Many development teams have adopted a microservices architecture that enables them to deploy their applications across distributed environments. Although this makes the applications easier to build, deliver and scale, it can also make it more difficult to track and troubleshoot the components that make up the environment. Yet organizations need visibility into these components to understand how their applications are behaving. For this reason, many have turned to observability tools, which enable them to monitor their distributed systems and respond quickly to any problems with the application delivery.
What are observability tools?
An observability tool provides a centralized platform for aggregating and visualizing telemetric data that has been collected from application and infrastructure components in a distributed environment. The tool monitors and analyzes application behavior and the various types of infrastructure that support application delivery, making it possible to proactively address issues before they become serious concerns.
An effective observability platform is more than just a monitoring tool. It builds on traditional monitoring capabilities, but provides deeper insights into the data that can help to optimize performance, ensure availability and improve the customer experience. To achieve this, most observability tools collect and aggregate three types of telemetry data:
- Metrics. Measurements of how a service or component performs over time. For example, an observability tool might gather metrics about memory usage, bandwidth utilization, HTTP requests per second or an assortment of other systems.
- Logs. Records of events that occur on a specific system or application. The event information might be recorded as plain text, as structured data or in a binary format. Event logs are often the first thing administrators and developers look at when troubleshooting system or application issues.
- Traces. Representational profiles of entire processes as they're carried out across a distributed system. A trace links together the events in a single request or transaction to provide a complete picture of how it flows from one point to the next. For example, traces can show how applications are contending for network and storage resources.
These three types of telemetry data are often referred to as the pillars of observability because of the important roles they play. Metrics, logs and traces provide organizations with the data they need to understand when and why a distributed application is behaving the way it is. With the right observability platform, organizations have visibility into all layers of the application stack, enabling them to gain comprehensive insights into their distributed systems over the long term.
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Top observability tools in 2023
A number of vendors now offer observability tools, but it's not always clear how they differ, or which ones might provide the greatest benefits for an organization's particular circumstances. Here we look at seven of the leading observability tools on the market, presented in alphabetical order:
AppDynamics, which is part of Cisco, is a full-stack observability platform that provides comprehensive application performance monitoring. The platform can identify the root causes of application problems in real time, with visibility into all layers of the application stack from third-party APIs to code-level visibility. AppDynamics can also visualize infrastructure components, correlate performance with key business metrics, and detect application code and security vulnerabilities. In addition, the platform can visualize the digital experience between an organization's users and its business.
- Platform. AppDynamics is offered as an on-premises platform and as SaaS. In addition, the company just introduced AppDynamics Cloud, although it's not yet clear how this service will differ from the SaaS offering.
- Coverage. The platform can monitor infrastructure, applications, databases, end users and business performance.
- Communications. Agents -- plugins or extensions -- installed on the monitored systems collect telemetric data and send it to the central controller, whether implemented on premises or as SaaS.
- Plans. AppDynamics is available in four editions: Infrastructure Monitoring, Premium, Enterprise and Real User Monitoring.
- Free trial. A 15-day free trial of the SaaS offering is available.
The Datadog observability platform offers full visibility into each layer of a distributed environment, with built-in support for more than 500 third-party integrations. The platform provides a single pane of glass for troubleshooting distributed systems, optimizing application performance and supporting cross-team collaboration. Datadog pairs automatic scaling and deployment with intuitive tools that incorporate machine learning for more reliable insights into applications and infrastructure.
- Platform. Datadog is delivered as SaaS.
- Coverage. The platform can monitor infrastructure, applications, databases, network performance and the full DevOps stack, with support for user and network monitoring, synthetic monitoring, and log and incident management.
- Communications. Open source agents running on the monitored systems report metrics and events to the Datadog platform. The agents can run on bare metal or within containers.
- Plans. Datadog offers a wide range of subscription plans, such as Infrastructure, Log Management, Incident Management, APM & Continuous Profiler and numerous others. Many of these plans are broken down into multiple subplans.
- Free trial. A 14-day free trial is available.
Dynatrace provides an integrated platform for monitoring infrastructure and applications, including networks, mobile apps and server-side services. The platform can also analyze the performance of user interactions with applications and includes an AI-driven causation engine that supports root cause analysis. Dynatrace supports more than 600 third-party technologies and is built on open standards that enable organizations to extend the platform by using the Dynatrace API, SDK or plugins.
- Platform. Dynatrace is typically delivered as SaaS, but the vendor also offers an on-premises option that delivers managed services to the customer's hardware.
- Coverage. Dynatrace can monitor infrastructure, applications, microservices and application security, as well as support digital experience monitoring and business analytics.
- Communications. An agent runs on each monitored host, collecting system, application, network and log data, and sends the data to the Dynatrace platform.
- Plans. The platform supports six plans: Full-Stack Monitoring, Infrastructure Monitoring, Digital Experience Monitoring, Application Security, Open Ingestion and Cloud Automation.
- Free trial. A 15-day free trial is available.
Grafana offers a centralized platform for exploring and visualizing metrics, logs and traces. The platform includes alerting capabilities and provides tools for turning time series database data into insightful graphs and visualizations. From a central interface, users can create a rich set of dashboards that display telemetric data from a wide range of sources, including Kubernetes clusters, multiple cloud services, Raspberry Pi devices and services such as Google Sheets.
- Platform. Grafana Cloud is available as a fully managed cloud service. Grafana Enterprise Stack is a self-managed platform that can be implemented on premises or in the cloud.
- Coverage. Grafana can monitor infrastructure, applications, data sources, microservices and third-party platforms.
- Communications. Grafana's open source agent runs on monitored devices and collects metrics, logs and traces. The agent then forwards the telemetry data to the Grafana platform, whether running in the cloud or on premises.
- Plans. Grafana Cloud is available in three subscription plans: Free, Pro and Advanced. Organizations must contact Grafana for details about Enterprise Stack plans. Grafana also offers the open source OSS and Enterprise editions, the latter of which is a pared-down version of Enterprise Stack.
- Free trial. Organizations can try out Grafana Cloud through the free service, or download the OSS or Enterprise edition and use it for free.
Lightstep is a unified observability platform that provides real-time insights into applications and infrastructure, offering both visibility and context across service boundaries. The platform can automatically detect changes to applications, infrastructure and user experience, and provide details about their causes. It also offers advanced troubleshooting capabilities that include structured views of the investigation steps. Users can aggregate and visualize data across large-scale operations that incorporate millions of devices, users and customers.
- Platform. Lightstep is implemented as SaaS, but uses local or cloud-based microsatellites that bridge the monitored components and Lightstep platform.
- Coverage. Lightstep provides visibility into infrastructure, applications, runtimes, cloud platforms and other third-party services, with support for a wide range of languages, frameworks and platforms.
- Communications. Lightstep uses OpenTelemetry launchers, Jaeger agents or Zipkin to collect telemetry data, which is then fed to the microsatellites that communicate with the Lightstep platform.
- Plans. Lightstep offers three subscription plans: Community, Teams and Enterprise. The Community edition is free.
- Free trial. Organizations can try Lightstep through the free Community plan.
6. New Relic
The New Relic observability platform is made up of multiple tools that provide full-stack monitoring across applications and infrastructure. This includes Kubernetes, browser, mobile, network and synthetic monitoring. The platform also provides log management and error tracking, as well as CodeStream integration, which offers a developer collaboration platform. In addition, New Relic integrates with more than 470 third-party technologies and uses applied intelligence to provide automatic insights into an incident's root causes.
- Platform. New Relic is implemented as SaaS.
- Coverage. New Relic monitors infrastructure, applications, networks, Kubernetes environments and other platforms. It also supports log management, as well as mobile and browser monitoring.
- Communications. Agents installed on hosts or within applications send performance data to the New Relic platform. New Relic also provides native support for OpenTelemetry.
- Plans. New Relic offers four subscription plans: Free, Standard, Pro and Enterprise.
- Free trial. Organizations can try New Relic through the Free plan.
Splunk is an extensible platform that provides full-stack observability and unified security. Splunk is data source agnostic, supports more than 2,400 Splunkbase apps and add-ons, and can ingest telemetry data from across the entire technology landscape, including multi-cloud, hybrid cloud and edge environments. The platform includes built-in automation and AI-enhanced orchestration capabilities. It also includes streaming analytics that provide actionable insights in near real-time and facilitate fast incident response.
- Platform. The Splunk platform is available both as a cloud service, Splunk Cloud Platform, and as a downloadable on-premises platform, Splunk Enterprise. Splunk also offers several individual observability products.
- Coverage. Splunk can monitor infrastructure, applications, networks, microservices and third-party platforms.
- Communications. Splunk uses a combination of agents, forwarders, indexers and search heads to collect data from monitored components, transform the data into indexed events and provide the data to platform users.
- Plans. Organizations must contact Splunk directly for details about Splunk Cloud Platform and Splunk Enterprise licensing plans. Plans vary for the individual products.
- Free trial. Splunk offers a 14-day free trial for Splunk Cloud Platform, a 60-day free trial for Splunk Enterprise and a 14-day free trial for the individual products.
How to choose the best observability tool for your business
Selecting an observability tool is no small task. Decision-makers must choose from a growing number of platforms whose differences aren't always apparent. At the same time, they must determine which tools best meet their specific needs -- both now and in the foreseeable future -- and are flexible enough to accommodate changing business requirements. When evaluating observability platforms, decision-makers should consider the following guidelines:
- The platform should be easy to deploy and manage, automate multiple processes, and provide an interface that's intuitive and easy to navigate.
- The vendor should provide ongoing support that includes timely updates and product improvements on a regular basis.
- The platform's underlying infrastructure and supporting components should be reliable and provide easy scalability, without adding undue overhead to IT operations.
- The platform should support and easily integrate with the languages, frameworks, platforms and tools that an organization is already using or plans to use to support its distributed applications.
- The platform should provide organizations with comprehensive, real-time visibility into their monitored applications and infrastructure, while delivering the data necessary to make critical business decisions.
- Administrators should be able to easily access telemetry data, reports, visualizations, KPIs and other information from a centralized dashboard to quickly and easily gain real-time insights into the collected data.
- The platform should have the ability to generate alerts and notifications that ensure critical information gets to the right people as quickly as possible.
- The platform should incorporate AI, machine learning, advanced analytics or other advanced technologies to help better use the collected telemetry data.
- The platform should offer predictable and competitive pricing that enables customers to operate within budget.
Ultimately, an observability tool must be able to help organizations optimize application delivery, improve the customer experience and meet their business goals. To this end, decision-makers should evaluate prospective platforms based on the tools, processes and infrastructure they use to support their distributed applications, looking for platforms that help them gather and understand their telemetry data. Only then will they be able to implement an observability strategy that can help them meet the challenges that come with modern applications.