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What is full-stack observability?

28 Aug 2020

Article by New Relic vice president customer solution APJ, Jill Macmurchy.

While the terms ‘monitoring’ and ‘observability’ may seem interchangeable, there’s a distinct difference between the two. 

Monitoring delivers automated checks for predefined problems that informs IT teams when an issue has occurred. Observability - while including monitoring capabilities - has a broader mission: to let teams ask open-ended questions, to explore data to a granular level, and to provide answers to the unknowns.

As technology, and the infrastructure that hosts it, have become increasingly complex, monitoring on its own isn’t an effective strategy to ensure that quality software is developed and tested in order to then perform at its best in production. Full-stack observability enables businesses to view their entire estate across the full software development chain in one place. 

Shifting from a monitoring to an observability mindset is crucial to modern tech environments. Below are three key outcomes of a successful observability strategy.

Resolving issues quickly and effectively

Full-stack observability is about capturing metrics, events, logs and trace data from software and making it available to teams to enable the best software performance and most effective response to an issue. 

Speed and collaboration are critical to effective incident response. Currently, most organisations use multiple monitoring tools with different user interfaces, and each generates their own alerts, thus creating data silos and alert noise. 

The context shifting and tool hopping required to understand the root cause of an incident leads to guesswork and delays in resolving issues.

Knowing why something happened means steps can be taken to prevent future problems. 

For example, Australian telco amaysim suffered a regular mid-morning slowdown in processing speed, but had no idea why. By leveraging their observability insights, its tech team was able to uncover that the issue could be attributed to an overnight process that regularly ran beyond 9 am, when customer support processes were placing increased demands on infrastructure. This insight enabled the company to reschedule its processes and prevent the issue from occurring again in the future.

Deliver a better customer experience

According to mobile app developer Dot Com Infoway, 62% of people uninstall an app if they experience mobile crashes, freezes or errors. 

Today, customers expect more and tolerate less. Slow, error-prone, or poorly designed user experiences will result in customers going elsewhere. If they can’t do what they came to do, they won’t come back – especially if they’ve found a competitor offering a better experience.

Observability enables engineers to deliver excellent customer experiences. Issues can be pinpointed, prioritised and resolved much more quickly than traditional monitoring – with the process ideally taking place before customers ever become aware of them. 

With meaningful data, IT teams are given the insights that they need to move at speed with less risk, which drives the growth of digital business.

When Insurance Australia Group (IAG) had a critical payment site go down, it had the potential to be damaging by causing lost or delayed business. Thanks to increased observability, the company was able to identify precisely where transactions were getting blocked and immediately work to resolve the issue - all within a couple of minutes.

Work smarter, not harder

As technology evolves, the degree of complexity and fragmentation of software architecture is increasing. 

Today, organisations build microservice architectures and distributed systems on a wide range of cloud providers and computing platforms. As individual applications are deconstructed into potentially dozens of microservices, SRE and IT Ops teams face a complexity of scale. They’re now responsible for services they know little about, yet must maintain.

This creates a skills gap, with team members having to troubleshoot parts of an app they may not be familiar with. 

A database expert, for example, now must know about networking, as well as APIs. The number of new and different technologies becomes too extensive for any one person to master.

An observability platform provides a single pane of glass over an entire environment (from dev to prod): a high-level view that shows how all systems are performing. 

By analysing the data from these systems and correlating it with metadata, the entities producing it can be identified and connected - and the relationships between them understood in a much more comprehensive way. This gives data context and meaning, which helps bridge the skills gap. 

Data is made accessible even to those who aren’t familiar with a particular technology or code, which makes observability one of the most powerful tools available to tech teams today.

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