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Application Performance Monitoring (APM), tracing, and observability are fundamental software development and system management approaches. Each of these three concepts uniquely ensures that your applications operate, efficiently, smoothly, and reliably. Your organisation will more than likely already adopt one of these approaches, or even two, potentially all three.

But, whilst these concepts are similar in monitoring and maintaining systems, they do have their differences. These differences can highlight which of the three approaches would be most appropriate and effective for your organisation. So, to assist you, within this article, we will break down the advantages and disadvantages of each approach so you can make an informed decision on how to tackle system management.


What is APM?

APM, which stands for application performance monitoring, is a set of tools and practices used in software development and IT operations to view and maintain the availability and performance of applications and services. APM solutions aim to present insights into how applications are performing, helping organizations ensure that their software systems run efficiently and meet user expectations.

A great example of an APM solution is Our solution combines the expected features of an APM tool, such as the ability to understand application performance in real-time so that you can simply rectify and highlight the root cause of errors. With the best attributes of open-search technology with access to OpenSearch and the ELK Stack alongside the metrics monitoring abilities of managed Grafana & hosted Prometheus.

What is Tracing?

Tracing, whilst similar to APM, as it is used to track and monitor various components of an application or distributed system, the main difference lies with tracing focusing on the flow of requests or transactions through these systems. Tracing supplies comprehensive insights into how a specific request is processed as it traverses different services, microservices, or components. This information is important for diagnosing performance issues, identifying bottlenecks, and improving the performance of complex and distributed systems.

A crucial component of tracing is spans. A span represents a certain operation or segment of a request's journey through the system. Spans collect vital data like the start and end times, the service or component responsible for the operation, and any metadata related to the span.

What is Observability?

Observability refers to the capability to comprehend and infer the internal state and behavior of a system based on its external outputs or observations. To effectively conduct this you have to gather data from multiple sources within a system. These sources can include logs, metrics, traces, and events. Once you’ve collected sufficient data you can utilise data correlation and connect the dots between logs, metrics, traces, and other data points to gain a thorough view of system behaviour and performance. Correlation allows you to recognise how events in one part of the system affect other parts.

Observability is built on logs, metrics, and traces, often regarded as the three pillars of observability. Logs are the structured or unstructured records of events, activities, or messages generated by software applications, services, or systems. Metrics are the quantitative measurements and data points that supply a numerical representation of various aspects of a software application or system. Finally, traces refer to a structured representation of the journey of a specific request as it progresses via various components and services within a software application or a distributed system.

APM vs Observability

Beginning with some similarities between APM and observability, as we outlined earlier with the definitions of the terms, it’s clear that there is some overlap, with a reductionist view, both concepts aid the user in determining the operation of a system. One similarity between the two approaches is that they both take proactive approaches to issue detection. They enable organizations to find and address problems before they impact user experience or system reliability. By highlighting performance bottlenecks and potential issues early, organizations can enhance system performance and reduce downtime.

Another similarity between APM and Observability is that they both have visualisation and analysis capabilities. APM tools offer dashboards and visualization abilities adjusted to application performance metrics. They supply a user-centric view of application health and performance trends. Regarding observability, these platforms present visualization and analysis tools for a wider spectrum of data. These tools can aid operators and developers in correlating data from multiple sources. This allows them to attain knowledge of behavior across the entire system or application.

Moving onto the differences between the two concepts, the first example is granularity. APM supplies a top-level perspective of application performance. It presents insights into the overall health of an application or service, concentrating on metrics such as response times and error rates. It is mainly concerned with optimizing the user experience. Whereas, observability delivers a more granular view. It enables the user to deep dive into the internals of the system, tracking interactions between components and understanding how different parts of the system contribute to the overall behavior.

APM vs Tracing

Focusing on the similarities between APM and tracing, an example of this is root cause analysis APM tools are able to execute root cause analysis by monitoring and correlating many performance metrics and highlighting potential issues that impact application performance. Similarly, tracing excels at root cause analysis for particular transactions. By supplying comprehensive information regarding each component's contribution to a request's latency, tracing aids in pinpointing performance bottlenecks at the granular level, making it much simpler to find and address certain issues.

A difference between the two concepts is their use cases. For example, APM is applicable for monitoring and optimizing overall application performance and user experience. It is beneficial for identifying performance trends, resource bottlenecks, and problems that affect a broad range of users. In contrast, tracing is particularly beneficial for diagnosing and enhancing particular performance issues within an application or system. It transcends in situations where you must understand the precise flow of a transaction, pinpoint bottlenecks, and enhance individual components or services.

Observability vs Tracing

For observability and tracing, a key similarity between the two approaches is that they both cross-reference data. Observability supports the correlation of data from varying sources. For example, you can correlate logs with metrics or traces to gain a more complete picture of system behaviour. This cross-referencing helps in diagnosing problems and understanding their impact. Likewise, tracing requires correlating spans and traces with more data sources. When analyzing a particular transaction's performance, you potentially need to cross-reference trace data with logs or metrics to highlight bottlenecks and root causes.

Regarding differences between the two practices, a potentially obvious one is the differing scope and purpose. Observability is a holistic approach to comprehending and monitoring software systems. It surrounds a broad range of data sources, including logs, metrics, traces, and more. The primary goal of observability is to supply a detailed perspective of system behaviour, health, and performance, making it acceptable for diagnosing issues, understanding complex interactions, and enhancing systems. Whereas tracing is a particular technique within observability. It centres on following the flow of individual requests or transactions as they are sent through various components or services that make up a system. Tracing aims to supply a thorough, transaction-level perspective of how certain operations are carried out and where bottlenecks may happen.

In conclusion, while APM supplies you with an outline of your application's performance, tracing aids you in deep diving into the characteristics of request flows, and observability provides a comprehensive understanding of your system's behaviour. Selecting the correct approach or combination of these techniques for your organisation is determined by your specific monitoring and debugging needs, as well as the complexity of your application architecture.

If you enjoyed this article why not read The Leading APM Use Cases or Observability vs Monitoring?

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