You may have heard the term “network observability” regarding solutions that offer a deep and contextual view into the network. You’ve likely heard other terms, such as “network visibility”, “network visualization” and of course “network monitoring.” But, experts argue, what these terms each truly means is still open for debate.

Network monitoring is a decades-old, well-established term that any IT pro worth their salt understands. We tackled IT infrastructure monitoring (ITIM), a term that supplants network monitoring for high-end solutions, in another blog, What is Infrastructure Monitoring? Is it Different from Network Monitoring? Today we will dive into network observability: What does it mean, and is it truly distinct from good old network monitoring?

Defining Network Observability Is a Tricky Matter

Is it really a separate category from network monitoring? That all depends on whom you ask.

If you ask Gartner, they pooh-pooh the idea in no uncertain terms. “Network observability” is largely a buzzword, with no concrete definition beyond "network visibility." "It’s not meaningfully different from what has long been available in Network Performance Monitoring and Diagnostics NPMD products,” analyst Andrew Lerner argued in a Gartner blog post. “Many vendors are using the term ‘observability’ to differentiate their products. However, little consensus exists on the definition of observability and the benefits it provides, leading to confusion among I&O leaders purchasing tools,” he said. 

For Gartner, though, “observability” itself does have a meaning. “Observability is the characteristic of software and systems that allows them to be ‘seen’ and allows questions about their behavior to be answered,” the company explained.

Observability is an evolution of established monitoring, emphasizing visibility of the state of the digital service by exploring high cardinality data outputs from the application. This contrasts with traditional forms of monitoring that focus on the individual components that make up the service. To fully realize the promise of modern development methodologies, applications must be built with “observability-driven development.” 

Monitoring, as commonly implemented, relies on building dashboards and alerting to escalate known problem scenarios when they occur. However, even in relatively simple applications, previously unknown problems happen frequently, especially at times of high load such as peak retail periods. In these circumstances, monitoring dashboards appear green while the actual status, as reflected perhaps by irate clients on social media, is red. This phenomenon is so common that it has a name, “watermelon dashboards.” 

Observability enables quick interrogation of a digital service to identify the underlying cause of performance degradation, even when it has never occurred before. 

What Network Observability Believers Say

TechTarget knows a thing or two about technology and sees something of meaning in the term network observability. “Traditional network monitoring is useful for collecting data about network issues. But network observability can add further insights into network health and end-user experience,” the company argues in Network Observability vs. Monitoring: What's the Difference?.

So, what is the observability secret sauce? TechTarget was kind enough to build a chart summarizing network observability ingredients.

Observability, in this view, concentrates on end-user experience, something application performance monitoring (APM) tools—often available as part of a network monitoring solution—offer. “Observability tends to focus less on the networking components themselves and instead on the experience from an end-user perspective. It places greater focus on monitoring performance metrics from one end of a connection to another, as opposed to monitoring each individual network device in between,” TechTarget believes.

Observing Distributed Systems

Another TechTarget article, The Role of Network Observability in Distributed Systems, finds another case for network observability. “This is the case for network observability, a term that network professionals could confuse with network monitoring—justifiably so. Yet, network observability originated due to network systems becoming more distributed. Network pros may struggle to fully view or understand distributed systems, and the goal of network observability is to make these systems more transparent and easier to understand, according to author Dinesh Dutt. If network pros can understand their distributed systems, they can then control, build and manage them better as well.”

This argument fails to understand how network monitoring has evolved, however. First, a network itself is a distributed system. Second, networking monitoring solutions can fully watch and track distributed systems, applications, virtual systems and even cloud services.

Our Favored Observability Definition

The meaning of Network Observability becomes clearer as observability solutions such as Progress WhatsUp Gold take hold. “To ensure optimized and secure network operations, operations teams need to transition from network monitoring tools that sample data at regular intervals to a network observability platform. Given the dynamic nature of modern applications, this transition entails network observability platforms continuously collecting deep, granular data (including metrics, events, logs, and traces) from network traffic, network devices, and devices attached to the network to detect and fix issues in an ephemeral modern application environment,” contends ESG in the Choosing the Right Network Observability Platform for Highly Distributed Environments research paper.

The key is to have deep and full data-driven visibility into the network. “The key to effectively managing these highly distributed, yet connected, environments is the ability to have granular, end-to-end network visibility and the ability to collect and correlate this data. Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) research highlights that virtually all organizations (99%) believe that having end-to-end visibility is either important (29%) or very important (70%)—which includes visibility to remote sites and employees,” ESG argues.

Network Monitoring as the Basis of Observability, Security, Application Experience and More

The basis of observability is watching (otherwise known as monitoring) the network. So it all starts with monitoring. Today’s network monitoring solutions such as WhatsUp Gold are kind of blank slates upon which you add complimentary solutions such as APM and anomaly detection.

We argue that network observability, to the extent that it is a distinct category, is best served up by your trusty network monitoring solution.

Become a Network Observability Guru

Learn all you need to know by reading the Choosing the Right Network Observability Platform for Highly Distributed Environments paper, and learn:

  • How the modern IT environment has rapidly evolved into a highly distributed state
  • Why these highly distributed environments are more complex to manage
  • The value of comprehensive network information through observability
  • The top characteristics to look for in an end-to-end network observability platform

Watch and Learn

If you prefer to learn by watching, tune into our on-demand webinar How to Achieve Full Stack Observability in Highly Distributed Environments and discover:

  • What is observability and why is it critical to your network operations?
  • What do we mean by highly distributed environments?
  • The types of data collected and used for observability
  • The factors you must consider when selecting an observability platform

Watch the webinar today to find your answers to the Great Observability Debate.

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