Understanding the Basics of Distributed Tracing

June 17, 2024 by OpenObserve Team
Distributed Tracing

Introduction to Distributed Tracing

Distributed tracing is a method for monitoring and analyzing requests as they travel through various services in a distributed cloud environment.

Importance of Observing Requests

Each request is assigned a unique identifier, allowing developers to track its journey across different components and services.

This visibility into request flow is crucial for understanding performance bottlenecks, identifying issues, and optimizing system efficiency in complex distributed systems.

Monoliths Vs. Microservices Architecture

Applications built as monoliths are traditionally designed as single, self-contained units with tightly integrated components.

In contrast, microservices architecture breaks down applications into more minor, independent services that communicate with each other through APIs.

Microservices offer benefits like scalability, flexibility, and resilience, but their decentralized nature also introduces challenges in monitoring and tracing requests across distributed systems.

Evolution: Monolithic to Microservices Architecture

The shift from monolithic to microservices architecture has necessitated the development of new monitoring tools, like distributed tracing, to address the challenges of managing complex distributed systems.

In microservices environments, traditional monitoring approaches may need to provide more visibility into request flows and system interactions.

Distributed tracing tools offer a solution by enabling developers to track requests across services, analyze performance metrics, and troubleshoot issues in dynamic and decentralized architectures.

By understanding the importance of observing requests in distributed cloud environments, organizations can effectively leverage distributed tracing to enhance visibility in their distributed cloud environments.

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How Distributed Tracing Works

How Distributed Tracing Works

Here is an overview of how distributed tracing works:

Mechanism of Distributed Tracing

  • Distributed tracing collects data as requests move across different services in a distributed system.
  • When a request enters the system, it is assigned a unique identifier called a Trace ID.
  • As the request travels through various services, each service generates data about its request processing, including timing information, metadata, and any errors.
  • This data is collected and associated with the Trace ID, allowing the request's journey to be reconstructed and analyzed.

Trace ID and Spans

  • The Trace ID is the unique identifier assigned to a request that ties together all the data collected through the system.
  • Each service that processes the request generates a span, representing the work done by that service.
  • Spans contain information such as the service name, start and end times, and any tags or logs associated with the processing.
  • Spans are linked using the Trace ID, forming a tree-like structure representing the request's path through the system.

Visualization Tools and Flame Graphs

  • Distributed tracing data can be visualized using flame graphs to illustrate the request's journey through the system.
  • Flame graphs visually represent the time spent in each service and the relationships between spans.
  • The width of each bar in the flame graph corresponds to the time spent in that service, while the height represents the call stack.

This visualization helps identify performance bottlenecks, slow services, and the overall flow of requests through the distributed system.

By collecting data at each service, using Trace IDs to link spans together, and visualizing the results, distributed tracing provides valuable insights into the behavior and performance of complex, distributed systems.

Traditional Tracing vs. Distributed Tracing

Differences between Tracing in Monolithic Applications and Microservices Architectures

In monolithic applications, tracing typically involves tracking the flow of a request through different components within a single, tightly integrated system.

Tracing in monolithic applications focuses on understanding the performance and behavior of the application as a whole, often with limited visibility into individual components.

In contrast, tracing in microservices architectures involves monitoring the flow of requests as they traverse multiple independent services that communicate through APIs.

Distributed tracing in microservices provides detailed insights into how requests move through various services, enabling developers to identify bottlenecks, latency issues, and dependencies between services.

Limitations of Traditional Tracing Methods

Traditional tracing methods in monolithic applications often lack the granularity and context needed to trace requests across distributed systems effectively.

In monolithic environments, tracing is limited to tracking requests within the application boundaries, making identifying performance issues that span multiple services challenging.

Significance of Distributed Tracing in Microservices

Distributed tracing addresses these limitations by providing a comprehensive view of request flows across microservices. It enables developers to trace requests from end to end and understand the interactions between services.

Distributed tracing offers detailed insights into the performance of individual services, dependencies between services, and the overall health of the distributed system.

Transitioning from traditional tracing methods to distributed tracing in microservices architectures can help organizations gain a deeper understanding of their distributed environments.

Key Components of Distributed Tracing

Here are the key components of distributed tracing.

Spans, Trace ID, and Tags

  • In distributed tracing, a span represents a unit of work performed by a service.
  • Each span has a start and end time, tags, and optional logs.
  • Trace IDs are unique identifiers that tie together all the spans associated with a single request as it moves through the distributed system.

Instrumentation and OpenTelemetry

Instrumentation is the process of adding code to applications to generate tracing data. Frameworks like OpenTelemetry provide APIs and SDKs for instrumenting code in various programming languages, enabling the collection of spans and trace data.

The instrumentation process involves:

  • Injecting trace context into requests as they move between services
  • Generating spans for work performed by each service
  • Attaching relevant metadata (tags) to spans
  • Reporting spans to a tracing backend for storage and analysis

By using instrumentation frameworks like OpenTelemetry, developers can easily add distributed tracing capabilities to their applications.

Benefits and Challenges of Distributed Tracing

Here are the key benefits and challenges of distributed tracing:

Benefits of Distributed Tracing

Improved Understanding of Service Relationships:

  • Distributed tracing provides visibility into the relationships between different services in a microservices architecture.
  • Developers can better understand how services interact with each other.

Reduced Mean Time to Detect and Resolve Issues:

  • Distributed tracing helps reduce the time it takes to detect and resolve issues.
  • Tracing enables faster root cause analysis and issue resolution, minimizing the impact on end-users.

Challenges of Distributed Tracing

Manual Instrumentation:

  • Implementing distributed tracing requires manual instrumentation of application code.
  • Developers need to add tracing code at various points in the application.

Backend Coverage Limitations:

  • Distributed tracing solutions may only provide comprehensive coverage for some backend systems and technologies.
  • Gaps in backend support can limit the visibility and usefulness of tracing data.

Complexity in High-Throughput Systems:

  • In high-throughput systems with large requests, the overhead and complexity of distributed tracing can increase significantly.
  • The sheer amount of tracing data generated can strain system resources and impact application performance.

Addressing these challenges through improved tooling, standardization, and best practices can help organizations fully realize the benefits of distributed tracing in their microservices architectures.

Distributed Tracing vs. Logging

Here is a comparison of distributed tracing and logging:

Comparison: Distributed Tracing vs. Logging

Distributed Tracing provides visibility into the flow of requests across multiple services in a microservices architecture. It allows developers to track requests as they move through different components, enabling them to identify performance bottlenecks, errors, and dependencies between services.

Traditional logging focuses on capturing events, errors, and messages within individual services. While logging can provide insights into a single service's behavior, it lacks the ability to correlate data across services and provide an end-to-end view of request flows.

Data Collected in Logging vs. Tracing

Logging typically captures textual data, such as error messages, debug statements, and informational messages. This data is often unstructured and is difficult to analyze, especially when dealing with large volumes of logs.

Distributed tracing, on the other hand, collects structured data about requests, including:

Trace IDs: Unique identifiers that tie together all the spans associated with a single request

Spans: Units of work performed by a service, with start and end times, tags, and optional logs

Tags: Key-value pairs that provide additional metadata about a span, such as the service name, operation, and error status.

The structured data collected by distributed tracing enables more efficient analysis, visualization, and correlating request flows across services.

Benefits of Distributed Tracing

By providing visibility into request flows across services, distributed tracing offers several benefits:

  • Identifying performance bottlenecks and optimizing service interactions
  • Troubleshooting issues by tracing requests from end to end
  • Analyzing dependencies between services and their impact on overall system performance
  • Gaining insights into the behavior of complex, distributed systems

While logging remains essential for capturing service-level events and errors, distributed tracing complements it by offering a more comprehensive view of request flows and system interactions in microservices architectures.

Tools and Frameworks for Distributed Tracing

Here is an overview of Modern Tools for Supporting Distributed Tracing.


Description: OpenObserve is an open-source observability platform that provides log search, infrastructure monitoring, and application performance monitoring (APM) capabilities.

Key Features: OpenObserve is an observability platform that consumes and analyzes the telemetry data collected by various sources, including OpenTelemetry.

Importance: OpenObserve's distributed tracing capabilities are crucial to gain complete visibility into their application's behavior, optimize resource utilization, reduce operational costs.


Description: Zipkin is an open-source distributed tracing system that helps developers track requests as they travel through various services.

Key Features: It provides a user-friendly web interface for visualizing trace data, identifying latency issues, and troubleshooting performance bottlenecks.

Importance: Zipkin is used for its simplicity and effectiveness in tracing requests across microservices architectures.


Description: Jaeger is an open-source, end-to-end distributed tracing system developed by Uber Technologies.

Key Features: It offers advanced features for complex distributed systems, such as adaptive sampling, dependency mapping, and root cause analysis.

Importance: Jaeger is known for its scalability and real-time visibility into request flows, making it a popular choice for organizations with large-scale microservices deployments.


Description: Datadog is a cloud-based observability platform providing distributed tracing capabilities, metrics, logs, and monitoring solutions.

Key Features: It offers seamless integration with various cloud services and platforms, allowing users to correlate trace data with other observability metrics.

Importance: Datadog's distributed tracing feature enhances end-to-end visibility into application performance and system interactions, enabling efficient troubleshooting and optimization.

Modern tools like OpenTelemetry, Zipkin, Jaeger, and Datadog support distributed tracing in complex, distributed systems.

Applications and Use Cases of Distributed Tracing

Distributed tracing is highly valuable for DevOps, operations teams, and site reliability engineers in identifying sources of errors and latency in complex, distributed systems.

Here are the critical applications and use cases of distributed tracing for these teams:

DevOps Teams

Error Detection: Distributed tracing helps DevOps teams quickly identify the root causes of errors by tracking requests across services and pinpointing where failures occur.

Performance Optimization: DevOps teams can use distributed tracing to analyze request flows, detect performance bottlenecks, and optimize system performance by understanding service dependencies and latencies.

Efficient Troubleshooting: By visualizing request paths and service interactions, DevOps teams can troubleshoot issues more efficiently, leading to faster resolution and improved system reliability.

Operations Teams

Latency Analysis: Operations teams can use distributed tracing to analyze request latencies and identify services causing delays, enabling them to optimize service performance and improve user experience.

Resource Allocation: Distributed tracing helps operations teams understand resource utilization across services, allowing them to allocate resources effectively and ensure optimal system performance.

Capacity Planning: By monitoring request flows and service dependencies, operations teams can make informed decisions about capacity planning, scaling, and resource provisioning to meet performance demands.

Site Reliability Engineers (SREs)

Incident Response: Distributed tracing enables SREs to respond quickly to incidents by providing real-time visibility into request flows, service interactions, and performance metrics.

Root Cause Analysis: SREs can use distributed tracing to conduct in-depth root cause analysis of system issues, identify bottlenecks, and implement targeted solutions to improve system reliability.

Performance Monitoring: By monitoring request paths and service dependencies, SREs can track system performance metrics, detect anomalies, and proactively address potential issues before they impact users.

Distributed tracing is a powerful tool for DevOps, operations teams, and site reliability engineers.

Advanced Concepts in Distributed Tracing

Here is an overview of advanced concepts in distributed tracing, including types of tracing and the importance of observability in modern microservices architectures:

Types of Tracing

Several types of tracing provide different levels of visibility into application behavior:

Code Tracing

  • It focuses on tracking the execution flow of code within a single service or process.
  • Provides detailed information about function calls, method invocations, and code-level events
  • It helps in understanding the internal logic and performance of individual components.

Data Tracing

  • Tracks the flow of data through the system, including data transformations and processing
  • Provides insights into how data moves between services and how it is manipulated
  • Helpful in understanding data lineage, data quality issues, and data-related performance bottlenecks

Program Trace

  • Captures the overall execution flow of a program or application
  • Provides a high-level view of how different components interact and communicate
  • It helps in understanding the end-to-end behavior of the system and identifying integration points

Observability in Microservices Architectures

Observability is a crucial aspect of modern microservices architectures, enabling developers and operators to gain insights into the behavior and performance of distributed systems.

Key reasons why observability is necessary in microservices

Increased Complexity: Microservices architectures involve many interconnected services, making understanding and troubleshooting issues challenging.

Dynamic Nature: Microservices can be deployed, scaled, and updated independently, leading to a constantly changing environment that requires real-time monitoring.

Distributed Data: Telemetry data (metrics, logs, and traces) is scattered across multiple services and platforms, making it difficult to correlate and analyze.

Heterogeneous Technologies: Microservices often use different programming languages, frameworks, and technologies, requiring a unified approach to observability.

In summary, advanced distributed tracing concepts, such as code, data, and program trace, provide different levels of visibility into application behavior.

Observability is essential in modern microservices architectures to manage complexity, handle dynamic environments, correlate distributed data, and support heterogeneous technologies.


Distributed tracing plays a vital role in modern cloud-based applications by providing comprehensive visibility into the performance and behavior of complex distributed systems.

By tracking requests as they flow through multiple services, distributed tracing enables developers and operators to identify performance bottlenecks, troubleshoot issues, and optimize system interactions for high-quality user experiences.

Adopting distributed tracing technologies is essential for organizations building modern cloud-based applications.

With modern applications' increasing complexity, distributed tracing has become a critical tool for maintaining system reliability, performance, and scalability.

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