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Potential Pitfalls of Open-Source Alert Management

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Many teams build piecemeal alert routing and incident management solutions to help them get some type of on-call system in place. Or, they look into open-source alert management solutions and see how they can leverage these tools to improve real-time incident response and remediation. This approach to on-call and alert management can work for basic systems and smaller teams but becomes hard to manage as teams scale and services grow.

As a real-time incident response tool, focused on automation of alert management and on-call rotations, we know a thing or two about efficient operations. DevOps and IT engineers need a scalable, flexible solution for incident response and alert management – one that works for different systems and different teams. In this post, we’ll examine some of the pros and cons of open-source alert management tools and their purpose-built counterparts.

The pros and cons of open-source alert management

For smaller teams or engineering organizations with simple, straightforward development pipelines, open-source alert management solutions might be all you need. If you simply need a way to notify someone about an issue, then open-source tools might be the path you’ll take. But, as you’ll see, purpose-built alert management and on-call tools will give you deeper incident context as well as more tools for remediating problems in real-time. Let’s dive into some of the key considerations you need to make when looking at an alert management solution:

  • Visibility and transparency

Open-source solutions and in-house alert management tools often rely on a mish-mash of third-party software and communication tools (e.g. email, SMS, chat apps, etc.). This can work well for simple notifications but it creates a lack of clarity around alert notifications and what actually needs to be done. This way, you’ll know something’s wrong but you won’t know what’s wrong.

Purpose-built alert management solutions allow you to centralize incident communication and system data in one centralized place, allowing for better cross-functional collaboration and visibility. More transparency in alert management helps incident responders know who they need to get involved in triage and remediation, reducing downtime and driving more resilient applications and infrastructure.

  • Accountability and ownership

With greater visibility comes more accountability and ownership around on-call operations. Open-source or homegrown alerting solutions don’t have as much granularity around incident prioritization or assignment, leading to a lack of clarity around who owns an issue. More abstraction leads to more confusion and slower incident response times. Communication happens across disparate channels and there’s a lack of documentation around what actually happened during a firefight. Purpose-built solutions bring clarity to what happened at every second during a firefight and offer more meaningful permissions and assignments around on-call responsibilities without additional work on your part.

  • Flexibility and scalability

Managing on-call schedules in a spreadsheet while setting basic alert automation rules in an open-source tool or homegrown solution is a recipe for disaster. There’s too much human error involved with maintaining schedules and alert rules all the time without any kind of connectivity. What happens if someone calls in sick or takes PTO? Does somebody else need to go in and manually update schedules and associated alert rules every time?

Purpose-built alert management solutions connect on-call rotations to associated alert rules and tie them to services and teams. So, you can quickly and flexibly adjust schedules without causing a gap in on-call coverage. As you add more people into the platform, the on-call system scales with your team and allows you to consistently add new users and services, adjust and improve alert rules, and maintain the level of coverage you’ve come to expect.

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  • Robust alert context

Getting detailed, appropriate alert context into your incident response tool can be difficult when working with homegrown solutions or open-source alert management tools. You can either get very little or too much information but it takes a lot of work to get just what you need. Built-out on-call alert management tools like VictorOps can help you easily take in the alert data you need and surface it to the right person in real-time. This gives the responder the details they need to quickly fix issues without over-alerting them and inundating them with unnecessary notifications. Enhanced context gives the team the information they need to execute runbooks and remediation strategies that work more often than not – improving customer experience and reducing downtime.

  • Improved alert annotations and remediation tools

Improved alert and incident context leads to improved annotations and remediation tools (e.g. runbooks, playbooks, charts, conference bridge links, etc.) With open-source alert management tools, it can be hard to learn over time about your own incident response workflows and make adjustments. Purpose-built tools allow you to learn from your experiences over time and optimize alert annotations and build out comprehensive remediation tools to make on-call suck less. Improved annotations empower both individuals and teams with the tools they need to work better together, execute remediation instructions and fix incidents faster.

  • Reducing alert fatigue

Homegrown and open-source alert management solutions most likely have a very simple alert rules engine, if they have one at all. Basic alerting just means your on-call team will be inundated with notification after notification, whether or not these issues are critical or actionable at all. Built-out alert management solutions will have a powerful alert rules engine to help you automate the alerting workflow much more – helping you reduce unactionable noise and reduce alert fatigue for your team. Reducing alert fatigue leads to less burnout for on-call teams but it also helps them know when an issue is a big deal, giving them more time to fix major problems.

  • Improving post-incident reviews and documentation

Better documentation and historical records of firefights will naturally lead to better post-incident reviews. Open-source alert management tools and piecemeal in-house solutions won’t help you find incident data after-the-fact. In fact, these tools often lead to critical information being spread out across numerous ticketing and communication systems, leading to an incomplete story behind incident response. Purpose-built solutions help you document everything that goes on during a firefight. With this information, you can conduct more thorough post-incident reviews after the fact – leading to more insights that help you improve software delivery speed and reliability.

Open-source alerting vs. purpose-built incident management

If you’re looking for a quick, simple solution just to notify on-call responders, building something in-house or looking at open-source alert management tools might be the route for you. But, just know that, over time, connections between your on-call schedules, alert routing and incident response workflows will start to break down. And, you’ll either need to spend time fixing it or completely re-architecting your on-call process.

Purpose-built alert management tools like VictorOps give you a more flexible, scalable way to approach on-call incident management. Sign up for our extended 90-day, free trial to see the benefits of a complete incident response and alert management solution.

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