APM vs Distributed Tracing

APM stands for Application Performance Management. Both APM and distributed tracing are critical concepts for the management, monitoring, and maintenance of an organization’s network infrastructure, but they are also both different. APM strives to diagnose issues with applications before they become problems and before they lead to criticality, as well as tracing issues that have already become severe. Distributed tracing is a process by which requests are traced throughout an entire application, which becomes more important as applications become more complex.

What is APM?

What is APM? In practice, APM is complicated, but in concept, it’s really quite simple. Application Performance Management is the process by which metrics regarding application performance are monitored. When application performance is not performing as it should be, issues can be escalated and resolved within a dashboard. There are many APM solutions out there, but they all share commonality. They are designed to make sure that applications are working as they should.


Today, most network infrastructures are running hundreds if not thousands of applications and application instances at a time. It can be very difficult to determine which systems are causing problems across the network. But with better APM, dashboards can be used to diagnose application issues before they become significant. Troubleshooting staff can identify applications that are using a suspicious amount of resources and thereby head off significant application performance issues or even potentially malicious attacks.

The history of APM

APM has really existed since the very beginning of applications. Companies have always taken metrics on their applications, such as the number of resources that are being actively used, whether the application is running slowly, and so forth. But in the past, application performance management was on an application basis. In other words, most applications really tracked their own performance, and it was up to the person who was maintaining the system to take a look at each application. On a broad spectrum, there were very few metrics exposed, and therefore it was much harder to try to determine where issues occurred.

Since 2013 and the advent of high profile cloud technologies, however, it has become more necessary to have APM. APM industry software has seen a huge growth and subsequent explosion, because systems are more complex now, and because it is now necessary to be able to track all applications within a system at once rather than track each of them discretely.

What is Distributed Tracing?

Now let’s take a look at Distributed Tracing. Distributed tracing is end-to-end tracking for all requests within an application. This is important because applications today are taking requests from practically anywhere. Consider an IoT device embedded within in a network. It could be talking to a multitude of systems. Distributed tracing is part of what makes it possible to determine where faults are occurring within a system. It’s also called distributed request tracing. It’s especially important not only for monitoring applications but also within microservices architectures.

Today, there are countless applications that are talking to each other. Because bad requests could be passed around, or because a fault could occur at any layer of the system, it becomes very difficult to track everything. But with distributed tracing, the job is somewhat easier, because distributed tracing makes sure that all requests are unique and identified, and that they are able to be subsequently addressed. Distributed tracing is a part of application performance management insofar as it is part of what makes it possible and effective. But distributed tracing is not all of application performance monitoring nor is it synonymous with it.

The history of Distributed Tracing

Like APM, distributed tracing has become increasingly important within just a few years, because applications have become more complex, and because the networks themselves have become more sprawling. In the past, distributed tracing occurred discretely within the application itself. There was an operating system layer and an application layer, and the application really only talked to the operating system.

Today, though, requests can flow through countless applications, and even loop through applications. With microservices architectures, there can be countless interactions between different services and applications, and it becomes very hard to trace where a request has gone wrong, how long a request is taking, and more. This makes it harder to monitor the raw performance of an application because there are so many moving parts.

So, as with APM, distributed tracing has become incredibly more important within the latter half of the last decade. Systems that are now using virtualized systems, microservices architectures, containerization, and other complex network infrastructure, are now finding themselves in need of better tracing services. And today, there are many distributed tracing systems available, though not all of them have the same features.

APM vs Distributed Tracing

APM and distributed tracing work together to make sure that organizations are able to appropriately track their applications. Without application performance monitoring, it is very difficult for an organization to determine whether their applications are operating effectively. But without distributed tracing, it’s also difficult if not impossible to determine where applications are experiencing issues, or where performance issues are occurring. Both APM and distributed tracing are becoming more important as network infrastructures, applications, and microservices become more complex, and as they start to interact with each other.

Best Practices for APM & Distributed Tracing

As with any system, best practices make it possible to fully utilize a solution. For APM and distributed tracing, there are the following important best practices:

  • Standardize everything. This includes application names, errors, logging, and more. The greater the levels of standardization are within a system, the less likely there is to be any confusion. Standardization, of course, has to occur during the initial stages of the architecture, which is what makes it important to understand APM and distributed tracing principles from the start.
  • Review APM reports and monitoring. Always make sure the right dashboards are in place to determine whether the system is active and correct. Reliable application performance management provides greater reports and monitoring from the start.
  • Always have individual and unique IDs. Event IDs make it far easier to improve upon traceability, thereby making it easier for organizations to track requests through multiple applications.
  • Pay attention to microservices architecture. Of all, microservices architecture is what makes traceability such a challenge today. Applications need to be able to provide high-level logging throughout the system, including microservices and other applications.
  • Consider managed services. Managed services can provide APM and distributed tracing for an organization without having to dip into the organization’s own administrative and operational overhead, thereby making it far easier for the organization to maintain its observability and monitoring without issue.

But these only serve as an introduction to the system. APM and distributed tracing may be simple concepts but their implementation can be quite complex.

Conclusion

Everyone knows that application management is important, or even critical, to a network. But many organizations don’t think about their application performance management or distributed tracing until they have already established their systems. It’s best for an organization to work to making sure that their APM and distributed tracing systems are already in place. Otherwise, it is much harder for them to implement it later on.