When it comes to your applications, the question to ask yourself is: “How helpful is monitoring if you aren’t proactively capturing the data you need to understand what is causing the errors you find?” The answer: Not very. That is why it is important for us to go beyond monitoring and work on expanding our capabilities in terms of observability.
When applied to the world of software, observability is how well you can understand what’s going on inside your application based on accessible outputs. Looking at this from outside the realm of errors and application failures, etc., observability might describe how well a developer understands how a certain feature works the way it does.
This example clearly shows that the metrics and context needed to attain what we can call a reasonable level of observability depends on the requirements of the individual system. We wouldn’t necessarily expect a developer at one company to understand how the features of another company’s application work behind the scenes. Likewise, an e-commerce application and a healthcare system will require different metrics to be observable.
Bringing Observability to the Team
Every company that operates software has at least the most basic level of observability thanks to log files. Unfortunately, in most cases we don’t know ahead of time what’s going to break, meaning no data gets logged. Occasionally, we may have a hunch that a certain method will be more likely to fail but even then, the data that’s written to the logs is usually shallow and requires additional investigation and context.
A key measure of observability is how well you can answer “why this happened” without needing to ask additional questions. Teams that rely heavily on log files to understand and troubleshoot issues generally have low observability, as we all know that the logs often lead to hours (if not days) of follow-up questions. To improve observability, it’s important to focus on proactive solutions.
Organizations, especially at the enterprise-level, use much more than log files to collect data around application errors and slowdowns. Application Performance Monitoring (APM) tools also play a significant part in most teams’ tooling stacks. Traditional APM tools provide additional context by helping teams identify when and where their application is experiencing performance or availability issues.
These tools, and more, are commonly used by companies to monitor application behavior and to investigate the root cause of issues. Each tool that provides additional context into the internal function of the application increases our observability. Once your tool stacks provide the full context needed to understand the root cause of any issue, you’ve reached a reasonable level of observability.
Creating a Culture that Supports Observability
Just like with every other buzzword in the industry–CI/CD, DevOps, etc.–achieving a reasonable level of observability means cultivating a culture that values and supports such a goal. There are several layers that need to be addressed and integrated together, but let’s break it down.
The first step is to create a quality-focused, team-wide engineering mindset toward system hygiene. From beginning to end all members of the team should be trained to build and employ code with quality, first and foremost. The mindset of engineers must go beyond the desire to write high-level code, but also involve the planning process and understanding the purpose behind code changes. It is using foresight to plan for the unpredictable as much as we can.
We all know that releasing code to production is basically “sending it out into the wild,” and we can all do a better job of making sure we have all the equipment we need to understand its behavior. That includes our mindset, as it forces us to consider our goal much earlier in development, namely by answering the following questions:
- What are we trying to improve?
- How can we measure success or failure?
- What metrics do we need to measure this?
Once this has been established, radical transparency and open communication follow naturally and further enable improvements in this area. When standards are established and issues are clearly communicated, problem areas in development can more easily be identified and resolved.
Without the human aspect in place, no tool in the world can give an organization a reasonable level of observability.
Observability is about more than just monitoring your system–it’s about understanding it. In order to achieve a higher level of observability, tooling and culture are two major factors that should be addressed. There are many different ways to attain the best level of observability for your organization, so understanding what you need in order to be proactive is crucial.