Google Research

The Site Reliability Engineering Workbook Chapter: Eliminating Toil

  • Chris Schrier
  • Chris Coykendall
  • David Huska
  • James O'Keeffe
  • Joanna L. Wijntjes
  • Matt Sartwell
  • Vivek Rau
The Site Reliability Engineering Workbook: Practical Ways to Implement SRE (2018)


Google SREs spend much of their time optimizing—squeezing every bit of performance from a system through project work and developer collaboration. But the scope of optimization isn’t limited to compute resources: it’s also important that SREs optimize how they spend their time. Primarily, we want to avoid performing tasks classified as toil. For a comprehensive discussion of toil, see Chapter 5 in Site Reliability Engineering. For the purposes of this chapter, we’ll define toil as the repetitive, predictable, constant stream of tasks related to maintaining a service.

Toil is seemingly unavoidable for any team that manages a production service. System maintenance inevitably demands a certain amount of rollouts, upgrades, restarts, alert triaging, and so forth. These activities can quickly consume a team if left unchecked and unaccounted for. Google limits the time SRE teams spend on operational work (including both toil- and non-toil-intensive work) at 50% (for more context on why, see Chapter 5 in our first book). While this target may not be appropriate for your organization, there’s still an advantage to placing an upper bound on toil, as identifying and quantifying toil is the first step toward optimizing your team’s time.

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