What is Observability and Why You Need It

Note: This post was originally written for the Cprime blog. You can check out the original here.

As more organizations move from on-prem to cloud infrastructure, IT teams are finding that traditional monitoring solutions just aren’t getting the job done. Many monitoring vendors have moved beyond monitoring to observability. Sadly, some are doing nothing more than putting a good spin on the same old monitoring solution.

The bottom line is that traditional monitoring isn’t enough for today’s cloud applications and infrastructure. You need real observability, which can tell you not only when there’s a problem but also what its underlying cause is. In this post, let’s discuss what observability is and how it can help.

Defining Observability

Observability seems to have been introduced into the IT landscape in the last few years, but it’s been around for decades. It has origins in quantum physics and control theory. Conceptually, it’s the idea of a system exposing its internal state so that it can be externally collected and analyzed.

An observability implementation includes a practice of collecting log data, metrics, and traces. Each of these key areas of collection provides a piece of the puzzle to properly manage cloud infrastructure.

  • Metrics: Collecting values about known performance measurements from your applications and infrastructure you can put on dashboards or use for alerting. It helps you find out when there’s a problem.
  • Logs: Collecting errors, warnings, and other information about events happening within applications and infrastructure. It helps you find out the cause of a problem.
  • Traces: Collecting user requests throughout the various components of your infrastructure. It helps you find out where a problem happens.

These areas provide valuable insight and visibility when you’re dealing with a deployment that involves both simple and complex cloud environments.

What Observability Is Not

You just read what observability is. But you also should understand what it isn’t. Many monitoring vendors can have a different definition of observability. It could be because they misunderstand observability, but it could also be to mislead. So, knowing the difference for yourself is important.

  • Observability isn’t the same as monitoring. Be careful if anyone tells you that the two are the same. Yes, they are similar. After all, you need monitoring tools to implement it. I consider observability to be a superset of monitoring. You monitor your infrastructure as part of your overall observability practice.
  • It’s not just for software. The advancements in cloud infrastructure and DevOps practices have popularized observability to seemingly represent only software applications. But the network needs to be observable as well. Collecting and analyzing network telemetry data has been a part of network performance monitoring for many years.
  • It isn’t about more monitoring tools. Every monitoring vendor will tell you that their tool offers something a bit different that another tool doesn’t. That’s their job. Implementing observability isn’t an excuse to add more monitoring tools to your toolset. You should consider how your existing tools can be extended via APIs, for example, to support your observability needs. Only if that’s not possible should you consider another tool.
  • Observability isn’t only internal agents sending to external systems. Even in the age of DevOps, you can still find development and operations having different mentalities. Observability monitoring tools shouldn’t be considered only a solution external to the application. Developers should integrate observability into their software. 

Why Organizations Need It

IT organizations need to implement observability because when done right with the appropriate tools, it will help reduce MTTR and SLAs. This will lead to a better end-user experience for your applications.

Another reason to observe your applications and infrastructure is that the modern cloud inherently restricts visibility. With distributed tracing, you regain visibility across various components of your part of the cloud.

A third reason includes the ability of DevOps to have a common method of viewing performance data. Development and operations can stay on the same page if they’re talking the same observability language.

Go Forth and Observe

Just as IT is transitioning to various cloud infrastructure deployments to support users, being able to identify how these users are experiencing your application is also transitioning. You’ve seen how the move from monitoring to observability can be beneficial to your ability to solve user performance problems faster.

So, go ahead and make the shift.

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