Bulletin 5 April 2019: On visibility vs observability, ecosystems and tree hugging

I’m just back from São Paulo, where I was hosting a travel technology conference. Don’t ask me how I get into these things: I sometimes feel like Mr Benn, the cheery chap from the children’s series who walks through a magic door and into his next adventure. 

But I digress. Knowing the value of such things, I gave my introduction in Portuguese; I also had my presentation slides translated (thank you Vanessa, Rodriguo, Paula and team). Which led to a number of discussions about the meaning of words. 

I try not to use jargon, I really do; when I find myself doing so, I endeavour to explain it. But sometimes, what I assume is a standard phrase, widely adopted, turns out not to be the case. Take, for example, ‘ecosystem’ — which in Brazil is as likely to have ecological, as business connotations. 

The phrase concerned was: “Embrace the ecosystem.” Makes perfect sense, right, particularly in this networked, open, collaborative age? For sure, in principle, but it could just as easily read “Hug a tree,” which wasn’t quite what I was trying to get across. 

That was only part of the issue, as the words weren’t directly replaceable. It wasn’t just the jargon but assumptions about context — if someone wasn’t aware that a collaborative network of suppliers existed, for example, should they really be advised to embrace it? 

In the end, I went for “Actively engage in open partnerships” (or indeed, “Esteja aberto em suas parcerias”). I was aiming for a spirit of proactivity, an open-ness to new forms of collaboration. All good, I hope it came across. Even if one participant did say, “You could have just used ecosystem.”

All of which is a long-winded introduction to a word I have only recently come across: that of ‘observability’. As I have written before, the world of cloud-native startups has emerged separate from that of enterprise IT: it is natural, therefore, that it has its own terminology and indeed, jargon. 

It is also natural that such turns of phrase should be used in the belief they are some way normal or well-understood. I paraphrase but “organisations need observability” was pretty much the gist of what was said. Sounded legit, I thought, hoping that I would understand more as the conversation went on. 

And indeed I did. It is a thing, that in the world of cloud-based, distributed applications, it can be very hard to know which bit of which microservice is doing what. So, if the whole application is running slow, the challenge is knowing where the problem is. 

Observability, then, is about knowing what is going on, where, in a cloud-native application. There’s a neat explanation here, which uses Twitter as an example. The article goes on to say how observability is more than just monitoring, which is all well and good. But. 

And there is a but. There’s a hidden assumption in the middle, that the challenge is unique to these new-fangled, cloud-based applications. For sure, they are pretty amazing — the fact I can get a live feed from a globally accessible messaging platform is incredible. 

Yet old-fangled applications can also be complex and highly distributed, requiring notions of, well, observability. Trouble is, they don’t use the term; they don’t even frame the problem in the same way. 

In large-scale enterprise applications, the approach is more around “end-to-end service management.” That is, the pieces making up the delivery of a service should be trace-able, from user interface right down to the server hardware, so that problems can be solved when things go wrong. 

Clearly, massive overlaps exist between the two notions. But they illustrate how difficult dialogues between cloud-native and traditional enterprise groups can be. Each might think (as I did, I confess, a little bit, with ‘ecosystem’), “Surely they’ll understand what I mean, it’s obvious, right?”

A long time ago, when I co-wrote ‘The Technology Garden’ with Dale, Neil and Neil, we established a core tenet of IT delivery as “Establish a Common Language.” At the time we were talking about common terminology between the different parts of the business and IT; the same applies to our bifurcated technology industry. 

Enough said, for fear I might introduce some jargon. Perish the thought. 


Smart Shift: The empty headquarters

In this section, we look at how business is moving from the physical and tangible, to the virtual and invisible. Which sounds a bit like a song. Perhaps it is. 


Until next week, Jon

Also published on Medium.

Bulletin 5 April 2019: On visibility vs observability, ecosystems and tree hugging

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