Observability vs. Monitoring

By Staff Contributor on December 22, 2022

Today, organizations are moving toward distributed systems to provide top-notch application services. This trend has made both observability and monitoring essential practices. As observability and monitoring are often used interchangeably, many people tend to get confused. It’s crucial to understand the difference between the two to use the right approach for a given scenario.

Monitoring and observability are two-pronged approaches designed to help you identify the root cause of issues early on before they make a huge impact on your business. Let’s look at the differences and similarities between observability and monitoring so you can choose the right tools.

History of Monitoring and Observability

Monitoring is an old concept and has existed since the advent of the internet. However, there were no consistent standards for monitoring systems, IT devices, and applications until the advent of the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP). SNMP is a protocol designed to manage, collect, and organize data with the help of the unique IP addresses of the devices. Monitoring has become a crucial part of IT infrastructure. To achieve wider visibility and monitoring capabilities, observability came into existence when companies like Twitter started using cloud-native technologies to enable wider-reaching applications. Since observability offers advanced capabilities and robust features and goes beyond the basic capabilities of monitoring tools, companies prefer observability over monitoring. Most organizations have started introducing observability as a service in their data management strategies.

What Are Observability and Monitoring?

Observability and monitoring are often put under the same category for IT software development and operations (DevOps) strategies. Though both possess complementary capabilities and play a key role in keeping your systems up-to-date, error-free, safe, and secure, they have specific differences. Let’s look at how we define each term to fully understand how observability and monitoring support your IT goals and needs. 

What Is Observability?

Observability is a practice you can employ to determine how the internal states of your system, network, and applications are performing based on their external output. It works on three major vital indicators—known as events or logs, traces, and metrics—to measure the performance of systems in your IT infrastructure. Observability relies heavily on telemetric data derived from instrumentation to help you understand the root cause of the issues of your IT endpoints, services, and multi-cloud computing environment. With this information, IT teams can proactively identify abnormalities, analyze issues, and troubleshoot errors. 

What Is Monitoring?

Observability starts with monitoring systems. Monitoring is defined as the analysis of data gathered from your IT environment. It helps IT administrators understand how their IT infrastructure is performing by monitoring traffic, applications, malfunctions, and disruptions. Gathering insights from multiple systems, devices, and applications requires monitoring tools designed to automate the process and provide accurate metrics related to the health and performance of your IT infrastructure. Monitoring gives you information about application usage patterns, traffic, and more.

What Are the Similarities Between Observability and Monitoring?

Monitoring and observability are related to two extremely important foundations of DevOps. When monitoring applications, you need to review a plethora of metrics and reports simultaneously to determine the health and performance of your applications. DevOps teams follow this practice of collecting, monitoring, and displaying data from different IT systems to check whether their systems and applications are experiencing issues. However, without monitoring, observability isn’t possible and it becomes difficult for teams to identify the root cause of issues. Observability and monitoring work together to provide deeper insights into the critical data of your IT infrastructure. Though monitoring can alert teams of a specific issue or an outage, observability helps teams identify the root causes. In scenarios where you can’t measure a particular device or endpoint, monitoring can play a key role in determining its status and can provide more critical information to help diagnose the problem. Monitoring and observability both provide the visibility required to run a health or performance check for various endpoints in an IT infrastructure.

What’s the Difference Between Observability and Monitoring?

The major difference between the two is monitoring collects and identifies predetermined data gathered from individual systems, whereas observability aggregates all the data generated by IT endpoints. Monitoring tools have predefined and custom dashboards IT teams can use to collate and analyze data from different devices, applications, and endpoints. These dashboards display data related to health and performance, usage, and metrics for troubleshooting various issues. Dashboards can show limited information and reveal performance issues, but this information isn’t enough for monitoring cloud-native complex applications. It’s challenging for IT teams to monitor and measure multifaceted and unpredictable security issues with limited information available.

On the other hand, observability plays a critical role in evaluating your entire IT infrastructure. Observability provides deeper insights into necessary elements—such as user behavior and application or device status—to protect your systems from unauthorized access. Moreover, it collates events, logs, traces, and metrics from your IT infrastructure to help you measure performance issues accurately. The data generated from observability can be used to measure the inputs and outputs of multiple programs, applications, servers, microservices, databases, and more. With its actionable insights, detecting bugs becomes a lot easier. Moreover, with its consistent logging capabilities, you can watch out for any abnormalities within your system in a fraction of a second.

Observability and Monitoring: Which Is Better?

One of the most asked questions is “Which model is best to use across my IT environments?”

Monitoring typically provides a limited view of IT infrastructure mostly focused on individual metrics. Organizations use monitoring when system failure modes are already known. It focuses on key indicators, such as system usage, throughput, bandwidth usage, and overall system performance. For instance, monitoring a database requires data about latency, disk, or average query response time. Experienced database administrators can easily spot problems, which makes monitoring easy. They can detect issues like spikes in memory and CPU utilization. In such cases, monitoring provides numbers to understand the exact status of issues.

Observability is essential for DBAs to debug their systems because it helps them analyze the root causes of issues. Developers should use observability and monitoring together to obtain the best results. Using observability tools, developers can easily monitor and observe systems along with telemetry data. Many organizations prefer using observability tools rather than monitoring to support different IT teams and quickly detect, monitor, and troubleshoot issues.

Why Do Monitoring and Observability Need a Next-Gen Approach?

Both monitoring and observability are vital for managing and improving complex microservices-based applications. As both approaches include the use of basic telemetry data, it isn’t enough to resolve complex errors and outages. Many organizations have realized many tools lack contextual insights, which are important because they help IT pros understand the problem. Organizations are looking to observability as a next-generation approach to provide insightful data required for contextualized analysis. Observability tools can be used to handle complex, unpredictable, and interdependent systems. 

Top Observability and Monitoring Tools

  • SolarWinds AppOptics: SolarWinds® AppOptics is a continuous monitoring software designed to scale with your applications. It measures downtime and reduces the need for manual intervention for monitoring and observability. It not only monitors the health and performance of your critical assets but offers cost-effective observability for your entire IT infrastructure. It provides visibility into your hosts, containers, and serverless environments to help you identify and resolve issues quickly and minimize mean time to resolution (MTTR). Moreover, with its distributed tracing, live code profiling, and exception tracking capabilities, it can rapidly drill down to the root cause of issues. You also get detailed reports, advanced alerting features, and combined dashboards.
  • Splunk: Splunk is a giant application performance management (APM) tool offering infrastructure monitoring, telemetric data, front-end user monitoring, synthetic monitoring, and automated incident response. One of the major reasons for the popularity of this tool is its instrumentation capabilities natively support OpenTelemetry, which is an open-source observability framework. The entire platform is vendor-agnostic and offers consistent structuring.

How Observability and Monitoring Can Improve Your Company’s Security Posture

Each component of monitoring and observability plays a crucial role in advancing your DevOps journey. Both are equally critical in maintaining your security perimeter against unauthorized external users. Through observability and monitoring, you can track the health and performance of your IT infrastructure, and both of them can help secure your IT system by allowing you to address issues faster and eliminating attack vectors as soon as possible.

How to Choose the Right Tool for Observability and Monitoring

Choosing any one tool out of overwhelming options can be challenging. Not every tool can handle the complexity and provide the necessary observability within a cloud environment. Selecting the right tool is crucial—you want to be sure it provides all the important metrics required for you to monitor and observe your IT infrastructure. The best observability tools offer monitoring capabilities, end-to-end visibility, telemetry data, and more. These tools are also capable of observing complex cloud-native applications and cloud environments.

SolarWinds AppOptics is a powerful observability tool with comprehensive features and unique capabilities. It offers seamless visibility and logging across your entire infrastructure. With its robust and reliable monitoring capabilities, developers can extract crucial information through events, metrics, and traces in different data formats to identify threats, troubleshoot issues, determine user behavior, and streamline network performance to meet business objectives. The tool also offers full-fidelity tracing and real-time streaming analytics and supports security initiatives.

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