We've noticed people often use "observability" and "visibility" interchangeably in application performance monitoring (APM), but you should know that these terms are fundamentally different. Learning the distinctions between observability vs. visibility can help when monitoring your systems and allow you to solve issues with your technology that might jeopardize your business.
Gartner's "Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2023: Applied Observability" report offers greater definitions for observability and visibility:
"Observability differs from visibility by contextualizing data. Hence, observability is focused on understanding the health of the system as a whole, not merely individual parts of it. Visibility is focused on understanding discrete parts of a system and often done in isolation."
Observability in APM is the ability to observe a system as a whole and generate context about that system. This context can help you identify and solve problems like a system failure because you have a deep understanding of what is happening within your technology. With the latest observability tools, you can generate real-time insights about a system and how a failure or other problem happened.
In its report, Gartner uses the example of a car's exhaust system to further define observability. If you can determine what is happening inside the exhaust merely by observing it and not examining its individual components, that's what observability does in APM. For example, if you can tell that the exhaust is burning oil without looking at the exhaust's components.
Visibility lets you see the general state of different system components without any intricate detail or context. You'll still be able to identify a system failure, for example, but you can't observe the system as a whole, and it's more difficult to find out the root cause of that failure. Because of this, visibility is more reactive, letting you respond to system issues after they happen.
Observability, however, is more proactive, allowing you to identify issues that might occur in the future because you have a more comprehensive overview of how that system functions.
Expanding on Gartner's car exhaust example, we can say that visibility is like examining an individual exhaust component that's failing rather than looking at the entire exhaust system as a whole.
There are several differences between observability vs. visibility in APM that you need to know about.
Both observability and visibility software tools send alerts when something happens to your systems, allowing you to take quick action and solve a problem. However, visibility can't provide the context observability does, which can make it hard for your teams to rectify issues and find their root cause.
Here's an example of a visibility alert:
You are experiencing a system outage.
Now here's an example of an observability alert:
You are experiencing a system outage because of a cybersecurity attack. Follow these steps to solve the issue.
As you can see, observability provides more context than visibility. It also offers specific information for IT teams and DevOps professionals, which can improve remediation — the act of mitigating a security vulnerability or threat.
Because of the additional context that observability provides, monitoring tools and apps that focus on this method provide detailed metrics that improve the user experience and reveal actionable insights about network security, network observability, network environments, connectivity, cloud computing, cloud security, and other areas of system performance.
These metrics can help you discover blind spots in your systems and networks that you haven’t evaluated yet and provide a 360-degree overview of performance issues.
Visibility tools still generate insights about network security, environments, cloud computing, and other system areas, but these won’t be as granular. Instead, you can view data summaries and view problems at a glance. Because of their simplicity, visibility tools tend to have an easier learning curve. You can view data insights without wading through complex reports or dashboards, which might improve the end-user experience.
Both observability and visibility software might use artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide data about system monitoring and generate deeper insights.
Observability and visibility both detect problems with your system, helping you identify dangers and make changes to your technology after a malicious attack, natural disaster, insider threat, or another event. However, visibility is best for quickly discovering issues, while observability is best for finding the root causes of those problems.
Here’s an example of how both of these methods can help with network bandwidth. A visibility tool will notify you about a spike in traffic, suggesting that you might experience an outage soon. You can see your network bandwidth on a dashboard and view the traffic spike. An observability tool might send you a notification about a spike in traffic and the reason for that spike, such as a DNS attack.
After learning of the event that caused an issue with your system, you can take quick action and protect your business.
Many tools combine observability and visibility for a more comprehensive approach to system monitoring. That allows you to both observe your system as a whole and view individual system parts in isolation. Depending on the context of your monitoring operations, you can see the general state of components in your system and then add context to any incidents you encounter.
You might also want to use separate observability and visibility tools to monitor systems. While some features could overlap, you can monitor your systems more effectively and solve issues that might jeopardize your business and put your valuable data at risk.
In summary, observability is more focused on understanding the internal workings of a system through tools like logs, metrics, and tracing, while visibility encompasses a broader perspective, including both internal and external aspects, to provide a comprehensive view of the system's status and performance.
Businesses often use observability and visibility to refer to the same thing, but these methods for system monitoring are completely different. While visibility is good when you need a summary of your system, observability drills down data and then contextualizes it, providing you with more intelligence about your technology.
At Adservio, we can help you find the right observability and visibility tools for your business so you can optimize system monitoring. Contact us to learn more.