What is OpenTelemetry?

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OpenTelemetry removes the need to have multiple instrumentation libraries and streamlines data collection across your observability backend.

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Jess Lulka Technical Content Writer | Chronosphere

Jess is a Technical Content Writer on the content marketing team at Chronosphere. She has over a decade of experience writing, editing, and managing content for B2B technology brands. Prior to Chronosphere, she worked at TechTarget covering data center, virtualization, and IoT technology. She currently resides in Seattle and is a trivia enthusiast.

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What is OpenTelemetry?

Many people today are asking “What is OpenTelemetry?” OpenTelemetry (OTel) is an observability framework and toolkit for users to create, process, and export telemetry such as traces, metrics, and logs. Its main purpose is to provide a singular standard for code instrumentation and telemetry data transport to an observability tool backend.

As a Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) project, OpenTelemetry is vendor- and tool-agnostic. Developers can use it with a variety of observability backends, including open source tools such as Jaeger and Prometheus in addition to observability vendors. However, it is not a storage backend or a frontend UI for query visualization and querying.

The OpenTelemetry Collector helps developers monitor microservice application health, capture requests between microservices, trace resource use to specific user groups, create tiered requests for priority resources, and process and transform telemetry before exporting.

To understand OpenTelemetry more fully, let’s take a look at its components, benefits, and tradeoffs.

Why use OpenTelemetry?

OpenTelemetry gives organizations control over the telemetry pipeline by processing telemetry before it is sent onto an observability vendor. Open source instrumentation libraries for popular languages and frameworks also mean freedom from vendor lock-in when migrating between platforms.

Before OpenTelemetry, each observability vendor had its own libraries. This made it tough for companies that relied on multiple vendors to collect and export data types, as they couldn’t easily jump between different libraries or various telemetry types.

This meant telemetry was often completely siloed, and businesses would get their competitive advantage on which products they chose for telemetry collection. It also affected how well you could import and work with data depending on the vendor’s library and feature set.

OpenTelemetry removes the need to have multiple instrumentation libraries and streamlines data collection across your observability backend. This makes it easier to get and share telemetry data. Engineers not only get data faster, they only need to maintain one telemetry collector – one that’s based on open source coding – instead of proprietary, vendor-specific code.

Like the old Java tagline “write once, run anywhere,” OpenTelemetry allows you to “instrument once and export anywhere.”

Components of OpenTelemetry

As a toolkit and a framework, OpenTelemetry includes:

  • The OpenTelemetry Collector to receive, process and export telemetry data (metrics and traces).
  • Specification for all included components.
  • OpenTelemetry Protocol that outlines telemetry data shapes.
  • Semantic conventions that provide a standardized naming convention for telemetry data types.
  • APIs to define telemetry data generation.
  • A library ecosystem that implements instrumentation for common libraries and frameworks.
  • Automatic instrumentation that helps generate telemetry data without code changes.
  • Language SDKs to implement the developer’s desired specification, APIs, and data export.

All of these components come together to provide a robust foundation for data collection and porting into observability software.

Advantages of OpenTelemetry

OpenTelemetry offers three primary benefits to organizations: A robust open source community, enhanced interoperability, and flexibility in backend tools.

Robust open source community: The broad user and contributor base allows development teams to leverage OTel internally and seek support through online communities and research without depending solely on vendor support.

Interoperability across various tools and services: Being vendor- and ecosystem-agnostic, OpenTelemetry simplifies the monitoring of an extensive range of third-party services without necessitating complex integrations that often result in additional work.

Flexibility in changing backend observability tools: As an open-source project, OpenTelemetry permits the addition of telemetry collectors without requiring investments in proprietary software or specific infrastructure setups.). It also provides a way for organizations to avoid vendor lock-in and make future migrations more efficient.

Challenges of OpenTelemetry

While OpenTelemetry presents numerous benefits for telemetry collection in observability, organizations should consider certain aspects during its evaluation.

Support for frontend, client, and browser data through OpenTelemetry is still relatively experimental and in developmental stages.

The level of support varies across different programming languages, requiring developers to assess compatibility needs before fully committing to OpenTelemetry. Although the specification is stable and comprehensive, implementation of language SDKs remains ongoing and varies by language.

Is OpenTelemetry a Prometheus replacement?

OpenTelemetry does not directly replace Prometheus. While both facilitate open-source telemetry collection, their features differ significantly. These systems often coexist, as they can ingest each other’s data.

OpenTelemetry’s industry impact

Although OpenTelemetry is relatively new, it is already making a significant mark in the observability domain, as evidenced by rapid adoption rates. According to the 2021 “Voice of the Enterprise (VotE): DevOps, Organizational Dynamics” survey by 451 Research, nearly half of the responding organizations have adopted OpenTelemetry, with another 21% exploring its potential.

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As OpenTelemetry continues to standardize processes and frameworks, it is poised to enhance flexibility in changing backend tools for organizations, thereby accelerating the project’s growth and aiding teams in avoiding vendor lock-in. By standardizing telemetry instrumentation, organizations can devote more time to leveraging mature data without incurring additional overhead on application performance.

Chronosphere’s integration and support for OpenTelemetry

Chronosphere offers robust support for OpenTelemetry, including both community engagement and direct product support. Our platform efficiently processes OpenTelemetry metrics directly, without the need for a server-side component, and is in the process of expanding this capability to include trace data.

Our recent contributions to the OpenTelemetry project highlight our commitment to enhancing its functionality and reliability, featuring the development of a Jaeger Remote Sampling extension along with numerous bug fixes. 

OpenTelemetry FAQs

What is OpenTelemetry and what problem does it solve?

OpenTelemetry provides a standardized framework for collecting, analyzing, and exporting telemetry data such as metrics, traces, and logs. This enhances the visibility into software performance and behavior, crucial for diagnosing issues, optimizing performance, and maintaining reliability in production environments.

What is the difference between OpenTelemetry and Prometheus?

While OpenTelemetry is a comprehensive observability framework for generating, collecting, and exporting various types of telemetry data, Prometheus specializes in monitoring and storing metrics. Prometheus excels in real-time monitoring and alerting through its powerful querying capabilities.

Additional resources

Curious in learning more about Chronosphere and OpenTelemetry? Check out the following resources: 

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