What is observability? Software monitoring on steroids

The term “observability” started to gain serious momentum in software engineering circles around 2018, as a natural evolution of monitoring practices. By bringing together the raw outputs of metrics, events, logs, and traces, software developers could start to gain a real-time picture of how their software systems are performing and where issues might be occurring.

The concept itself, however, has deep roots in the broader engineering principles of control theory, where the measure of the internal state of a system can be observed using only its external outputs.

Now, with the broad shift towards distributed software systems through microservices and containers, the old adage of not being able to manage what you can’t measure has never been more relevant.

Observability vs. monitoring

For many people, observability will just sound like a convenient rebranding of application monitoring, and any skepticism around the latest industry buzzword is justified. However, as my colleague David Linthicum puts it, there is a basic difference: Monitoring “is something you do (a verb); observability is an attribute of a system (a noun),” he wrote.

Taking things one step further, engineering manager and technical blogger Ernest Mueller wrote back in 2018 that “observability is a property of a system. You can monitor a system using various instrumentation, but if the system doesn’t externalize its state well enough that you can figure out what’s actually going on in there, then you’re stuck.”

As developers have broken up their applications into smaller chunks—called microservices—hosted them in containers across distributed cloud servers, and deployed them continuously under the all-seeing eye of the devops team, the need for true observability has become increasingly critical.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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