Observability: A Swiss Army knife for success in the cloud


CIO takeaways

  • Observability enables fast diagnosis and resolution of issues with both legacy and cloud infrastructure and applications
  • Companies with mature observability tools innovate faster and boost engineers’ productivity
  • By providing insights across the software and infrastructure stack, observability can improve the customer and employee experience

When a kid gets a Swiss Army knife, she can suddenly accomplish more tasks more quickly — from whittling a stick to mending clothes to any job requiring a plastic toothpick. Observability, one of the hottest trends in IT, gives a growing number of IT organizations a similar empowered feeling: an ability to improve their systems and applications in a multiplicity of ways.

Observability is a software layer that can be built into a company’s IT infrastructure to better understand the performance of its systems and applications, including ones running in the cloud. Observability tools gather data from a multiplicity of sources to generate insights that were not previously possible. As a result, IT teams can spend less time hunting for needles in digital haystacks when problems arise and can spot issues and opportunities for improvement that had previously been invisible.

The ability to provide customers a proactive, personalized, and reliable experience — one that scans beyond one’s own data centers across various cloud platforms — is far more possible for organizations that implement observability solutions. And, the ability to keep websites and apps running smoothly — despite soaring complexity, interminable streams of data and ever-evolving security threats — is a big competitive advantage.

“The more distributed our systems become, the more we need to see what’s happening, because things inevitably go wrong,” says Helen Beal, chief ambassador at the DevOps Institute, which advises companies on modern methods of software development and delivery. “Without observability, there are too many unknown unknowns.”

A powerful way to improve customer and employee experiences

It’s tempting for senior executives to see observability as important only for front-line IT teams. But compared to many infrastructure technologies, it can directly affect business results, particularly for companies’ digital transformation efforts, says Chuck Goldman, a senior strategic innovation executive at Elastic. With its ability to pinpoint the root cause of problems, observability can improve performance in many dimensions, including customer and employee experience. The faster IT can identify why an online shopping cart has frozen or the corporate network is down, the faster engineers can fix it.

Faster troubleshooting can also ease the workloads of IT staffers, a critical advantage in today’s tight labor market. By using machine learning to identify problems, observability platforms reduce the need to decipher every alert. Teams can spend more time solving trickier problems and developing new capabilities.

There are organizational benefits, too. Observability gives IT operations and developer teams a common “source of truth” that can lead to increased collaboration. The result is faster feedback cycles and fewer customer complaints.

“Observability can make your people happier, your customers happier, and can improve the overall experience of your brand,” says Goldman.

One tool, multiple uses

For decades, companies have used a variety of monitoring systems to manage applications, networks, storage, and other pieces of the IT infrastructure. What makes observability different? First, it integrates signals from all of these systems, providing a means to get closer to the holy grail of a single pane of glass.

Second, observability technology generates insights not by tracking particular predefined metrics, but by measuring the experience of customers, employers, and other users. For example, even if all the internal metrics for a digital shopping cart look fine, observability tools may notice if customers are experiencing a slow-down caused by a problem with a cloud-based payments service. In this way, team members can more quickly resolve the problems that people really care about.

The security connection

Observability can also improve a company’s security posture, by giving more useful, contextual insights. Security, after all, is ultimately a data challenge. How do you identify the threat, or problem? Observability can integrate more sources of data to suggest what is happening — the difference between knowing that a known criminal is in the neighborhood versus knowing what they are wearing, carrying, and their location.

“You have to move from being alert-driven to insight-driven, and from reactive to predictive,” says Beal. “Observability helps you do that.”

Adding major value

While it’s difficult to assign a dollar value to the benefits of observability, there is little remaining doubt that the benefits are varied and significant, says Beal. She finds that far more IT leaders are familiar with the term and are investigating how to put it to use, but few have made the investments and process changes to fully capture the benefits.

“The tendency of most companies is to keep focusing on the basics, so they’re not getting serious yet,” she says. “But they should be.”