Observability – Is it IT Voyeurism?

As I worked to develop guidance around AIOps, I soon found that other commonly used terms were equally confusing to people in our industry. How is it that an industry with so many highly educated professionals can have so many problems with words? The latest IT linguistics conundrum is “observability.”

While developing my AIOps reference architecture – stay tuned for that report coming soon – I sought input from my colleagues Will McKeon-White and Naveen Chhabra on “What is observability?”  Of course, those talks were very insightful. A simultaneous surprise came soon after I posted my AIOps is a riddle blog. Andreas Prins VP Product Management at StackState jumped exactly on the “observability” topic reaffirming the conversation I just had with Will and Naveen. Hence this blog, and why Naveen has joined me to co-author it. Let’s take a quick look at it…


Let’s get a few definitions out of the way first. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary;

  • Observability: capable of being observed
  • Observer: a representative sent to observe but not participate officially in an activity
  • Monitor: to watch, keep track of, or check usually for a special purpose
  • Observed: to make a scientific observation on or of

To me, these all sound very similar. One is the action – of the observer – to observe or monitor and the other – of the target – that is being observed or monitored. If we take this out just a bit further, with an engineering or object-oriented programing (OOP) slant – to an IT perspective – it’s about understanding what’s going on with that entity – the target. It is also about the entity’s willingness to share details about what it’s doing and feeling that may not be publicly available. The terms for this behavior in Object-oriented Analysis & Design (OOA&D) are encapsulation and abstraction, more on these terms in the next blog.

Are Observability & Monitoring any different from each other?

Let’s revisit the definitions and string it all together. Observability is when an object makes itself available to be watched in a manner that it deems suitable and appropriate. It provides as little or as much information as it wants and in only the manner with which it is comfortable.

IT objects that are “monitored” have had their exposure already defined. There are attributes and characteristics about their state that the observer is allowed to learn. That sounds a lot like being observed, no? The object shares with external entities, that know how to speak its language, information about itself when it is asked to share it. While there are nuanced differences between them, this is essentially, once again the story of an “Observer” and the “Observed”.

What’s the Jubilation?

We believe the intention of observability was to be more active, whereas monitoring is more passive. The lack of clarity between the two however has caused some confusion that will only get worse as we move towards a more automation-driven setting. If you passively observe a device, is that the same as passively monitoring it? That can potentially differentiate the two, but it needs to be clarified so that we are all on the same page.

Words should not matter

The moral of the story here is that the words are far less important than the actions. Nobody can argue that as I&O professionals, we need to have insight into what is going on with the tech stack that delivers services for all business stakeholders. We must know what is available and how to retrieve it so that we can act on it.

In the end, whether you’re observing or monitoring a device, your business success is solely dependent on how well the observer acts on the inputs or signals it receives from the observed entity. Regardless of what you call it, we need to get this goal accomplished.

Join the Conversation

We invite you to reach out to us through social media if you want to provide general feedback. If you prefer more formal or private discussions, email inquiry@forrester.com to set up a meeting! Click on either of our links below to follow our research and continue the discussion.

Carlos at Forrester.com or Naveen at Forrester.com.







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