Continuous Integration Observability Explained

Continuous integration (CI) is a DevOps practice whereby code contributed by engineers is integrated into a project frequently and automatically. CI involves the use of a shared version control system (VCS), which is usually accompanied by other tools (including testing tools,) to manage source code. Engineers push code changes using the shared VCS; the code is then reviewed and tested before the build process is completed. This entire process is automated to maximize speed and performance.

Observability refers to the practice of measuring a system’s internal state based on its corresponding output. It allows you to gain insights into a system’s state by examining logs, data and other key metrics.

CI observability, therefore, provides visibility into your CI pipeline’s workflow. As more code is integrated, observability becomes an important process so you can understand how your infrastructure is performing and ensure that quality code is being shipped.

Why CI Observability Matters

A typical application’s software is a complex beast with lots of interconnected components. As a result, issues or failures can occur in different components and at various workflow stages. CI observability gives you knowledge about your software infrastructure and workflow so when a problem inevitably arises, you can identify and fix it as quickly as possible.

CI observability allows you to:

  • Assess the risk level of every pull request (PR): In a typical CI workflow, engineers generate a high volume of pull requests. With CI observability, you can detect and analyze issues/failures (or the likelihood of those occurring) for every PR. This stops potential problems in their tracks in the early stages of development — especially major flaws — thus limiting future negative costs and consequences.
  • Reduce test cycle times via test prioritization: Test prioritization is a process whereby tests are ranked based on factors such as features, functionalities and critical components. This creates upfront demands with regard to cost and time, but ultimately helps to reduce test cycle time by producing effective and relevant tests that allow you to make any necessary fixes.
  • Identify erroneous, slow and flaky tests: Flaky tests are frustrating. Nobody enjoys finding out that a test that was passed previously is now being failed. CI observability helps you identify such tests, which in turn allows you to remove or improve them and ensure that only quality, well-tested code is shipped.
  • Improve build times: Optimizing your build speed is crucial in development to help you ship your software sooner. To achieve this, your workflow needs proper testing and automation. However, factors such as flaky or erroneous tests or bugs in your code can hinder this. CI observability shows you where obstacles to build speed exist so you can take care of them and improve your build times.

Pillars of Observability

Now that we understand why CI observability is so crucial, let’s explore what exactly observability is in more depth. Observability consists of three major processes: logging, metrics, and tracing. Taken together, they give a holistic picture of your software’s health.

Logging

Logging is the process of recording data about events with corresponding timestamps as well as indexes with which they can be retrieved. For example, if a payment transaction fails in a payment system, such an event can be logged with the timestamp at which point the event occurred as well as other necessary details that may give you insights into the incident. Logs are not only useful for logging errors; recording logs is a general good practice because logs produce data for quantitative and analytical purposes.

Let’s review some benefits of logging:

  • Event records can be retrieved with ease at any point in time and for any reason using its search index.
  • Logs play an important role when you need to find and resolve errors.
  • Some logs can be monitored in real time, making it easier to find issues — and resolutions — quickly.
  • They are plain texts, which makes them easy to store.

Metrics

Metrics are quantifiable numeric values that can be used to measure your application’s behavior, health and performance. They can be collected, correlated, aggregated and analyzed in order to understand the state of your system as a whole.

While logs keep records of events, metrics go one step deeper by producing data from your system; while logs record events, metrics can indicate which events are actually important. As such, metrics can be obtained from logs.

Some benefits of metrics include:

  • Providing you with explicit data by which you can measure your application’s health and progress.
  • Detecting anomalies in your system, which can assist you in predicting future problems.

Tracing

Tracing involves tracking an operation or request’s flow from its initialization to its completion. The information obtained is intended to be used to optimize your application’s performance. Tracing helps engineers to figure out which stages in the workflow contain bottlenecks, providing information including how and where the error occurred, which feature/function triggered the error and which change made the error.

Tracing offers benefits such as:

  • Providing visibility into various stages in the path of an operation; this can be useful for optimizing the application.
  • Helping you to detect areas in the operation path where issues occur.
  • Providing information with which you can improve your users’ experience.

CI Observability Challenges

When it comes to CI observability, specific difficulties are likely to arise. You may encounter challenges that pertain particularly to your application’s complexity and size, which produce difficulties common to CI pipeline observability efforts.

Handling Complexities

As more code is integrated, your application will grow increasingly complex. Gaining full insight into, and understanding of, your application might become difficult and overwhelming as you need to manage a growing, multipart application. As your application scales, so does the challenge of observability.

Real-Time Visibility

While being able to monitor your application in real time is helpful, finding or creating an appropriate tool can take time if you opt to build and/or implement this tool in-house, or require significant financial outlay if you opt to outsource. However, without real-time monitoring, you won’t be able to detect errors in the early stages of your CI workflow, and this can create knock-on costs, both in time and money, for your team.

Observing Substantial CI Pipelines

Depending on the size of your project and team structure, the source code for your application could become overwhelming for any single person to understand. Gaining proper visibility into your CI workflow is critical when it comes to monitoring stages of your workflow. Observability helps you to identify relevant metrics and act upon them quickly and allows a team of any size and complexity to stay on the same page. As such, CI observability is essential for efficient, effective processes and for an optimized user experience.

Observability Tools

Observability tools have functionalities and features that allow you to perform actions including monitoring, tracing and logging. As such, they make it easier to gain essential knowledge about your application’s health and performance, thereby gaining insights into any fixes or improvements required in your system.

Let’s review some key qualities that you should be looking for in your observability tool:

  • Documentation: Good documentation makes the tool easier and quicker for your engineers to set up and use.
  • Detailed dashboard: The tool should have a dashboard that is able to provide you with comprehensive information, as well as offer your team a pleasant user experience.
  • Automatic error detection/analysis: The tool should be capable of detecting errors automatically at various stages of your workflow.
  • Event alerts: Alerts notify you when certain anomalies occur within your application, allowing a rapid response to critical events.
  • Event logging: The tool should support logging data in a way that is accessible and easy to retrieve.
  • Workflow monitoring: Monitoring CI workflows and showing analytics based on the system’s performance gives a holistic view of your system.
  • Real-time monitoring: The tool should be able to perform operations and return data on the go.

Common Problems with Monitoring Tools

Having a powerful observability tool that offers all of the above features is essential to optimizing your CI pipeline. However, many tools on the market today, whether APMs or error-tracking tools — fail in ways that can make full CI pipeline visibility a challenge:

  • Some tools lack sufficient detail when it comes to applications with multiple interdependent components, limiting their usefulness and their capacity to provide full visibility into your CI pipeline.
  • The volume of data generated from applications with complex architectures can be high, and this in turn makes it difficult to locate issues in the application. Most tools don’t handle this complexity adequately because they aren’t set up to handle and present huge volumes of data.
  • Troubleshooting and debugging can be a hassle with tools that lack the necessary features to effectively allow all relevant stakeholders to stay abreast of the state of your CI pipeline.

It’s essential to select an observability tool that can handle complex architectures, high volumes of data and large, multifaceted teams. Even if your application doesn’t have these needs today, you need a tool that can grow with you as you scale your application.

Introduction to Foresight

Foresight is a comprehensive observability tool that provides you with complete visibility into the state of your CI/CD pipelines. Foresight helps you assess the risk of new changes, reduce build times, and ship quality software via powerful features.

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https://thenewstack.io/continuous-integration-observability-explained/

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