The Evolution of OpenTelemetry with Austin Parker
Austin Parker, Community Maintainer at OpenTelemetry, joins Corey on Screaming in the Cloud to discuss OpenTelemetry’s mission in the world of observability. Austin explains how the OpenTelemetry community was able to scale the OpenTelemetry project to a commercial offering, and the way Open Telemetry is driving innovation in the data space. Corey and Austin also discuss why Austin decided to write a book on OpenTelemetry, and the book’s focus on the evergreen applications of the tool.
Austin Parker is the OpenTelemetry Community Maintainer, as well as an event organizer, public speaker, author, and general bon vivant. They've been a part of OpenTelemetry since its inception in 2019.
- OpenTelemetry: https://opentelemetry.io/
Learning OpenTelemetry early release: https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/learning-opentelemetry/9781098147174/
- Page with Austin’s social links: https://social.ap2.io
Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.
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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. It’s been a few hundred episodes since I had Austin Parker on to talk about the things that Austin cares about. But it’s time to rectify that. Austin is the community maintainer for OpenTelemetry, which is a CNCF project. If you’re unfamiliar with, we’re probably going to fix that in short order. Austin, Welcome back, it’s been a month of Sundays.
Austin: It has been a month-and-a-half of Sundays. A whole pandemic-and-a-half.
Corey: So, much has happened since then. I tried to instrument something with OpenTelemetry about a year-and-a-half ago, and in defense to the project, my use case is always very strange, but it felt like—a lot of things have sharp edges, but it felt like this had so many sharp edges that you just pivot to being a chainsaw, and I would have been at least a little bit more understanding of why it hurts so very much. But I have heard from people that I trust that the experience has gotten significantly better. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of me lobbing passive-aggressive bug reports at you have for you to fix in a scenario in which you can’t possibly refuse me, let’s start with the beginning. What is OpenTelemetry?
Austin: That’s a great question. Thank you for asking it. So, OpenTelemetry is an observability framework. It is run by the CNCF, you know, home of such wonderful award-winning technologies as Kubernetes, and you know, the second biggest source of YAML in the known universe [clear throat].
Corey: On some level, it feels like that is right there with hydrogen as far as unlimited resources in our universe.
Austin: It really is. And, you know, as we all know, there are two things that make, sort of, the DevOps and cloud world go around: one of them being, as you would probably know, AWS bills; and the second being YAML. But OpenTelemetry tries to kind of carve a path through this, right, because we’re interested in observability. And observability, for those that don’t know or have been living under a rock or not reading blogs, it’s a lot of things. It’s a—but we can generally sort of describe it as, like, this is how you understand what your system is doing.
I like to describe it as, it’s a way that we can model systems, especially complex, distributed, or decentralized software systems that are pretty commonly found in larg—you know, organizations of every shape and size, quite often running on Kubernetes, quite often running in public or private clouds. And the goal of observability is to help you, you know, model this system and understand what it’s doing, which is something that I think we can all agree, a pretty important part of our job as software engineers. Where OpenTelemetry fits into this is as the framework that helps you get the telemetry data you need from those systems, put it into a universal format, and then ship it off to some observability back-end, you know, a Prometheus or a Datadog or whatever, in order to analyze that data and get answers to your questions you have.
Corey: From where I sit, the value of OTel—or OpenTelemetry; people in software engineering love abbreviations that are impenetrable from the outside, so of course, we’re going to lean into that—but what I found for my own use case is the shining value prop was that I could instrument an application with OTel—in theory—and then send whatever I wanted that was emitted in terms of telemetry, be it events, be it logs, be it metrics, et cetera, and send that to any or all of a curation of vendors on a case-by-case basis, which meant that suddenly it was the first step in, I guess, an observability pipeline, which increasingly is starting to feel like a milit—like an industrial-observability complex, where there’s so many different companies out there, it seems like a good approach to use, to start, I guess, racing vendors in different areas to see which performs better. One of the challenges I’ve had with that when I started down that path is it felt like every vendor who was embracing OTel did it from a perspective of their implementation. Here’s how to instrument it to—send it to us because we’re the best, obviously. And you’re a community maintainer, despite working at observability vendors yourself. You have always been one of those community-first types where you care more about the user experience than you do this quarter for any particular employer that you have, which to be very clear, is intended as a compliment, not a terrifying warning. It’s why you have this authentic air to you and why you are one of those very few voices that I trust in a space where normally I need to approach it with significant skepticism. How do you see the relationship between vendors and OpenTelemetry?
Austin: I think the hard thing is that I know who signs my paychecks at the end of the day, right, and you always have, you know, some level of, you know, let’s say bias, right? Because it is a bias to look after, you know, them who brought you to the dance. But I think you can be responsible with balancing, sort of, the needs of your employer, and the needs of the community. You know, the way I’ve always described this is that if you think about observability as, like, a—you know, as a market, what’s the total addressable market there? It’s literally everyone that uses software; it’s literally every software company.
Which means there’s plenty of room for people to make their numbers and to buy and sell and trade and do all this sort of stuff. And by taking that approach, by taking sort of the big picture approach and saying, “Well, look, you know, there’s going to be—you know, of all these people, there are going to be some of them that are going to use our stuff and there are some of them that are going to use our competitor’s stuff.” And that’s fine. Let’s figure out where we can invest… in an OpenTelemetry, in a way that makes sense for everyone and not just, you know, our people. So, let’s build things like documentation, right?
You know, one of the things I’m most impressed with, with OpenTelemetry over the past, like, two years is we went from being, as a project, like, if you searched for OpenTelemetry, you would go and you would get five or six or ten different vendor pages coming up trying to tell you, like, “This is how you use it, this is how you use it.” And what we’ve done as a community is we’ve said, you know, “If you go looking for documentation, you should find our website. You should find our resources.” And we’ve managed to get the OpenTelemetry website to basically rank above almost everything else when people are searching for help with OpenTelemetry. And that’s been really good because, one, it means that now, rather than vendors or whoever coming in and saying, like, “Well, we can do this better than you,” we can be like, “Well, look, just, you know, put your effort here, right? It’s already the top result. It’s already where people are coming, and we can prove that.”
And two, it means that as people come in, they’re going to be put into this process of community feedback, where they can go in, they can look at the docs, and they can say, “Oh, well, I had a bad experience here,” or, “How do I do this?” And we get that feedback and then we can improve the docs for everyone else by acting on that feedback, and the net result of this is that more people are usi