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Distributed Systems Observability | The Ultimate Guide

Chandan Gaur | 17 April 2023

Distributed Systems Observability

Introduction to Distributed Systems Observability

Distributed systems are becoming more and more prevalent in today's world. As businesses grow, their IT infrastructures need to scale accordingly, and this often means adopting distributed systems to manage the increased load. However, as systems become more distributed, they also become more complex, making it harder to monitor and diagnose problems when they arise. This is where observability comes in.

What is Distributed Systems Observability?

Distributed systems observability is the ability to monitor and observe the state of distributed systems. It includes tools, techniques, and practices used to monitor and observe a system's behavior over time to detect issues before they impact users or customers.

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Distributed systems are characterized by having multiple components that operate independently from each other but must work together as part of an integrated whole. Distributed system observability covers all aspects of these complex environments: how they're designed (architecture), how they behave (behaviors), what's happening with those behaviors at any given moment--or over time--and why it matters if something goes wrong with them or not.

Why Observability is important in Distributed Systems?

When you have a distributed system, it can be challenging to monitor the behavior of each component. Each component may be hosted on a different server or run on a different platform, making it difficult to get a comprehensive view of the system as a whole. Observability can provide a way to monitor the performance and behavior of each component and the system as a whole.

In addition, distributed systems often have a high degree of interdependence between components. A failure in one component can cascade through the system, causing other components to fail. Observability can help you understand the cause of the failure and identify which components are affected, allowing you to diagnose and resolve the problem quickly.

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What are the types of Observability?

You can use metrics-based observability to get a general idea of your system's behavior. This type of monitoring provides statistics on CPU usage, memory consumption, and disk I/O. It also gives you an overview of the number of requests each service in your cluster is processing.

Logging-based observability offers more detailed information about individual requests by logging them to files or databases such as Elasticsearch. You can use this data to debug issues with specific requests and understand their performance characteristics better than if you were only using metrics alone (for example, how long did it take? How many times did it fail?).

Tracing allows you to see what happened during every request from the beginning until the end; it also lets you replay them later if needed so that someone else can reproduce what went wrong without having access or knowledge about your codebase or environment setup, which may differ from theirs (e..g., different versions). Tracing has some downsides, though: firstly, there's yet to be a standard format across languages, so developers need extra effort when implementing tracing functionality into their applications; secondly, because traces contain lots'o'data, they could become quite extensive over time leading up to storage problems too.

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What are the three pillars of Observability?

The three pillars of observability are logs, metrics, and traces. Even though simply having access to logs, metrics, and traces won't make systems more observable, these tools can unlock the capability to build better systems if understood well.

Event Logs

An event log is a timestamped, immutable record of discrete events. Event logs can take three forms, plaintext, structured, and binary. But they are fundamentally the same: a timestamp and some context.

To solve rare or infrequent pathologies of systems, excellent levels of granularity are often required. In particular, event logs provide insight and context into the long tail that averages and percentiles miss. Due to this, event logs are particularly useful for uncovering emergent and unpredictable behavior in distributed systems.

It is rare for complex distributed systems to fail because of one specific event occurring in one specific component. It is common for a highly connected graph of components to involve several potential triggers. There is no way to identify all triggers simply by examining discrete events that occurred in a system at some point.


Metrics represent the measurement of data over some time. With the help of mathematical modeling and prediction, metrics can provide insight into a system's behavior over time in the present and the future. Because metrics are optimized for storage, processing, compression, and retrieval, data can be stored for extended periods and retrieved quickly. Consequently, metrics are ideally suited to creating dashboards that reflect historical trends. In addition, metrics allow for gradual reductions in data resolution. Once data has been aggregated for a certain period, it can be categorized into daily and weekly frequency categories.


In a distributed system, a trace represents a causally related series of distributed events that encode the flow of requests from beginning to end. An event log's data structure is almost identical to that of traces, which are representations of logs. It is possible to see the path a request takes and its structure in a single trace.

Understanding the path of a request helps software engineers and SREs understand the different services involved in the path of a request, and understanding the structure of a request helps one understand the effects of asynchronous executions.

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What are the benefits of Distributed Systems Observability?

Distributed systems observability has several benefits that can help organizations manage their IT infrastructures more effectively. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Faster problem resolution: Observability can help you identify problems in distributed systems more quickly, allowing you to diagnose and resolve issues before they escalate. With the ability to monitor individual components and the system, you can pinpoint the source of problems and take corrective action faster.
  • Improved system reliability: By monitoring the behavior of individual components, you can identify potential issues before they become critical failures. This can help you improve the reliability of your systems, reduce downtime, and ensure that your business processes are running smoothly.
  • Better decision-making: Observability provides you with data that can be used to make informed decisions about your IT infrastructure. By monitoring performance metrics and other important data, you can identify trends and patterns that can help you optimize your systems and make better decisions about future investments.
  • Increased agility: Observability can help you adapt quickly to changes in your IT environment. By monitoring the behavior of individual components, you can identify performance issues and bottlenecks and make changes to improve system performance.
  • Reduced costs: By identifying and resolving issues more quickly, observability can help reduce the costs associated with downtime and lost productivity. In addition, by monitoring system performance and identifying trends, you can optimize your infrastructure to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

In summary, distributed systems observability is essential for managing complex IT infrastructures. By monitoring the behavior of individual components and the system, you can identify potential issues, diagnose problems, and take corrective action faster. This can help you improve system reliability, make better decisions, increase agility, and reduce costs.

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Observability is essential for managing distributed systems. By using observability techniques such as logging, metrics, tracing, and debugging tools, you can monitor the behavior of individual components and the system, identify performance issues, diagnose problems, and take corrective action. By implementing observability in your distributed systems, you can improve system reliability, reduce downtime, and ensure your business processes run smoothly.