Monitoring and observability go hand in hand

Cristina De Luca -

January 27, 2022

Technology environments are under tremendous pressure. External factors change almost daily. IT, OT, and IoT infrastructures must be as agile as employees when it comes to the services they offer.

A small infrastructure change or problem can have a significant effect – on health, product quality, service uptime, and even the safety of people.  Staying on top of what is happening in your datacenter and on your network and responding quickly to changes is also mission-critical.

But as we never tire of saying, it is impossible to monitor and manage what is not visible and documented. Do you really know what devices are on your network and how many there are? Which ones are actively communicating and what protocols they are using? It is often unclear which devices are communicating with what or with whom.

Also, in large environments, there is a lack of transparency about what is actually installed. Which versions of the operating system are running on machines and devices. This means vulnerabilities remain undetected. 

Increasingly, digital customer experiences navigate a complex and distributed ecosystem. What seems as simple as a user connecting to an app is actually a complex journey across home networks, the Internet, hybrid and multi-cloud environments, and SaaS provider networks. And blind spots in this infrastructure can end up hurting business greatly.

Visibility and observability are essential to the smooth running of business today. And they are achieved through monitoring systems. 

The definition of monitoring is pretty straightforward: the systematic collection and analysis of data to help keep infrastructure or applications running smoothly. Monitoring tools record performance statistics over time so that usage patterns can be identified. Monitoring agents record selected metrics at defined intervals and store the resulting data in a time-series format.

As AWS explains well, Application Performance Monitoring (APM), for example, allows you to monitor the customer experience from end-to-end, from browsers and mobile devices to the various layers of the application stack. APM starts with front-end monitoring – measuring and monitoring customer experience from the browser or mobile device. At the heart of APM, application discovery, tracking, and diagnostics are the ability to identify which part of an application is causing performance issues and quickly pinpoint why.

Infrastructure monitoring allows you to correlate metrics and logs from an infrastructure stack to understand and resolve the root causes of performance issues.

Digital experience monitoring (DEM) provides insights into the end user’s experience of engaging with the system by collecting activity from their browser, mobile app, or voice interaction. Synthetic transactions involve scripting to emulate end-user behavior when interacting with a system so that it can be monitored and tested even when not under real load. Real user monitoring (RUM) combines monitoring the availability of a website or API to receive requests from different points of presence around the world, with automated A/B testing.

Monitoring alerts you to known issues. Visibility goes further. It is the process of managing unknown or potential problems. We can think of visibility as the corollary of monitoring. Monitoring alone allows you to find issues after they have turned into problems. In contrast, visibility involves leveraging monitoring data, as well as other IT systems knowledge, to predict and anticipate performance or reliability issues before they fully emerge.

Observability, in turn, expands this monitoring and enables correlation and inspection of raw data to provide much deeper insights. In today’s increasingly complex cyber landscape, it is more important than ever that organizations can analyze contextual data to make informed decisions about their network security policy.  

Defined simply, observability is a measure of how well something is functioning internally, concluded from what occurs externally. The right combination of contextual data can be used to gain a deeper understanding of the network policy deployment and each application that attempts to communicate over the network. With an observability feature, attackers will find it difficult to attempt ‘east-west’ lateral movements or remain hidden in the data center or WAN. In turn, observability can provide an overview of the network environment and visual proof that the security strategy is effective and working. Observability can also help you find performance improvements in your cloud fleet, which in turn allows you to reduce costs.

Timely detection of a problem (preferably before it affects end users) is the first stage of observability. Detection should be proactive and multifaceted, including alarms when performance limits are violated, synthetic testing, and anomaly detection. 

Visibility and observability add something valuable to discussions on monitoring.

Understanding which strategies to implement starts with a monitoring partner who fully understands the inner workings of your business operations. One that offers a practical and detailed analysis of your current systems and future needs, as well as a proactive approach.

If it’s all about monitoring, then how do you choose a solution that best suits your visibility and observability needs? A good starting point is to assess 12 essential features.

1 – Scale with your infrastructure – Networks often start small but grow over time as new systems, functionality, devices, applications, and even new geographic locations are added. The monitoring tool selected must be able to scale along with your network.

2 – Be able to monitor more than one data center and distributed networks – In a realistic large-scale scenario, there is usually more than one data center and often multiple geographic locations.

3 – Be vendor-independent – Large environments are heterogeneous, with devices and systems from multiple vendors. To bring everything together in one overview, the monitoring tool should be compatible with as many vendors and manufacturers as possible.

4 – Include support for all major monitoring methods, technologies and protocols – There are many ways to monitor, and a good monitoring tool should provide as many options as possible.

5 – Offer a broad set of monitoring features – Ideally, you want a tool that can replace multiple monitoring tools.

6 – Have a system of rights and roles – It is useful to be able to clearly assign users to teams and responsibilities so that each team can be responsible for their own part of the infrastructure.

7 – Provide advanced alert management to reduce alert noise – In a large environment, you need to reduce the number of alerts to a significant minimum.

8 – Support industry-specific protocols, open APIs, and templates for individual scripts to integrate technologies beyond IT – Examples include monitoring medical devices in a healthcare environment, machines on a factory floor in manufacturing, or IoT setups.

9 – Integrate with other monitoring, visibility, and observability tools – If you want to get a central overview, you will need to consolidate data from multiple systems into a central view.

10 – Integrate with BI solutions – For advanced analysis of monitoring data, it should be possible to route data to business intelligence applications.

11 – Enable modeling, tracking, and reporting of SLAs based on business services – In a corporate environment, you probably have internal service level agreements that teams need to meet and external service level agreements with customers or users. These need to be tracked and reported on.

12 – Be Quick and Easy to Set Up – You need to be able to get up and running as quickly as possible and with a minimum of effort.

This is because, to do a good job with monitoring and observability, teams need to have:

  • Reporting on overall system health (“Are my systems working?”, “Do my systems have sufficient resources available?”)
  • Reporting on system status according to customer experience (“Do my customers know if my system is down, and they have a bad experience?”)
  • Monitoring for key business metrics and systems
  • Tools to help you understand and debug your systems in production
  • Tools to find information on items you did not know before (i.e. you can identify what was not known)
  • Access to tools and data that help track, understand and diagnose infrastructure issues in the production environment, including interactions between services

The monitoring and observability solutions are designed to:

  • Provide leading indicators of service interruption or degradation;
  • Detect interruptions, service degradation, bugs and unauthorized activities;
  • Help debug outages, service degradation, bugs, and unauthorized activity;
  • Identify long-term trends for capacity and business planning purposes;
  • Expose unexpected side effects of changes or addition of features.