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Unified Kubernetes Observability with Lightstep Attribute Pivots

Let me tell you a quick story about monitoring. In my last role, I was responsible for managing a fleet of integration testing infrastructure, which was a collection of pre-built VMs, custom PowerShell and bash scripts, and creaky internal tools with poor documentation. This setup was obviously of critical importance to the company, as we were unable to close tickets or validate releases without successful test runs of our software on this infrastructure.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that my experience working with that stack is the reason that I’m writing this today -- many sleepless nights and long hours of investigation and correlation by hand touched off not only a deep interest in monitoring and observability, but also a deep passion in ensuring that nobody else ever has to suffer through what I did.

The most frequent and puzzling task I had to perform was correlation between resource metrics such as CPU, disk, or memory utilization and transactions, like a specific test run that exercised an API route. Transactions were logged in plain text to a SQL database, and resources emitted rather coarse metrics from the hypervisor. Environments could have tens, or hundreds, of unique nodes and tracking down correlations between metric signals and relevant logs was a painstaking manual process.

One of the reasons I’m such a proponent of distributed tracing is that it solves half of this problem; Traces offer rich, detailed diagnostic information about the ‘golden signals’ of rate, error, and duration with deep context into the up and downstream dependencies of a service. They’re the best way to understand transaction performance in a system.

Connecting this trace data to resource telemetry, however, remains a challenge. A given resource, such as a Kubernetes node or SQL server, can handle thousands or millions of transactions at any given moment. How do we bridge the gap between resource telemetry and transaction telemetry?

Exemplars are perhaps the most common solution to this problem. A metric exemplar allows for the association of a trace with a measurement -- so if your application records a metric of request counts, you can link that count measurement to a specific trace identifier. This doesn’t fully satisfy our needs, though -- one, exemplar assignment must be performed manually in most cases, and two, you’re limited to the things you thought to create exemplars for in the first place. In addition, underlying resource metrics from Kubernetes can’t easily have assigned exemplars -- the node doesn’t know too much about what application code is running in a pod, after all.

This week at Kubecon, Lightstep is previewing a new feature that we’re calling “attribute pivots” that solves this problem. Attribute pivots are like exemplars, but with a couple of crucial differences:

  • Pivots don’t require specific exemplar assignment in advance

  • Pivots can be between any metric and _any _trace, as long as they share a common attribute

Pivots allow you to join your resource telemetry from a Kubernetes cluster, such as container memory utilization, and view trace exemplars in-situ in the same Notebook graph. This offers you the ability to visually correlate a resource consumption spike with long tail latency in a service, or to jump into application errors straight from a DB queue metric.

Attribute Pivots for Kubernetes

We’d love to show you this feature in action and get your feedback this week at KubeCon, so come to Booth P11 at 10:35 and 4:35 Wednesday or Thursday to watch a live demo. We believe that cloud-native observability requires the unification of telemetry signals from logs, metrics, and traces -- attribute pivots are an example of how this unification works in practice. In the future, you can imagine features like this working with log data, profiles, or any other structured event sent to the Lightstep platform. We’re hard at work integrating and building on the work that our new colleagues from Era Software started, which we’ll have more to say about in 2023, but let me be the first to say -- I can’t wait to show you what’s coming next.

October 25, 2022
4 min read

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About the author

Austin Parker

Austin Parker

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