Observability: Evaluate the Performance of Complex Systems

By Jeff Bozic, Principal Architect

What is observability?

Typically, when we look at an IT environment, visibility, performance, and reliability management can be very siloed. Network teams will focus on network monitoring and performance, security has tools for capturing security events and logging, and so on. But what if we could take all the important data from these different sources and correlate them with a unified platform for better visualization of our system's health so we can quickly identify and remediate issues? This idea of a holistic and transparent view of health and performance across complex systems is what we refer to as observability.

With observability, it isn’t just siloed teams that are responsible for all the tracking and monitoring of their domain; there are correlated and unified, end-to-end views of where all the parts of the system and application are related and can be observed. This management can ensure organizations continually drive better visibility and identify and resolve performance and reliability issues early while minimizing their impact — potentially even before an impact to service levels.

The power of democratizing data

Observability allows us to understand and evaluate our complex, distributed IT systems end to end while providing a channel for separate teams (data, security, infrastructure, and applications) to correlate their data in meaningful ways. This democratization of data allows for better system health monitoring and is made up of four data types, called MELT data:

  • Metrics: measure system health over a specified time period
  • Events: discrete actions that occur within the system and may or may not be recorded
  • Logs: time-stamped recorded messages of system and/or application activity
  • Traces: records of the entire journey of a user request or interaction with a system or application, touching all the different systems needed to make the request work

Without observability, separate teams only have their own datasets to work with, and trying to determine the root cause of system problems can be time-consuming and challenging. By giving these different teams the ability to holistically view their organization's systems that work together, they can identify the problem and streamline their approach to fixing it. Additionally, an observability platform can often even suggest or recommend resolution paths.

Exploring the benefits of observability

Observability is all about gaining visibility into the health and performance of our complex systems — but what does that mean when implemented? First and foremost, observability allows for a streamlined identification of the root cause of issues within IT systems, which in turn means those problems can be addressed sooner. Therefore, organizations can be more resilient; when issues are identified and subsequently resolved quicker, it means less fallout from problems going unchecked.

Furthermore, when performance issues can be resolved quickly, it means less downtime and an uninterrupted, better experience for users. Lastly, observability gives a business visibility into its entire architecture and a deep understanding of its systems and how to take advantage of them to reach business goals. This is often achieved by being able to deliver software value faster, more reliably, and more securely. With mature observability, organizations will be able to predict and tackle performance hiccups before they even become an issue.

Putting it into practice

For those looking to leverage observability in their organization, here are some tips for getting started:

  • Strategy
    • Organizations should set their strategy for leveraging observability based on their needs and business context. This might mean some Organizational Change Management (OCM) or defining processes for how different teams work together for effective observability. Treating MELT data as critical data that relates to business impact requires new muscles and disciplines in how an organization creates data pipelines and data lakes, and how this data is democratized across teams enabling the holistic benefits observability can provide. It is more than just some new tools, processes, and skills.
  • Tools
    • In order to get the visibility you’re looking for, you need the right platform and tooling to gather and aggregate data from your disparate systems and correlate it together in the context of your business and systems. However, there isn’t a magic bullet tool or platform that will work for everyone; organizations need to curate their own observability pipeline for their business context. Your tooling pipeline and platform should gather data from your systems, network, applications, and platforms, correlate them with intelligence to identify dependencies and relationships, and provide resolution and remediation recommendations.
  • Policies
    • For successful management of your observability data and process, your organization needs policies to guide it. For example, it should be determined what data is important to aggregate and monitor, where it will be stored, how long it should be retained, and who is responsible for managing these decisions. Policy also helps drive security and governance of your data.
  • Information
    • As mentioned previously, observability is about evaluating the relevant data and avoiding being overwhelmed by data points that won’t help with performance. To be successful, organizations need to focus on leveraging the right information, not all the information (or data) at their disposal. Observability platforms with the right operating disciplines can enable this huge benefit to your organization.

Looking to bring impactful observability to your organization?

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