Unlocking the Mystery: What is the Definition of Distributed Tracing?

Distributed tracing is a must-have tool in the modern software development landscape, with 86% of organizations operating in a multicloud environment in 2020. The technique is crucial for monitoring and debugging microservices-based applications, which have grown more popular due to their scalability and resilience. In this glossary page, you’ll learn what distributed tracing is, how it works, its benefits, best practices for implementation, uses cases, and recommended resources for further reading.

“Distributed tracing is like unraveling the threads of an elaborate tapestry. The detailed patterns tell the story of how a system’s components interact.” – Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO

What is distributed tracing? Definition of Distributed Request Tracing

Distributed tracing is a method for monitoring and profiling large scale, distributed systems, particularly those built using microservices architecture. By following the execution path of individual requests, developers can pinpoint performance bottlenecks, visualize dependencies, and analyze data flow in intricate applications. Such information is invaluable for identifying and troubleshooting issues that usually go unnoticed in traditional monolithic applications.

ℹ️ Synonyms: Distributed tracing synonyms: distributed request tracing, distributed transaction tracing.

How it Works

To understand how distributed tracing works, it is essential to consider some key components:


A trace is a collection of data that represents the lifecycle of a request. Traces show a complete picture of the request execution, from inception to response generation, across microservices.


Each microservice interaction in a trace is represented by a span. A span encapsulates timings, metadata, and context of a specific operation, such as processing time, start and end timestamps, and tags.

Context Propagation

To keep track of the flow of requests from one microservice to another, unique trace and span IDs are propagated via context objects within each request’s headers.

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When a new request is received, an initial span is created, recording its start and end times. As this request traverses through different microservices, a new span is generated for each interaction. These spans are then linked using parent-child relationships, thus creating a detailed trace.

Benefits of Using Distributed Tracing

  • Visibility: Distributed tracing provides insights into the behavior and performance of individual microservices, revealing the dependencies and data flow patterns in complex systems.
  • Debugging: By analyzing traces, developers can identify bottlenecks, latency issues, and errors in the application. This helps accelerate the debugging process and reduces downtimes.
  • Optimization: By understanding how microservices interact and their dependencies, teams can optimize the system for better performance, balance workloads, and manage resources efficiently.
  • Monitoring: With the ability to observe and visualize the flow of requests across microservices, operations teams can proactively monitor the health and performance of the overall architecture in real-time.

Distributed Tracing Use Cases

Some common use cases for distributed tracing include:

  • Monitoring: Observe and measure the performance of distributed systems and assess overall system health.
  • Performance analysis: Identify system bottlenecks, analyze load balancing, and pinpoint the root cause of latency issues.
  • Error diagnosis: Quickly detect and troubleshoot errors that occur in complex interactions between microservices.
  • Capacity planning: Evaluate resource requirements for system growth by analyzing usage patterns and dependencies.
  • Security analysis: Detect and investigate anomalies in the application’s behavior, which could indicate breaches or vulnerabilities.

Code Examples

import { initTracer } from 'jaeger-client';
import { Tags, FORMAT_HTTP_HEADERS } from 'opentracing';

// Initialize tracer
const config = {
  serviceName: 'my-service'
const options = {
  // optional:  enable logging
  logger: {
    info: msg => console.log('INFO ', msg),
    error: msg => console.log('ERROR', msg),
const tracer = initTracer(config, options);

// Start tracing middleware
const tracingMiddleware = (req, res, next) => {
  const parentSpanContext = tracer.extract(FORMAT_HTTP_HEADERS, req.headers);
  const span = tracer.startSpan('http_request', { childOf: parentSpanContext });
  span.setTag(Tags.HTTP_URL, req.url);
  span.setTag(Tags.HTTP_METHOD, req.method);

  // Attach span to request
  req.span = span;

  res.on('finish', () => {
    span.setTag(Tags.HTTP_STATUS_CODE, res.statusCode);


// Another function that's traced
const processRequest = (req, res) => {
  const span = tracer.startSpan('process_request', { childOf: req.span.context() });

  // Do some processing...


// Example usage
app.get('/', (req, res) => {
  processRequest(req, res);
  res.send('Hello, World!');

Best Practices

To ensure effective distributed tracing, it is essential to meticulously instrument and configure your tracing infrastructure. Consistent naming conventions for services, operations, and tags must be used across spans. Additionally, context propagation should be handled with care, ensuring that all trace and span IDs are forwarded across microservices. Adopting open standards such as OpenTracing or OpenTelemetry can help improve interoperability and avoid vendor lock-in. Lastly, integrate tracing data with other monitoring tools like metrics and logs for a comprehensive view of the system’s performance and health.

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Most Recommended Books About Distributed Tracing

  • Mastering Distributed Tracing by Yuri Shkuro – A comprehensive guide to distributed tracing concepts, real-world use cases, and practical tips from an expert in the field.
  • Designing Data-Intensive Applications by Martin Kleppmann – This book covers various techniques and paradigms for building reliable, scalable, and maintainable software, including distributed tracing among other techniques.
  • Production-Ready Microservices by Susan J. Fowler – A handbook for building and operating microservices with a comprehensive section on monitoring and observability, including distributed tracing.


Distributed tracing is an indispensable tool for developers and operations teams working with large-scale, distributed systems. By providing visibility into the convoluted interactions between microservices, this method empowers teams to quickly identify and resolve issues, monitor performance, and optimize resource usage. By implementing best practices and leveraging modern standards, organizations can make the most of distributed tracing capabilities to maintain healthy, efficient, and resilient software applications.

Tagged as

architecture, debugging, definition, distributed tracing, instrumentation

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Back in 2013, I founded Echo with the simple business idea: "Connect great tech companies around the globe with the brightest software engineers in Eastern Europe." We've employed hundreds of talents so far and keep going.
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li-url Lou Reverchuk

IT Entrepreneur

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