How the Four Components of a Distributed Tracing System Work Together


Ten years ago, essentially the only people thinking hard about distributed tracing were academics and a handful of large internet companies. Today, it’s turned into table stakes for any organization adopting microservices. The rationale is well-established: microservices fail in surprising and often spectacular ways, and distributed tracing is the best way to describe and diagnose those failures.

That said, if you set out to integrate distributed tracing into your own application, you’ll quickly realize that the term “Distributed Tracing” means different things to different people. Furthermore, the tracing ecosystem is crowded with partially-overlapping projects with similar charters. This article describes the four (potentially) independent components in distributed tracing, and how they fit together.

Distributed tracing: A mental model

Most mental models for tracing descend from Google’s Dapper paperOpenTracinguses similar nouns and verbs, so we will borrow the terms from that project…