3 Pillars of Observability by - Cengiz Han

Observability of the system in production comes as a requirement when we design complex systems. Some says being able to monitor your system in production is more important than testing all of it’s functionality during development. To me, they are not really comparable things or you can give up one of another.

Traditionally, if you have IT operations department in your organization you probably have people who does blackbox monitoring with tools like Nagios. What this tools give you are signals like system is down, server/service is down, CPU consumption high etc. This is a must have and very good for identifying the symptoms of a problem but not the root cause.

Once you get this symptoms telling you there is something wrong. You need to dive deep and understand the root cause. Whitebox monitoring comes in to the picture here. Whitebox monitoring can help you to identify root cause of a problem and also more importantly can give you proactive alerting for the possible preventable problems by looking at some tendencies on the system if it is designed right. Because internals of an application can provide more valuable and actionable alerts to take actions on critical cases or notice things like performance problems to be more proactive and take actions before things go down.

Logging, metrics and distributed tracing on the other hand are whitebox monitoring that refers to a category of monitoring tools and techniques that work with data reported from the internals of a system. I would like to write about these 3 pillars of observability in the scope of whitebox monitoring. When position these tools correctly you might not need to do blackbox monitoring that often, but still good to keep them on if you ask me.

  • Logging
  • Metrics
  • Distributed Tracing

What are the differences of this three and how we accomplish this foundation with these 3 pillars.


This is something probably the most systems I ever worked has implemented.

Logs are events happening in your system, these are detailed, prioritized messages from your system. I think thinking of logs are events in your system is not false idea.

The biggest drawbacks of logs is the expensive to process, store and ship. They contain data for every single request that happened to your system. If you are running your application on hundreds of servers you need to aggregate them carefully to a central location otherwise it becomes impossible to check them on each server.ELK is the most common stack here as you probably know.

By saying that, there are also some drawback of shipping all to logs to be aggregated centrally. If you are dealing with huge volume of traffic and you might need to think of what to ship, what not to ship (hint: correct logging levels) also you need to have the right scale for your aggregation clusters, in most cases elasticsearch cluster. It is not uncommon to have a cluster of elasticsearch to aggregate all the logs and it fails to catchup when there is a spike of logs on the days like Black Friday.

Libraries like SLF4J, log4j, log4net (there are lots of options depending on the tech stack you are on) are being used to create formatted plaintext logs. Most popular way of shipping your application logs is writing them to files on the disk and shipping them to ELK with tools like FileBeat. But your application can also ship your logs directly to your log aggregator. There are lots of options you can evaluate for your case. Once I developed a log4net appender which pushes logs as messages to ampq (we were using rabbitmq for this) then we were using logstash to receive logs from rabbitmq and insert them to elasticsearch then visualize with Kibana.

Recently we started to use Docker Engine to ship our logs. Docker added a feature to ship logs to central log repositories like ELK stack. Most of central logging repositories I know support Graylog Extended Log Format (GELF) and I believe that is how docker engine ships.

You can also get logs from your infrastructure tools. Most of the popular message brokers (things like kafka, rabbitmq, nsq), HTTP reverse proxies, load balancers, databases, firewalls, application servers, middlewares provide their logs and you can ship them to your central log aggregators.




Metrics are numbers that aggregatable and measured over intervals of time as time series data. Metrics are optimized for storage, processing of the data since they are just numbers aggregated over intervals of time.

One of the advantages of metrics based monitoring is overhead of metrics generation and storage is constant, it does not change like logs based monitoring in direct proportion to the increase of the system load. That means Disk or processing utilization does not change based on the increase of traffic. Disk storage utilization only increase based on data on time series database being captured, which happens when you add new metrics’ in your instrumentation in your application code or when you spin up new services/containers/hosts.

Prometheus (p8s) clients does not send each and every metric to the p8s. Popular prometheus client libraries, for example Coda Hale’s popular metricslibrary (and it is java but this project direct ports to different languages) aggregates time series data in your application process and generates metrics output based on in-process calculations. I recommend watching his presentation on youtube if you want to learn more about his metrics library.

So, you need to add instrumentation to your application code first if you want to start using Prometheus to collect metrics from your application. You can find a list of client libraries on p8s web site. Prometheus works pull based basically you use one of the available to collect metrics in your application and then expose them on your application as accessible via HTTP, generally /metrics endpoint in your application. Then you go an configure prometheus to scrape metrics from your application every few seconds.

Metrics are far more efficient than querying and aggregating log data. But logs can give you exact data, if you want to get exact average of response times of your server you can log them and then write aggregation queries on elasticsearch. We have to member that metrics are not hundred percent accurate, they relay on some statistical algorithm. Tools like Prometheus and popular metrics client libraries implements some advanced algorithms to give us most accurate numbers. Do not get me wrong! I am not saying use logs, I am saying use both, logs and metrics for the right purpose.

Finally if you are want to learn Prometheus from strach and if you like learning it from vides like me, I highly recommend this talk: Infrastructure and application monitoring using Prometheus by Marco Pas

Once you collect all your metrics in Prometheus, you can use Grafana to visualize those metrics.

  Metrics on Prometheus

Metrics on Prometheus

 Prometheus data visualized on Grafana

Prometheus data visualized on Grafana

What should I collect?

Once you have the setup to collect your own this is the question you need to answer. If you are adding metrics for a microservice;

Firstly, I would recommend you to start with capturing number of requests to observe how busy your service is and how many requests you receive per second/minute. Number of Requests

Secondly, I would say start capturing your service’s service time. Basically duration of each request to capture what is your service’s latency. Service Response Time

And, I would say capture number of erroneous requests to observe of what percentage of the requests coming to your service are failing. Error rate of requests.

Lastly, always check %95 percentile if you are not sure what percentile to check. Mean time or average is a happy picture if you want to trick yourself.

There will be very specific cases for your application, these are just some suggestions you can start to think of. For example in our last project we wanted to measure ETL processing time of each product. We captured each product’s update rate in the underlying system and we calculated the time it took to get to the end of the ETL pipeline. So this way we wanted to see if there is a bottleneck in the Kafka based data streaming pipeline. This way we could observe each stage of data streaming pipeline to identify bottleneck and provision new Kafka Streams containers or Kafka Connect containers when needed.

 Monitoring product update latency on our Kafka data streaming pipeline.

Monitoring product update latency on our Kafka data streaming pipeline.

Logs and metrics both needs to exists in your application monitoring stack and they need to be owned by the your team to build, not an IT Ops team. Logs can give you insight about each single request and look for details of what happened exactly at a specific time but metrics can show you context and understand trends in our system.

Distributed Tracing

When logs can give you insight about a specific time and see what happened it is hard to correlate them when you are building a distributed system. Especially in the era of microservices, a request from a customer can cause hundreds of different service calls in your application.

Monitoring calls that took longer than expected, call that are failed, why they are failed can be hard to do with logs. Also finding matching logs with a unique request id is something you can accomplish but it would still be hard to query slowest calls that my customers faced.

Google published a paper with the title Dapper, a Large-Scale Distributed Systems Tracing Infrastructure at 2010. They talked about how they trace distributed calls. June 2012 Twitter open sourced their internal distributed tracing project, Zipkin.

So if you are in the world of microservices and working on distributed system, you can imagine how valuable to have a visual of correlated distributed calls between services. I tried Zipkin in it’s early years and it was not easy to setup but now in the era of container, it is just one single command. But everyone was not using it and still not using probably. OpenTracing was introduced as one single standard as all OSS projects and your application code to instrument your code without depending on one particular tracing vendor.

So now, you can use one of the listed open source client libraries to instrument your code and publish this span information to one of the supported tracers (ZipkinJaeger, Appdash, LightStep, Hawkular, Instane and more).

If you remember your browsers developer tools and check network tab which calls are being made, it gives you very good insight about what your browsers does, which calls are made in parallell, which ones are taking too long to process and makes your customer wait. Distributed tracers gives you this kind of visualization, on server side.

For example, you can see which of your services being called, which ones take longer than expected or which ones fail when you receive a request to get list of products under a specific category, order by prices.

Zipkin interface let’s you query by longest and shortest duration of call stack. So you can focus on your low performing calls and understand which part of the system being a bottleneck. You can also get visualization of dependencies between services which becomes very valuable when you have hundreds of systems talking to each other.

 A detailed view of a Zipkin trace

A detailed view of a Zipkin trace

Monitoring and Observability

Observability — Why Is Naming So Hard? - William Louth