The Difference Between Monitoring and Observability and Why It Matters

September 23, 2022 Colleen Marinelli

Organizations are adopting cloud native and multi-cloud architectures to drive innovation, achieve faster time to market, improve yield, and deliver exceptional experiences to their customers. However, for all the business benefits of modernizing, the process does not come without challenges. Cloud native and multi-cloud architectures produce hundreds of applications and dependencies across tech stacks, which can lead to very little visibility into how they’re working and no easy way to get to the root cause of a problem.

As organizations modernize their applications and platforms, it is becoming clear that monitoring and observability need to be a key component of their new, modern workflows and processes. Lately, much of the discussion in this field puts a heavy emphasis on the need for observability over monitoring. But the distinction between the two concepts isn’t always well defined, leaving teams to wonder what exactly the differences are, and what the benefits of observability are specifically. Let us review to clear up the confusion and determine what is the best solution when it comes to the modern IT stack.

What is monitoring?

Simply put, monitoring collects data and can tell you when something is wrong, but it does this only on the data you specify. This means that if you only set up monitoring to look for problems in A and B, you will never see any problems with C to Z. This results in blind spots and an inability to get to the root cause of those problems.

What is observability?

Observability goes beyond monitoring to interpret data from multiple sources, identifying patterns or anomalies across your IT stack. Observability collects data from A to Z, drilling down to provide answers to the questions such as What is wrong?, Why is this happening?, and How can we fix it? This eliminates blind spots because you have a more complete picture of the health of your IT environment.

What’s the difference between monitoring and observability?

Making this buzz even more confusing is the fact that these two terms are often used interchangeably. When it comes to managing the complexity of cloud native, multi-cloud environments, observability is a must. These modern environments are highly distributed, and monitoring alone will not work effectively. In fact, traditional monitoring breaks when used for modern architectures and deployments. Observability, even in complex microservices-based architectures, provides insight into your systems, such as identifying performance bottlenecks and pinpointing their root causes. This can be achieved because observability provides dependency mapping through the collection of metrics, events, logs, and traces.

Metrics, events, logs, and traces are the pillars of observability. Insight into logs is critical because they provide more in-depth information, providing comprehensive records of all events and errors during the software lifecycle. Logs provide answers to when a problem occurs as well as which events or trends it correlates with. Observability makes log analysis faster and more relevant in the context of metrics and trace data. 

Having this data provides insight into distributed systems and, with that insight, provides faster resolution to problems with contextualized information and answers. This means SREs, operators, and developers get insight across teams that help them troubleshoot and mitigate production issues, removing silos and the need for grueling war rooms, and reducing alert storms. For complex environments, especially ones that need to be “always-on,” metrics, events, logs, and traces help organizations stay on top of these dynamic environments. 

People often ask if monitoring is a subset of observability, but the truth is observability is what facilitates monitoring. Without observability, monitoring is impossible. I like to think of this in the context of an escape room game, where you need to solve a puzzle with clues to get free. You can get all the clues you need, but without the correct answer, you cannot escape. Monitoring can give you a lot of data, or clues, as they relate to an issue, but you cannot get the full picture. Observability provides answers, across an entire IT stack, to give you the full picture of your IT system’s health.

Why is observability needed?

Multi-cloud environments, containers, microservices, and cloud native technologies are creating more distributed systems, making it harder to gain a comprehensive view. Teams are wasting time troubleshooting with lack of visibility and data silos. In addition to that, they must deal with the speed and scale of constantly changing cloud platforms. Monitoring can only alert you to a problem, observability allows teams to determine the root cause of the issue, eliminating war rooms so time can be better spent on innovation. 

Organizations today are tasked with controlling costs, ensuring performance, and managing consistent security policies across all these diverse and decoupled environments. This is leading many to seek standardization and a unified approach to get information from metrics, events, logs, and traces to help them make better business decisions. Observability is becoming the preferred solution over monitoring based on some of the key benefits observability brings:

  • Single-source-of-truth visibility for IT and application owners across various sources to drive greater business insights and innovation by bringing together end-to-end metrics, events, logs, and traces

  • Reducing the toil associated with incident management, particularly around root-cause analysis, improving uptime, speeding up issue resolution, and enabling greater business agility 

  • Providing a modern platform to address compliance and security for cloud applications while containing costs and eliminating siloed products and solutions

Modernization is about driving better business outcomes. Some of the main benefits are innovation, customer experience, performance efficiency, and better yield. However, as organizations shift their workloads, dependencies skyrocket, adding complexity. If you don’t have a complete picture of your IT health, all the investment and strategies toward modernization will be inefficient. Without real-time insight into how services are performing, customer experience and revenue can be impacted negatively. Observability plays a crucial role in eliminating that complexity with unparalleled visibility.

Observability is critical for today’s modern environments. Without observability, digital transformation strategies will be inefficient and result in poorly performing services that could impact customer experience and bottom line.​ Observability provides answers with metrics, logs, and traces, across the IT stack to give you the full picture of your IT health. This single-pane-of-glass view provides comprehensive visibility for better business insights, allowing organizations to troubleshoot and innovate faster, bringing value to their business. 

Observability momentum in the market

 The awareness of observability is rapidly growing in the market. VMware’s 2022 State of Observability report shows the significant momentum observability gained in the past year, with almost all respondents believing observability capabilities would benefit their organization. Additionally, only 7 percent cited that they were satisfied with their current monitoring toolset. Cost to scale, lack of integration capabilities, complex troubleshooting, and having no end-to-end visibility are all monitoring gaps that are driving dissatisfaction and pushing the shift toward observability solutions. 98 percent of survey respondents believe that observability would benefit their organizations

Further evidence of this momentum is the inclusion of observability in Gartner’s 2022 Magic Quadrant for Application Performance Monitoring and Observability—the first time observability was recognized in the report. Among the vendors in the report, Gartner named Aria Operations for Applications (formerly VMware Tanzu Observability) a Visionary in the 2022 Magic Quadrant for Application Performance Monitoring and Observability. Aria Operations for Applications received accolades for being more observability focused compared to APM. This is because it is a full-stack observability platform built for today’s modern, multi-cloud environments, including microservices and containers. 

Aria Operations for Applications, announced at VMware Explore 2022, is a unified observability platform bringing together metrics, logs, and traces in one solution to deliver critical business outcomes.

Other solutions can be expensive and unable to manage the large volumes of data, especially those generated by Kubernetes and cloud applications, which can lead to more downtime. Aria Operations for Applications unifies traces, metrics, and logs in a single platform, with unmatched scalability in the millions of points per second, and with compelling return on investment.  

Aria Operations for Applications brings observability for modern environments and applications in one platform, offering:

  • An easy-to-navigate observability platform for all data types

  • Customized dashboards for systems, infrastructure, applications

  • Instant visibility across all major public cloud platforms, including AWS, Azure, and GCP

  • Reduction of complexity in modern systems with integrated anomaly detection

Aria Operations for Applications supports modern applications and infrastructure. Download the free trial to experience the benefits of enterprise observability for modern, multi-cloud environments. 

More observability resources

Mario vs. Steve: What Video Games Can Teach Us about Monitoring vs. Observability

Solution Overview: Unified Observability by VMware Aria Operations for Applications

White Paper: Guide to Comprehensive Kubernetes Observability at Scale

Analyst Report: Magic Quadrant for Application Performance Monitoring and Observability

About the Author

Colleen Marinelli

Colleen Marinelli is a senior product marketing manager for Tanzu Observability at VMware.

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