If you haven’t yet heard the term “network observability,” you will be hearing it soon. And I predict you’ll be hearing it a lot. Some say that network observability is just marketing hype from vendors. They say, “networks have always been observable, so there’s nothing new here.” I say network observability is not just vendor hype, and this blog will make the case.
Let’s back up for a minute and talk about what “observability” means. The concept of observability has taken hold in the DevOps, SRE and application performance monitoring (APM) space. Thought leaders, especially Honeycomb, do a great job teaching the industry why observability as a concept is unique and important. The term has a literal engineering definition, that, in a nutshell, means the internal state of any system is knowable solely by external observation. Such a system is said to be “observable.”
In networking, this would mean that you can understand what’s going on in your network by interpreting the network’s telemetry data. In the practice, that would mean answering questions such as: What is causing a drop in traffic? Why is my bandwidth bill so high? And what configuration change caused this behavior?
Observability is not a binary attribute. There are degrees to which a network can be observable. Indeed, classic NPM tools have allowed some investigation of problems. And with yesterday’s relatively simple fixed-configuration networks, it was possible to explore and sometimes find the cause of unexpected problems — some degree of network observability.
But the critical point here is the trend toward cloud networking, and related trends such as SD-WAN have changed the game. There has been a significant loss of observability for the network, and the classic NPM (network performance monitoring) tools have not kept up. Here are some of the problems of classic NPM:
So, at a minimum, networks are less observable than they used to be.
Let’s face it, the game for networking has changed. It has changed in two major ways:
Cloud changes everything. Cloud networking is not simply a re-implementation of an existing network architecture within a cloud provider’s domain. Cloud-native applications are fundamentally different, and cloud computing creates new and unexpected challenges for networking. Commonly cited problems are a loss of visibility or understanding of the topology, loss of control over network policies (because developers can now create network constructs on their own), and new networking tools from the cloud providers that are often siloed and shallow in features.
Networking is intersecting the APM domain. Network practitioners have always known this, but the fact that the network plays a major role in application performance has become apparent to application developers in the last couple of years. And the vendor community has responded. Cisco/AppDymanics acquired ThousandEyes, Splunk acquired Flowmill, and New Relic has partnered with Kentik as its network observability solution. Datadog, Dynatrace and other market leaders have added significant network observability capabilities to their platforms.
So, now that application developers, SREs, DevOps and cloud infrastructure engineers all have a growing interest in networking, how are we networking veterans going to help and collaborate with our new “network-very-interested” co-workers? Pull out our 15-year-old textbooks on NPM? Teach them how SNMP works? Give them a training class on packet capture and analysis?
Maybe, but I wouldn’t try that. A lot of the underlying networking technology has not changed, except in the cloud where the physical and data link layers are totally different. I don’t want to disrespect anything that we’ve done in networking in the last two decades, but in digitally-evolved organizations, networking needs a new face. Networking needs a new context - and network observability is the right idea at the right time.
The most important context for network observability is application performance and the digital experience of users. And since observability tools are used to measure and diagnose problems with application performance, network observability makes perfect sense as the moniker for the networking part of the discipline.
As networkers, there are steps we can take to increase the importance of network observability as a critical part of the picture. One step is to always talk about network issues in the context of application performance. For example:
For Kentik, network observability is a theme that aligns with our current solution and our product roadmap. However, just as importantly, network observability is a reframing of the problem that better aligns with the new challenges seen, particularly in cloud networking. And, observability as a concept resonates with the way application, DevOps and SRE teams see their challenges.
As a business, it is important for us to help companies understand what problems we solve, how those problems are impactful to their business and how Kentik’s solution can help. To us, network observability is not a marketing gimmick or just a new label on network monitoring. It is representative of a change in the way networking is understood as a part of the application and the lens through which modern infrastructure and cloud teams see planning, running and fixing the network.
At Kentik, we won’t change our minds about wanting to better explain our solution and have that better resonate with customers. And…if you want to call this good marketing…thanks for the compliment!