitigations to prioritize cost over increased resilience.

The FMEA method has been in use by engineers in the automotive, aeronautical, healthcare, and military industries for more than 60 years.  Over that time, FMEA has been modified to best suit the organization and the field in which it was applied.  In many variations the FMEA measures each failure mode with a risk priority number (RPN), which is intended to quantitatively rank the failure mode based upon:

  1. The failure mode’s impact to the system as a whole
  2. The probability of the failure mode’s occurrence
  3. How easily the failure mode can be detected

Vanguard have adapted the FMEA process to serve their own specific requirements and processes.  Vanguard have decided not to adopt the RPN element of the FMEA process, as teams found they spent a lot of time debating the impact, probability, and detectability of individual failure modes.  To perform an FMEA more quickly, teams instead focus on the failure modes and system impact only, documenting a mental model of system performance which can be experimented through chaos engineering.

An excerpt of a Vanguard FMEA output is provided as an example in the following table:

The “Process Step” in the table above refers to a business function of the system being analyzed, for example “Request to retrieve stored data”. As part of the analysis, the team identifies the system components needed to perform the Process Step and considers the interactions of those components Focusing on a Process Step makes it easier to anticipate the failure scenarios that would affect the system in performing this particular business function. Also, the Process Step will imply an importance or criticality which can be a factor when prioritizing mitigations.

After selecting a Process Step, you walk through the system components involved and identify how component failures or disruptions will affect the wider system. Such component failures may involve individual components or a combination of components and are captured as “Failure Mode”. This identifies the component or components that are disrupted and their behaviour; for example, “Microservice is unavailable or returns an error”.

“Expected Behaviour” describes the effect of the failure mode on the wider system, in the context of the Process Step. This captures what other system components are affected by the Failure Mode and why, and how this impacts the Process Step as a whole.

Lastly, the “Hypothesis” column forms the basis for the chaos experiments that will follow from the FMEA to confirm that the system performs as expected.

At Vanguard, all mission-critical product teams are conducting FMEAs for their production applications. The outputs of these sessions are maintained over time and serve multiple purposes:

  1. When onboarding new team members, it is helpful to provide the FMEA document alongside an architecture diagram and narrative. It will paint a more robust picture of how the system is intended to operate in both “happy path” and “unhappy path” scenarios.
  2. When troubleshooting incidents, an FMEA document can help on-call engineers – especially those less experienced with debugging – to match up the documented expectations to the observed system behavior.
  3. Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) looking for opportunities to improve the resilience of a system might look to FMEA documentation to understand the existing fault isolation boundaries and introduce additional resilience mechanisms through automation and system changes.
  4. Finally, when selecting scenarios for experimentation with Chaos Engineering, the FMEA document provides a list of conjectures that have been mapped to hypotheses, ready to be validated through experimentation. This input into the Chaos Engineering workflow is the primary use of FMEA documents for Vanguard product teams.

There are many resources available online to learn more about how FMEA is used and applied in other organisations. In Failure Modes and Continuous Resilience, Adrian Cockcroft introduces FMEA as a method for anticipating failure scenarios. The NASA Software Engineering Handbook details how FMEAs are conducted as part of their engineering process. The Automotive Industry Group has also formally documented the use of FMEA in the Automotive Industry Action Group FMEA Handbook.

Chaos Engineering

After failure modes have been identified and mitigated through system design, it’s time to understand how resilient the system’s implementation is to those failure modes. Chaos engineering can be used to explore a system and validate that a system’s implementation meets business resiliency objectives.

Chaos engineering helps to improve a team’s mental model about the system under experimentation and provides insights into how a complex system behaves under adverse conditions. It also enables an engineer to find the unknown unknowns and the known unknowns through experiments that are built on top of the hypothesis. These experiments should simulate real world events, such as network degradation and increased client requests, and the outcome of the experiment should not be known. In other words, an experiment is not an experiment if it’s known that the conditions will cause the system to fail.

Prerequisites to Chaos Experiments at Vanguard

At Vanguard, there are some necessary prerequisites to running a chaos experiment. Firstly, the system under experiment must be set up with some basic observability tooling that will allow teams to monitor the state of the application during the failure injection. This could be as simple as an Amazon CloudWatch dashboard and some associated alarms, or as elaborate as a dedicated dashboard set up in a vendor tool.

Secondly, teams must be able to drive load to the application during the experiment; depending on the experiment type, the level and type of load may vary. The load generator can be as simple as a script on someone’s machine, or a fully automated load test depending on the requirements of the hypothesis.

Finally, teams need to have a good understanding of what the application’s “steady state” looks like. I Ideally, this takes the form of some metrics such as expected error rate, expected latency, and/or a service level objective (SLO) that can be monitored throughout the duration of the experiment. For example, a service level objective for a RESTful API might be that 90% of requests should receive a response within 100 milliseconds.

With the prerequisites met and a completed FMEA, teams can then experiment with their hypothesis using various experiment templates defined by Vanguard’s Climate of Chaos tooling.

Vanguard’s Climate of Chaos

At Vanguard, ensuring its software systems are resilient to adverse events is a critical part of its ongoing mission to provide world-class service to their clients. Vanguard believes that in order to develop high quality software, one must plan for the inevitable “stormy weather” events that occur in a distributed system.

Over the past 2 years, as a response to this need, Vanguard has developed in-house tooling called “The Climate of Chaos” to give teams easy access to common experiment templates, along with a friendly UI interface. The Climate of Chaos helps developers experiment on their systems and validate the hypotheses generated from FMEAs. It also provides the tooling for them to simulate the most common failure scenarios on Vanguard’s most commonly utilized AWS infrastructure, including Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), AWS Fargate, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), AWS Lambda, and others.

The Climate of Chaos was created prior to Amazon’s release of the AWS Fault Injection Simulator (FIS), and today there is a lot of overlap with the experiment capabilities available in FIS. The Climate of Chaos has also been enhanced with company-specific features and integrations that make it easier for Vanguard developers to run chaos experiments in a controlled and predictable manner.

The Climate of Chaos includes important safety features such as an “emergency stop” function. This feature enables teams to terminate the experiment immediately if unintended side effects are encountered, rolling back the events simulated to resume steady state operation. The Climate of Chaos has been coupled with other systems like an in-house load testing tooling and added features like the ability to monitor CloudWatch alarms. Vanguard also offers teams the ability to schedule experiments to run at their convenience. Soon, Vanguard hopes to make running chaos experiments even smarter, introducing tools that will help teams run bulk experiments that systematically inject failures on a group of related applications to help pinpoint more complex failure modes.

Next Steps

Failure modes and effects analysis is a hazard analysis method which can help you identify single and combined points of failure in your system so you can prioritize the failure modes. To learn more about the FMEA process, you can read the NASA Software Engineering Handbook which outlines how they perform FMEA on their software-based systems. The AWS Whitepaper Building Mission-Critical Financial Services Applications on AWS provides example forms and suggestions for severity, probability, and detectability rankings. Appendix F in the whitepaper suggests a 1 to 10 ranking for each Risk Priority Number input, and the example spreadsheets recommend performing FMEAs for the application, platform, infrastructure, and operation layers of the system. Using these examples, you can perform an analysis of your own systems and generate hypotheses.

To experiment on your systems and validate your own hypotheses, you can use the AWS Fault Injection Simulator (FIS) mentioned earlier in this article. FIS provides you with a framework for performing controlled chaos experiments on your AWS workloads. It helps you to safely manage your experiments by providing tooling to monitor, rollback, and orchestrate chaos experiments. FIS provides the fault injection mechanisms that you will need to experiment upon your system’s implementation and resilience to identified failure modes. You can start by running experiments in pre-production environments, and then step up to running them as part of your CI/CD workflow and ultimately in your production environment. To learn more about FIS, you can read the FIS User Guide and FIS tutorials.

By using FMEA to anticipate the failures and experimenting on your systems with chaos engineering, you will gain confidence in the reliability of your system.

The content and opinions in this post are those of The Vanguard Group and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.

About the authors:

Tory Benya

Tory works as a Chaos Engineering Tech Lead at Vanguard.  She is passionate about automation, data, and making software work for people.  She likes to automate, integrate, and improve processes and technology.  Tory makes data-driven decisions to make a difference as part of her team at Vanguard.

Christina Yakomin

Christina works as a Senior Site Reliability Engineering Specialist in Vanguard’s Chief Technology Office. Throughout her career, she has developed an expansive skill set in front- and back-end web development, as well as cloud infrastructure and automation, with a specialization in Site Reliability Engineering. She has earned several Amazon Web Services certifications, including the Solutions Architect – Professional. Christina has also worked closely with the Women’s Initiative for Leadership Success at Vanguard, both internally at the company and externally in the local community, to further the career advancement of women and girls – in particular within the tech industry.

Jason Barto

Jason works as a Principal Solutions Architect at AWS where he works with customers to design resilient system architectures and develop chaos engineering practices. Prior to joining AWS Jason was designing and building distributed systems for complex event processing and real-time telemetry analytics.

John Formento

John is a Solutions Architect at AWS. He helps large enterprises achieve their goals by architecting secure and scalable solutions on the AWS Cloud. John holds 7 AWS certifications including AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional and DevOps Engineer – Professional.