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Jul 27th, ‘23/4 min read

OpenTelemetry for dummies: ELI5

What is OpenTelemetry? Why is it important? Do SREs need to adopt OTel? An Explain It Like I'm 5.

OpenTelemetry for dummies: ELI5

"Hey, do you have a charger?”
Immediately after this, you also have to specify, “For an iPhone”
“For an Android phone”

It doesn’t end there. Folks with an older iPhone will need an 8-pin lightning charger. Folks with an older Android phone will need a micro USB charger.

And… it doesn’t end there.

Some phone chargers don’t work as well with other phones and take ages to charge. For example, The One Plus ‘Dash’ charger is incompatible with any other phone. And the list goes on…

Let me paint a gloomier scenario. What if each brand (Samsung, Apple, etc.) had its own kind of chargers? What a nightmare that would be. We might not even have decent public phone charging booths. So, hey, we’re better off than we think. But not quite there.

Wouldn’t it be simple to just ask for a charger and… well, get a charger. Regardless of the electronic device, you’re using?


OpenTelementry: A universal standard

Creating a universal standard across the board helps Original Equipment Manufacturers serve their customers better. In this case, we have the USB Implementers Forum Inc. This non-profit is formed by a group of companies to advance Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology. Having a standard body helps, right?

Nearly every industry has a governing body like the USB Implementers Forum Inc. For example, the ‘Insurance Institute for Highway Safety researches and benchmarks cars on their safety performance. Car drivers now have a standard to gauge how each car benchmarks safety. Refrigerator ratings? Television pixel ratings? The list is endless.

Similarly, the Observability space has Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). They advance the adoption of cloud-native computing tech. Think of them as folks who try to set universal standards so everyone in the ecosystem can benefit.

OpenTelemetry (OTel) is part of the CNCF and is one of the many projects under the CNCF.

💡 OpenTelemetry is the second largest project under the CNCF and started only in mid-2020. Kubernetes is still the largest project, but that was accepted by CNCF in 2016. This shows how fast OTel has grown, and its relevance in an increasingly data-driven world

But, What is OpenTelemetry?

OpenTelemetry collects data from any piece of software so that engineers can understand the health and performance of a system. Measuring this health helps engineers make informed decisions about their system, to provide smooth experiences for their customers.

That’s the simplest layperson’s definition of OpenTelemetry. There are some critical things to consider here.

Telemetry - This is the data each application/system emits. You use this data to understand the health and performance of a system.

Open Standards - Data is collected via different agents. The problem is technology providers tie you to their specific offerings when collecting this data. Being an ‘Open Standard’ makes your data interoperable across different vendors. The ‘Open’ part is particularly critical because it allows companies to choose who they work with.

As you know, there are four types of telemetry data: Logs, Events, Metrics and Traces. In today’s modern cloud-native environment, it gets really hard to collect this data, and OpenTelemetry has a set, defined standard that solves this problem.

So, be it an Open Source vendor, a Closed/Paid, or Managed partner (Understand OSS vs Paid vs Managed), OpenTelemetry data is supremely important. Choosing OTel-compliant partners puts the power of flexibility with customers and stringent accountability with vendors.

Should you adopt OpenTelemetry?

The simple answer to this is yes. It’s the way of the future. But…

Let’s get back to the mobile phone analogy to understand this. Remember how most phones have gotten rid of headphone jacks? This is to improve the phone's dimensions - to make it thinner, sleeker, etc.… Well, is this good or bad? Some would argue that Bluetooth drains their battery, and wireless earphones are unfavorable. Others would argue that wires are annoying and bulkier phones should be eliminated.

But, most manufacturers are ditching the headphone jack, which seems to be the way of the future. OTel is at similar crossroads.

Most orgs want better accountability from their vendors, and have a chance to move their telemetry data and even potentially work with multiple vendors. This also allows companies to keep their costs down.

Large organizations especially use different o11y tools that serve specific, customized needs. OTel helps in this regard. On the flip side, OTel is relatively new, and documentation is inadequate, so practitioners who are not well-versed tend to struggle with the instrumentation of the telemetry data.

If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
If you’re used to one type of tech, you tend to gravitate toward it. OTel is new but is incredibly promising. Given how much data we consume and store, it’s clear now that Observability costs will only increase. Building in-house o11y tech is also hard and should never be the primary focus of a product organization. These points all tell us the dire need for an OTel-compliant managed vendor.

That’s a wrap from me. Hope this makes sense; it was easy to read and understand. I’ve tried my best to make this Explain Like I'm 5 (ELI5) compliant.

If you have a contrarian take, or disagree with this explanation, tell me why. You can DM me on Twitter here.

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Mohan Dutt Parashar

99.999x Site Reliability Engineer at Last9. Learning every day.

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