Path to Production: Observability

Steps on the Path

  • You MUST export metrics of your application
  • You SHALL enable tracing in your application
  • You MUST be thoughtful in writing information to logs
  • You MUST build a basic dashboard to understand your metrics

But why…?

Observability is a measure of how well internal states of a system can be inferred from knowledge of its external outputs.


One of the ideas of building a DevOps team is making sure that a system you build and support has enough logs, metrics, and traces available that you can understand what that system is doing.

Most teams have heard about and (hopefully) have instituted some kind of monitoring. They want to know if something goes bump in the night and be alerted to it before their users are aware of a problem. This is where implementing practices of Observability can come into play.

Think back to Physics class in school where you learned about the concept of a vector. Vectors are measurements which have magnitude and direction. An observable can be thought of as similar to a vector; they have a value (magnitude) and a trend (direction). Perhaps the number of hits to your website is something you want to monitor. This Metric (a type of observable) would have an instant value and a direction over time. Both are important in understanding the health of your system. Seventy-four requests per second might be a good scalar measurement in the context of your maximum throughput of 2000 requests per second. You’re well under your limit of capacity for your system. But if you compare it to yesterday’s or last week’s value at the same time period and see that normally you should have 420 requests per second, that Metric becomes a signal that something with your application is wrong. Both the instantaneous value and its relationship over time and possibly to other values (like latency) provide engineers a way to observe the system and act accordingly. Maybe a database is starved or your largest client is in maintenance mode. By building other Metrics into a dashboard, a DevOps team can understand whether there is a problem. Metrics are worth another separate post.

Sometimes an application can misbehave and a team does not want to show that behavior to their clients for a good reason. As a rule of thumb, engineers never want to leak exceptions back to UIs or API calls and prefer to show a “pretty” error message or an error code that can prompt a user or system to try again or choose a different circuit (more on that in a different post). At the same time, the team needs to know what is happening inside their application. On top of metrics that can show how many errors per second or the number of HTTP status codes being returned to clients, teams can also emit Logs to detail the errors happening inside the system. These Logs can help to diagnose something like a bad database query or malformed request to a downstream service. Logging takes finesse; the last thing a team wants is to build out a bunch of logging only to have it become useless because the error is buried in a stream of other messages. Choose carefully which exceptions to log, and combine those exception messages with enough data to diagnose an issue in a human-readable format.

Thirdly, the concept of Tracing has been gaining steam in the community. The CNCF recently announced the combining of OpenTracing and OpenCensus, two competing Tracing standards. Tracing is the act of following a request from system to system to understand its whole lifecycle. It blurs the boundaries between systems so that engineers are better able to understand the latencies that different backing services have on their request. If granular enough, it also allows teams to understand if an algorithm needs to be tuned. As an example, a point-of-sale system probably scans an item, looks up the price and tax, and displays it on the screen. When the next item is scanned, it does that again, until the user requests a total. When the user pays, their card is read, the data is encrypted and sent somewhere to be authorized, the payment is authorized, booked, and a receipt is printed for the customer. In those two scenarios (adding items to a cart, and performing a checkout) are very user-focused, so it is important for teams to understand how quickly those interactions with the user is happening. Does a particular scan gun model take longer to read the UPC? Does a type of credit card take longer to process than others? By capturing traces of interactions at this level of details, those who are able to tweak the interactions can better understand where gains can be made.

The three kinds of concepts I’ve covered here: Metrics, Logs, and Traces offer enough observability for any team to be able to actively manage and report against the performance of a system and possibly the happiness of a user. Happy users mean happy managers and keep you out of a War Room situation.


Path to Production for a DevOps Team

Most teams that I have worked on have been Waterfall development teams. Some of these teams didn’t write much software but rather supported vendor applications. The engineers, for the most part, were good at one thing and one thing only. There wasn’t the concept of Full-Stack ownership and certainly not of operating the software they built. There was no concept of Pair Programming and learning each other’s skills either.

Fast-forward to a more Agile world. Teams completely own the code, the deployment, and the support of that software on whatever infrastructure they choose. You can’t ship-and-forget anymore, nor would you want to since you’ll be the one who has to wake up when your PagerDuty alerts sound off at 3 am on a Sunday morning.

For engineers that have spent their entire careers just writing software, many of the DevOps practices in this new series will be new to them. That’s okay; the point of this new DevOps series of posts will be to illustrate and help guide those who are unfamiliar with concepts such as circuit breaking or observability. As I publish new articles, I will update the bulleted table of contents below with a link.

Table of Contents –

1. Observability
2. Authentication
3. Documentation
4. Resilience
5. Load Testing
6. Health Checks
7. Configuration Management
8. A Note About 12-Factor Applications

I hope you’ll all stay with me as I expand on this list and detail out my thoughts on these topics in the coming days and weeks.

print (“Hello world!”);

Welcome to my old new blog.

Once upon a time, in a different era of my life (2006) I thought that perhaps I should blog about my thoughts and feelings on different topics I came across throughout my day. I wasn’t employed at the time. Obviously, I should have been able to come up with all the content in the world, slap some AdSense all around it, and generate some money the same way literally everyone else was attempting to do back then.

Fast Forward to 2009. I got a real-boy grown-up job that utilized my B.S. in Computer Science. Finally, I’d made it. My old blog, not so much. It didn’t age well. I decided to let it die; I didn’t need the ad money and I didn’t have the time.

Today, however, at the encouragement of others (links below), I’ve decided to start blogging again. These posts will be highly technical in nature, in line with my work as a software engineer. There will be a mixture of hobbyist posts around personal finance (disclaimer), video games that I play, and dungeons and dragons. I will try to keep the posts on topic and in the spirit of software engineering and my personal hobbies.

If I find that the topics I discuss gain popularity, I might enable comments so we can have a discussion here. Otherwise, I might post them on relevant subreddits. I’m not going to take the time a lot of other bloggers and streams take in order to monetize this site, at least not at first. I’m being fully transparent in this first post; if my thoughts become popular, I will plop down a couple of (non-intrusive) AdSense ads, and I might use affiliate links where applicable. I will make sure to let you, the readers, know about this as transparently as I am allowed to do.

For now, this is a place to post my thoughts on the things I encounter when trying to write software. I hope you’ll enjoy the content and find some kind of knowledge within its words.

Thank you!


My Encouragement –
David Kowis:
Winston Milling:
Mitch Irvin:
Sanjay Nair: