Using OpenTelemetry to Enable Observability

Learning objectives

• Learn what OpenTelemetry is

• Understand how OpenTelemetry can help enable observability

• Learn how to use OpenTelemetry to enable observability

• Understand the differences between OpenTelemetry and observability

OpenTelemetry is an open-source project that develops tools to help applications expose observability data. OpenTelemetry aims to make it easy for developers to instrument the code necessary for their applications to generate logs, metrics, and distributed traces.

OpenTelemetry provides a series of Software Development Kits (SDKs), APIs, and data collectors that programmers can integrate into the applications they build. In turn, observability tools that support OpenTelemetry can use these SDKs, APIs, and collectors to pull the data they need to understand the state of an application.

How Observability and OpenTelemetry Go Hand-In-Hand

Thus, it's fair to say that OpenTelemetry helps to enable observability. It provides tooling that organizations can use to streamline collecting observability data.

Importantly, this doesn't mean that you need to use OpenTelemetry as part of an observability strategy. There are many other ways to expose and collect observability data without OpenTelemetry. For example, many observability platforms provide their own proprietary data collection agents, which you can integrate with your applications. Or, for cloud-based applications and services, you can often expose at least some observability data using your cloud provider's tooling or APIs rather than OpenTelemetry.

Note that implementing OpenTelemetry support within an application doesn't translate to observability. OpenTelemetry only helps you expose and collect observability data. It doesn't analyze that data for you or help you take action based on the results of your analytics processes. The latter workflows require observability tools that can collect data via the frameworks provided by OpenTelemetry, then help users make sense of that data.

The key selling point of OpenTelemetry is that it has become a widely used, standardized solution for exposing and collecting observability data. It's supported by virtually all of the significant observability platforms today. As long as you use it to make your application observable, you can observe the application using a tool of your choice without worrying about becoming locked into a specific vendor or having to implement complex, proprietary agents.

Differences Between Observability and OpenTelemetry

While OpenTelemetry makes observability simple and standardized, OpenTelemetry is not the same thing as observability.

The difference between observability and OpenTelemetry is simple enough: whereas the former is a process, the latter is a specific set of tools that help to enable that process.

If you like analogies, you can think of the difference: observability is like a house, whereas OpenTelemetry is a specific set of tools that can help you build the house. It's not the only way to make the house, but it's the most common and straightforward way.

Better Together

The bottom line is that you don't have to use OpenTelemetry to achieve observability, and OpenTelemetry doesn't lead to it. However, by streamlining and standardizing the process of generating observability data, OpenTelemetry makes it faster and easier to observe modern software environments. Integrating OpenTelemetry into your applications is a wise investment if you want observability.

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