Could Full-Stack Observability Help Lessen IT’s Burden?

The year 2020 was a landmark year for many reasons, other than the obvious. The IT world saw the first time that cloud service revenues dwarfed spending on data centers. Across the board, budgets have been increasing around cloud adoption. And in this ‘new normal,’ digital experiences are slated to remain just as crucial of a touchpoint as ever. In fact, new findings show that for 85% of users, digital applications are absolutely essential to their daily lives.

Rising digital demands mean reliance on the cloud is here to stay. But if organizations don’t right-size their cloud workloads, expenses could get out of control. Plus, maintaining world-class user experiences requires a keen insight into the overall performance of apps, systems and solutions. If teams aren’t continually monitoring application performance and business KPIs, the bottom line could suffer.

I recently met with Joe Byrne, AppDynamics Regional CTO, to discover what full-stack observability (FSO) means for today’s cloud-heavy applications. According to Byrne, DevOps and SRE teams should be maintaining a holistic view of the entire pulse of the application—including non-functional metrics (NFM) alongside traditional security and functional monitoring. Doing so could reduce time spent on root cause analysis and help ensure code is continually meeting business objectives.

What is Full-Stack Observability (FSO)?

In the classic definition, observability focuses on measuring the internal status of a system based on external outputs. Application performance monitoring (APM) typically tracks telemetry around logs, metrics and dependencies. IBM, for example, calls the observability trend “a natural evolution of APM data collection methods.”

Full-stack observability (FSO), said Byrne, takes this one step further to track business-related key performance indicators (KPIs) alongside additional, more traditional software metrics. “FSO helps understand that software is performing optimally and that it is meeting business objectives,” said Byrne. In this way, FSO takes a holistic view to determine not only if an application is functionally sound but if it’s meeting its end goals.

FSO would consider critical performance actions, such as user experience telemetry. For example, Byrne explains, an e-commerce website could find value in tracking performance levels such as login time, check out time and payment initiation. Tracking such metrics is necessary to pinpoint roadblocks and create actionable steps to remediate holes in the user journey, said Byrne. Increased visibility here could also help engineers quickly respond to issues to better optimize the user experience. In addition, aggregating information at a higher level—to view total products sold per day or total revenue per day, for instance—could inform overall progress.

How FSO Could Reduce IT Stress

“We’ve reached a point where people have moved away from brick and mortar and are going online,” said Byrne. These online spaces are more omnipresent — and valuable — than ever. The AppDynamics 2021 App Attention Index found that the average digital consumer uses 42 applications daily. Furthermore, 85% of people now say digital services are a critical part of how they get by in life.

Mounting digital reliance has resulted in rising digital complexity. Therefore, said Byrne, companies have been moving to the cloud for the ease of scalability, elasticity and the capability of cloud functions. Cloud-native abilities like serverless, Kubernetes, identity and access management (IAM) and other add-on services are helpful perks to avoid reinventing the wheel.

But of course, lifting and shifting all your current architecture to the cloud is costly; plus, it won’t necessarily eliminate application bugs. The user journey is increasingly vast, and broken touchpoints along the way could hinder performance. This is complicated by increasing third-party dependencies. Yet, more often than not, it is the application’s custom code that is having the issue, explained Byrne.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of full-stack observability is a reduction of remediation time. “If you don’t have perspective, it can take a long time to run down an issue,” said Byrne. “The cost of finding a root cause can be so expensive.” Having a quick window into network, application and infrastructure hiccups is necessary to quickly address issues and save potentially lost revenue.

Shifting Performance Monitoring Left

An Amazon study found that every 100ms of latency costs companies a 1% loss in sales. Knowing the reality of high user expectations, software companies must be especially proactive in how they scale to meet the needs of consumers. As 72% of users believe application problems are the brand’s responsibility, the onus is on companies to avoid negative brand reputation.

To spot performance hangups early on, Byrne encourages a shift-left attitude toward observability around business outcomes. To date, the shift-left mantra has focused more on code validation and security—necessary elements to rapidly deploy software updates. Now, adding performance testing could be the next iteration to further correlate each software push with end business outcomes.

“You want to see and validate as much as possible before production,” said Byrne. “Performance testing is a key piece in the overall success of an application.”

This could involve testing the load time for a specific endpoint—if a key action doesn’t meet a certain threshold, then it would not be promoted. Incorporating performance monitoring within a CI/CD process is a burgeoning practice also referred to as BizDevSecOps.

There’s No Going Back

The new normal is upon us, and it’s hard to imagine going back to any semblance of a world where there’s a decreased reliance on technology. From airline bookings to banking and grocery orders—software applications are now intrinsic to nearly every facet of modern life. To compete in such an economy, finely-tuned modular customer experiences that continually optimize business outcomes will truly set companies apart from the rest.

In short, to maintain high software standards, it’s essential to break down operational silos and work together as a team—the DevOps creed. End-to-end ecosystem visibility could help enable that, ensuring, in Byrne’s words, that “applications perform in a way that meets the needs of the business.”

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a tech journalist and analyst. His beat is cloud technologies, specifically the web API economy. He began researching APIs as an Associate Editor at ProgrammableWeb, and since 2015 has been the Editor at Nordic APIs, a high impact blog on API strategy for providers. He loves discovering new trends, researching new technology, and writing on topics like DevOps, REST design, GraphQL, SaaS marketing, IoT, AI, and more. He also gets out into the world to speak occasionally.

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