What is Observability?

5 Min Read | May 23, 2023

“Observability” seems to be the buzzword du jour in IT these days but what does it actually mean, and how is it any different from plain, old monitoring? In simple terms, observability is the ability to understand how a system is performing and how it is behaving from the data that system generates. It is not just about monitoring metrics or collecting logs, but also understanding the context of those metrics and logs, and how they relate to the overall health of the system. In other words, observability isn’t just about collecting system data but what you do with that data.

Difference Between Monitoring and Observability

In the world of software engineering and operations, two terms that are often used interchangeably are monitoring and observability. However, while these terms may sound similar, they actually refer to different aspects of managing complex systems. Understanding the difference between monitoring and observability is crucial for anyone working with modern software systems.

Monitoring refers to the process of collecting and analyzing data about a system's performance and behavior. This data is often gathered through the use of agents on the system that collect performance data; analyzing network traffic or API interactions between systems; running scripted synthetic transactions to measure response times and system availability at each step of a transaction; or watching how actual users interact with an application or service through real user monitoring. Monitoring is used to identify potential issues and diagnose problems when they occur. Monitoring is important for ensuring that a system is running smoothly and for detecting and resolving issues before they become critical.

Observability, on the other hand, refers to the ability to gain insight into a system's internal workings by examining its external outputs. This includes metrics, logs, traces, and other data that can be used to understand how a system is behaving and why. Observability is often achieved through the use of specialized tools and techniques, such as distributed tracing and log aggregation, and is essential for managing complex, distributed systems.

While monitoring and observability share some similarities, they are fundamentally different approaches to managing software systems. Monitoring is focused on collecting data about a system's performance and behavior, while observability is focused on gaining deeper insights into a system’s internal state from its external outputs. By combining both monitoring and observability, engineers can gain a more complete understanding of their systems and ensure that they are running smoothly.

Why is Observability Important?

Observability is important because it enables IT teams to quickly identify and solve issues, reducing downtime and improving the overall user experience. Without observability, it can be difficult to understand why a system is behaving in a certain way, which can make it challenging to troubleshoot and resolve issues. Observability has become increasingly important as systems have become more complex and distributed, making it harder to understand and troubleshoot issues when they arise.

Observability can also be a valuable tool for organizations seeking to improve their overall software development process. By adopting an observability-driven approach, teams can gain a better understanding of the impact of their code changes, and make more informed decisions about which features to prioritize and how to allocate resources. This can lead to faster and more reliable software releases, and ultimately to better outcomes for both developers and end-users.

Benefits of Observability

There are many benefits to observability. For example, it allows IT teams to gain a deeper understanding of their systems and identify potential issues before they become critical. It can also help teams improve the performance of their systems by identifying bottlenecks and other areas of inefficiency. One of the key benefits of observability is that it allows developers to identify and diagnose issues more quickly. By analyzing system logs and metrics, developers can pinpoint where a problem is occurring and take corrective action. This can save a significant amount of time and effort compared to traditional methods of troubleshooting, which often involve manual investigation and trial and error.

Another benefit of observability is that it allows developers to gain a better understanding of how their systems are behaving in real-time. This can help them to identify potential issues before they become critical, and to make informed decisions about how to optimize performance and improve reliability. In addition, observability can help teams to collaborate more effectively by providing a shared understanding of the system's behavior and performance.

How Do You Make a System Observable?

Making a system observable requires a combination of tools and techniques. This may include monitoring metrics, collecting logs, and using tracing to gain visibility into the behavior of different components within the system. It also requires a shift in mindset, with a focus on understanding the context of the data and using it to troubleshoot issues.

Three Pillars of Observability

There are three main pillars of observability: metrics, logs, and tracing. Metrics provide a high-level overview of the system, logs provide detailed information about specific events, and tracing enables teams to follow the flow of requests through the system. By combining these three pillars, IT teams can gain a comprehensive view of their systems and quickly identify and solve issues.

What are the Challenges of Observability?

One of the challenges of observability is the amount of data that needs to be collected and analyzed. This can be overwhelming for IT teams, particularly when dealing with large-scale systems. Another challenge is the complexity of modern IT environments, with multiple layers of abstraction and a range of different technologies and tools.

Why Observability is Getting More Popular in Modern IT Environments

Observability is getting more popular in modern IT environments because of the increasing complexity of those environments. As systems become more distributed and more reliant on cloud technologies, it becomes more difficult to understand how they are performing and where issues may be occurring. Observability provides a way to gain visibility into those systems and identify potential issues before they become critical.

Observability’s deeper focus on system behavior can give IT teams the necessary context to solve new unknown issues. By understanding how a system is behaving and how different components are interacting, IT teams can quickly identify the root cause of an issue and implement a solution.


Observability is an essential tool for modern IT teams. By making systems observable, teams can gain a deeper understanding of their systems, quickly identify and solve issues, and improve the overall performance of their systems. Bringing observability to everything requires a shift in mindset and a commitment to collecting and analyzing data, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

Bill Talbot is Chief Marketing Officer of OpsRamp. He wrote this blog with an assist from ChatGPT.

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