Distributed Tracing: The Abridged Guide

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What Is Distributed Tracing? 

Distributed tracing is a monitoring and observability technique used to analyze and troubleshoot the performance of distributed systems, microservices, and applications. It involves tracking the flow of requests and transactions across various system components, capturing and recording timing data, contextual information, and metadata. This data is then visualized and analyzed to identify performance bottlenecks, latency issues, and potential errors, enabling developers and engineers to optimize and maintain the system effectively.

This is part of an extensive series of guides about microservices.

Why Do You Need Distributed Tracing? 

Organizations need distributed tracing for several reasons:

  • Complex architectures: Modern enterprises often employ complex, distributed architectures such as microservices and serverless computing. These systems have numerous interconnected components, making it challenging to track requests and transactions across the system.
  • Performance optimization: Distributed tracing helps identify performance bottlenecks, latency issues, and other potential problems in the system. By pinpointing these issues, engineers can optimize the system to ensure optimal performance.
  • Troubleshooting and root cause analysis: In a distributed environment, identifying the root cause of a problem can be difficult. Distributed tracing provides insights into the behavior of individual components and their interactions, making it easier to locate and resolve issues.
  • Improved reliability and availability: By continuously monitoring the system, distributed tracing can help detect and resolve issues before they lead to significant downtime or service disruptions.
  • Enhanced customer experience: As distributed tracing enables the optimization of system performance and the quick resolution of issues, it ultimately contributes to a better customer experience through faster response times and more reliable services.
  • Collaborative problem-solving: Distributed tracing tools often provide visualization and collaboration features, allowing teams to work together more effectively in diagnosing and resolving issues.
  • Scalability: As enterprises grow and their systems become more complex, distributed tracing becomes even more critical in ensuring the system's ability to scale efficiently without compromising performance or reliability.

How Distributed Tracing Works 

Distributed tracing works by following a request or transaction as it travels through the various components of a distributed system. The process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Generate trace identifiers: When a new request or transaction enters the system, a unique trace identifier is generated. This identifier is used to link all related events, logs, and metadata that occur during the processing of the request.
  2. Propagate context: As the request moves through different components, the trace identifier and other contextual information are propagated between services using headers in network protocols (e.g., HTTP headers). This context propagation enables connecting the flow of the request across services.
  3. Instrumentation: Each component or service within the distributed system is instrumented to capture relevant data, such as timestamps, duration, metadata, and any error information. Instrumentation can be achieved either manually by adding tracing code to the application or automatically using libraries, frameworks, or service meshes.
  4. Collect and store trace data: As services process the request and generate tracing data, this information is collected and sent to a centralized storage system, often called a tracing backend. Examples of tracing backends include Jaeger, Zipkin, and proprietary systems like AWS X-Ray.
  5. Visualization and analysis: The tracing backend processes and aggregates the collected data, allowing users to visualize and analyze traces using dashboards, graphs, and other visualization tools. These visualizations help users identify performance bottlenecks, latency issues, and potential errors.
  6. Alerts and notifications: Some distributed tracing systems support generating alerts or notifications based on predefined criteria, such as latency thresholds or error rates. These alerts help engineers proactively address issues before they escalate into larger problems.

Distributed Tracing Benefits and Limitations 

Benefits of distributed tracing:

  • Holistic view of system performance: Distributed tracing provides a comprehensive view of the entire system, allowing users to understand how individual components contribute to the overall performance.
  • Faster issue resolution: By providing detailed insights into the behavior of the system and its components, distributed tracing can significantly reduce the time it takes to diagnose and resolve issues.
  • Better understanding of dependencies: Distributed tracing helps teams visualize and understand the complex interactions and dependencies between services, making it easier to predict the impact of changes and manage system evolution.
  • Proactive monitoring: With distributed tracing, teams can set up alerts and notifications based on specific criteria, allowing them to identify and address issues before they impact end-users or other components of the system.

Limitations of distributed tracing:

  • Overhead: Instrumenting components and collecting trace data can introduce additional overhead to the system, potentially affecting performance. Careful configuration and sampling strategies can help mitigate this risk.
  • Incomplete traces: In some cases, traces might be incomplete due to missing or misconfigured instrumentation, making it difficult to fully understand the flow of requests or transactions.
  • Complexity in implementation: Properly instrumenting a distributed system can be challenging, particularly for legacy systems or when using multiple programming languages and frameworks. This can lead to increased development time and maintenance efforts.
  • Data privacy and security concerns: Storing and processing trace data might raise data privacy and security concerns, particularly when dealing with sensitive information. Proper measures must be taken to ensure that tracing data is securely stored, processed, and transmitted.

Best Distributed Tracing Tools 


OpenTelemetry Logo

License: Apache License 2.0

GitHub: https://github.com/open-telemetry

OpenTelemetry is an open-source observability framework that provides a unified set of APIs, libraries, agents, and instrumentation for generating and collecting telemetry data, including distributed traces and metrics. 

It is a CNCF project formed by the merger of OpenTracing and OpenCensus, and it aims to simplify observability for developers by providing standardized and vendor-neutral instrumentation. OpenTelemetry supports multiple programming languages and integrates with various backend systems.

Learn more in our detailed guides to OpenTelemetry & OpenTelemetry architecture


DataDog logo

License: Commercial

GitHub: https://github.com/DataDog

Datadog is a commercial monitoring and observability platform that provides distributed tracing, log management, and infrastructure monitoring capabilities. Datadog's Application Performance Monitoring (APM) and Distributed Tracing features enable users to monitor and visualize the performance of their applications, identify bottlenecks, and troubleshoot issues. 

Learn more in our detailed guide to Datadog distributed tracing


Zipkin logo

License: Apache License 2.0

GitHub: https://github.com/openzipkin/zipkin

Zipkin is an open-source distributed tracing system inspired by Google's Dapper project. It provides a simple and efficient way to collect, store, and visualize trace data. Zipkin offers a user-friendly web-based UI to analyze traces and pinpoint performance issues. It supports multiple storage backends, including in-memory, Cassandra, and Elasticsearch.


Jaeger Logo

License:  Apache License 2.0

GitHub: https://github.com/jaegertracing/jaeger

Jaeger is another open-source distributed tracing system, developed by Uber and now part of the CNCF. It provides end-to-end distributed tracing capabilities, along with a highly-scalable and efficient storage backend. Jaeger offers features such as adaptive sampling, advanced visualization, and a rich set of integrations with other observability tools like Prometheus. 

Learn more in our detailed guides to:

  • Jaeger tracing (coming soon)
  • Jaeger Kubernetes (coming soon)
  • Jaeger docker (coming soon)
  • Jaeger monitoring (coming soon)
  • Jaeger opentracing (coming soon)


Prometheus logo

License: Apache License 2.0

GitHub: https://github.com/prometheus/prometheus

Although Prometheus is primarily known as an open-source monitoring and alerting toolkit, it can be used in conjunction with distributed tracing tools like Jaeger and OpenTelemetry to provide a more comprehensive observability solution. 

Prometheus focuses on collecting and processing time-series metrics data from instrumented targets, enabling users to monitor system performance, set up alerts, and analyze trends. Integrating Prometheus with distributed tracing tools enables users to correlate metrics data with trace data, providing a more holistic view of system performance and behavior.

Learn more in our detailed guide to distributed tracing tools.

See Additional Guides on Key Microservices Topics

Together with our content partners, we have authored in-depth guides on several other topics that can also be useful as you explore the world of microservices.

Application Mapping

Authored by CodeSee

Kubernetes Deployment

Authored by Codefresh

Edge Computing        

Authored by Run.AI

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