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Distributed Tracing 101

  |  March 15, 2023
Distributed Tracing 101

The boom of digital commerce is making all businesses take a closer look at how they deliver great customer experiences. To stay competitive, businesses today are using cloud-native architectures, because the cloud-native applications they produce deploy quickly and better support the continuous improvement cycles of agile methodology. Behind the practicality of keeping online customers happy are distributed cloud environments that business applications use for each customer interaction.

While containers, Kubernetes, and microservices enable agile application development and deployment, they also create a gap in monitoring how transactions are performing as they cross multiple boundaries. So, how exactly do you track application performance across multiple microservices and containers? More importantly, how do you pin-point the root cause of an issue in a production environment?

What is Distributed Tracing

Distributed tracing is a key for businesses looking to ensure their applications deliver the best user experience possible. Providing visibility into the performance of each request, distributed tracing shows the end-to-end view of a transaction as it travels across multiple microservices and containers throughout a distributed cloud environment.

Distributed tracing improves the user experience by giving IT teams visibility into distributed cloud environments

A distributed trace consists of a root request that becomes the parent or starting point. Each trace has multiple children with data subsets, all of which travel their own spans crossing multiple containers and services. By having the full visibility of a request from end-to-end, IT teams can identify bottlenecks and troubleshoot issues far quicker than trying to isolate problems by moving through and troubleshooting each container, resource or microservice along the path of each transaction. 

Why is Distributed Tracing Important?

The customer remains king. And businesses need to be proactive about ensuring all applications and services result in a great customer experience. Distributed tracing enables IT teams to identify issues quicker than looking at requests in their isolated containers. Used in parallel with logs and metrics, distributed tracing helps identify where and what is causing an issue. Distributed tracing within an APM tool also supports custom alerts, allowing IT to identify and resolve problems before impacting users. Along with logs and traces, developers can expedite troubleshooting, identify and resolve problems far more efficiently. All this functionality helps users enjoy a great experience with a product. This is where APM solutions come in.

What elements are important to Distributed Tracing? 

Distributed tracing utilizes unique IDs that allow a transaction to be traced from the root request through all of the child spans that lead to the end of that transaction. A distributed transaction should give the overall timing of the entire request from starting point to end point. By framing the whole picture in terms of performance, it’s obvious when something is performing slower than expected. Within that overall view, a distributed transaction also breaks down each item that makes up the full transaction.

All of the calls between the different services should be easy to identify and include the status of that call. Was the request good and returned a 200? Or was there a conflict where IT needed to look into the call from point A to point B? These are all important data points to help when troubleshooting and identifying the root cause of an issue. Data points also help with identifying areas where optimizations will improve the user experience.

Why developers should utilize tools like Prefix 

Most often, distributed tracing is discussed in the context of production application environments and putting out fires that impact users. However, some issues occurring between services can be identified while developers are coding at the start of the application lifecycle. Our Prefix Premium code-profiling solution will soon include distributed tracing. While installed on a developer’s local machine, Prefix Premium helps developers understand how transactions are performing with different calls to outside services and containers. Prefix Premium identifies bottlenecks before QA or staging, and far before applications reach the production environment. By supporting collaboration between teams, Prefix Premium ensures that the code entering QA and then production is at the highest possible quality for your users.


Distributed tracing is extremely important for businesses moving their applications to cloud-native architectures. APM tools are great for monitoring the production environment and helping IT teams be proactive in protecting the quality of the customer experience. Using distributed tracing in pre-production with Prefix Premium is even better and dramatically reduces the amount of issues making their way into production. Keep an eye out for the next release of Prefix Premium and see how application profiling with distributed tracing improves your next development cycle.

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