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Instrumenting Apache Kafka clients with OpenTelemetry

Nowadays, Apache Kafka is chosen as the nervous system in a distributed environment. Different services communicate with each other by using Apache Kafka as a messaging system but even more as en event or data streaming platform.

Taking into account the cloud-native approach for developing microservices, quite often Kubernetes is also used to run the workloads. In this scenario, you can also easily deploy and manage an Apache Kafka cluster on top of it, by using a project like Strimzi. It takes care of the overall Kafka infrastructure, while you can focus on developing applications which use it.

Within the overall picture, because of the distributed nature, it is quite difficult to track how messages are moved around. This is where OpenTelemetry comes into the picture. It provides multiple instrumentation libraries for adding tracing to messaging based applications. Of course, there is one for Apache Kafka clients. It also defines the specification of semantic conventions for messaging systems.

But usually, the architecture can even be more complicated: having applications not able to connect directly to the Apache Kafka cluster and talking its own custom protocol but using a different one, like for example HTTP. In this case, tracing how messages are produced and consumed via HTTP through Apache Kafka is really complex. The Strimzi project provides a bridge, with the OpenTelemetry support, for adding tracing data by using the corresponding instrumentation library.

In this article, you will learn how it is possible to enable tracing on Apache Kafka based client applications in different ways. We will refer to the Java based instrumentation. You can also find all the examples in this repository.

Enable tracing on the Kafka clients

Let’s assume you have an application using the Kafka clients API for producing and consuming messages. In order to simplify the scenario, let’s also assume you don’t want to add any additional tracing information within your business logic. You are interested to add tracing to the Kafka related parts only. You want to trace how the messages are produced and consumed via the Kafka clients.

In order to do so, there are two different ways:

  • using an external agent running alongside your application to add tracing.
  • enabling the tracing directly on the Kafka clients used by your application.

The former is actually an “automatic” approach which is about not touching your application at all. The agent, running alongside the application, is able to intercept messages coming in and out and adds tracing information to them.

The latter is mostly a “manual” approach which is about instrumenting your application directly. It means adding some specific dependencies to your project and make code changes.

Instrumenting by using the agent

The simpler and automatic approach is by adding tracing to your application with no changes or additions into your application code. You also don’t need to add any dependencies to OpenTelemetry specific libraries. It is possible by using the OpenTelemetry agent you can download from here. This agent has to run alongside your application in order to inject the logic for tracing messages sent and received to/from a Kafka cluster.

Run the producer application in the following way.

java -javaagent:path/to/opentelemetry-javaagent.jar \
      -Dotel.service.name=my-kafka-service \
      -Dotel.traces.exporter=jaeger \
      -Dotel.metrics.exporter=none \
      -jar kafka-producer-agent/target/kafka-producer-agent-1.0-SNAPSHOT-jar-with-dependencies.jar

Run the consumer application similarly.

java -javaagent:path/to/opentelemetry-javaagent.jar \
      -Dotel.service.name=my-kafka-service \
      -Dotel.traces.exporter=jaeger \
      -Dotel.metrics.exporter=none \
      -Dotel.instrumentation.messaging.experimental.receive-telemetry.enabled=true \
      -jar kafka-consumer-agent/target/kafka-consumer-agent-1.0-SNAPSHOT-jar-with-dependencies.jar

The agent leverages the auto-configuration SDK extension, you will see in a bit, by setting the main parameters through system properties.

Instrumenting the Apache Kafka clients

The OpenTelemetry project provides the opentelemetry-kafka-clients-2.6 module which provides tracing instrumentation for Kafka clients. First, you need to add the corresponding dependency to your application.

<dependency>
    <groupId>io.opentelemetry.instrumentation</groupId>
    <artifactId>opentelemetry-kafka-clients-2.6</artifactId>
</dependency>

Depending on the exporter that you want to use for exporting tracing information, you have to add the corresponding dependency as well. For example, in order to use the Jaeger exporter, the dependency is the following one.

<dependency>
    <groupId>io.opentelemetry</groupId>
    <artifactId>opentelemetry-exporter-jaeger</artifactId>
</dependency>

In this way, you have the minimum set up for enabling the tracing on your Kafka based application.

Setting up the OpenTelemetry instance

The entire tracing instrumentation is handled by an OpenTelemetry instance in your code. It needs to be created and registered globally in order to be made available to the Kafka clients instrumentation library.

This can be done in two different ways:

  • using an SDK extension for environment-based auto-configuration.
  • using SDK builders classes for programmatic configuration.

Using the SDK auto-configuration

It is possible to configure a global OpenTelemetry instance by using environment variables thanks to the SDK extension for auto-configuration, enabled by adding the following dependency to your application.

<dependency>
    <groupId>io.opentelemetry</groupId>
    <artifactId>opentelemetry-sdk-extension-autoconfigure</artifactId>
</dependency>

When the Kafka clients instrumentation library is used, it checks if there is an OpenTelemetry instance already created and registered. If it is not, the library code checks if the SDK auto-configure module is in the classpath and in this case initializes it for creating the OpenTelemetry instance automatically. The corresponding configuration happens through environment variables (or corresponding system properties). This is really a way to simplify the initialization of tracing.

The main environment variables to be set are the following:

  • OTEL_SERVICE_NAME: specify the logical service name. This is really useful when using a tracing UI (i.e. Jaeger UI) for showing data and it is recommended to set it.
  • OTEL_TRACES_EXPORTER: the list of exporters to be used for tracing. For example, by using jaeger you also need to have the corresponding dependency in the application.

Instead of using the above environment variables, it is also possible to use corresponding system properties to be set programmatically in the code or on the command line when launching the application They are otel.service.name and otel.traces.exporter.

Using the SDK builders

In order to build your own OpenTelemetry instance and not relying on the auto-configuration, it is possible to do so by using the SDK builders classes programmatically. The OpenTelemetry SDK dependency is needed in order to have such SDK builders available in your code.

<dependency>
    <groupId>io.opentelemetry</groupId>
    <artifactId>opentelemetry-sdk</artifactId>
</dependency>

The following code snippet sets the main attributes like the service name, then it configures the Jaeger exporter. Finally, it creates the OpenTelemetry instance and registers it globally so that it can be used by the Kafka clients instrumentation library.

Resource resource = Resource.getDefault()
        .merge(Resource.create(Attributes.of(ResourceAttributes.SERVICE_NAME, "my-kafka-service")));

SdkTracerProvider sdkTracerProvider = SdkTracerProvider.builder()
        .addSpanProcessor(BatchSpanProcessor.builder(JaegerGrpcSpanExporter.builder().build()).build())
        .setSampler(Sampler.alwaysOn())
        .setResource(resource)
        .build();

OpenTelemetry openTelemetry = OpenTelemetrySdk.builder()
        .setTracerProvider(sdkTracerProvider)
        .setPropagators(ContextPropagators.create(W3CTraceContextPropagator.getInstance()))
        .buildAndRegisterGlobal();

Using the interceptors

The Kafka clients API provides a way to “intercept” messages before they are sent to the brokers as well as messages received from the broker before being passed to the application. This approach is heavily used when you need to add some logic or content to the messages right before they are sent. At same time, it is useful to handle consumed messages right before they are passed to the upper application layer. It fits pretty well with tracing when you need to create or close spans on sending and receiving messages.

The Kafka clients instrumentation library provides two interceptors to be configured to add tracing information automatically. The interceptor classes have to be set in the properties bag used to create the Kafka client within the application.

Use the TracingProducerInterceptor for the producer in order to create a “send” span automatically, each time a message is sent.

props.setProperty(ProducerConfig.INTERCEPTOR_CLASSES_CONFIG, TracingProducerInterceptor.class.getName());

Use the TracingConsumerInterceptor for the consumer in order to create a “receive” span automatically, each time a message is received.

props.setProperty(ConsumerConfig.INTERCEPTOR_CLASSES_CONFIG, TracingConsumerInterceptor.class.getName());

Wrapping the clients

The other way is by wrapping the Kafka client with a tracing enabled one.

On the producer side, assuming you have a Producer<K, V> instance, you can wrap it in the following way.

KafkaTelemetry telemetry = KafkaTelemetry.create(GlobalOpenTelemetry.get());
Producer<String, String> tracingProducer = telemetry.wrap(producer);

Then use the tracingProducer as usual for sending messages to the Kafka cluster.

On the consumer side, assuming you have a Consumer<K, V> instance, you can wrap it in the following way.

KafkaTelemetry telemetry = KafkaTelemetry.create(GlobalOpenTelemetry.get());
Consumer<String, String> tracingConsumer = telemetry.wrap(this.consumer);

Then use the tracingConsumer as usual for receiving messages from the Kafka cluster.

Instrumentation in action

In order to practice with the instrumentation of Kafka clients by using the provided examples, first of all you need an Apache Kafka cluster. The easiest way is to download it from the official website and running just one ZooKeeper node together with one Kafka broker. You can follow the quick start to have such a cluster up and running in a few minutes. Analyzing tracing information is also simpler if using a Web UI, for example the one provided by Jaeger. Even in this case downloading it from the official website and running it locally is really simple.

When the environment is ready, the first try is about running the producer and consumer applications instrumented by using interceptors or wrappers. Just sending one message and consuming it provides the following tracing.

send and receive spans

As you can see the “send” and “receive” spans are both in the same trace and the “receive” span is defined as CHILD_OF the “send” one. You can also see that the semantic defines some specific messaging related tags on the spans with the messaging. prefix. This semantic is not actually right because the send operation doesn’t depend on the receive (which is the meaning of CHILD_OF relationship). It is anyway going to change, per this GitHub discussion and the new messaging semantic conventions that is going to be stabilized via this new OTEP (OpenTelemetry Enhancement Proposal). The goal is to have the “send” and “receive” spans in two different traces but linked together with a FOLLOW_FROM relationship.

This approach is more reflected when using the agent with the “send” span living in its own trace as following.

send span with agent

On the receiving side, there are also a “receive” and “process” spans referring to the producer one.

receive and process spans with agent

Conclusion

Apache Kafka is just one of the messaging platforms that can be used for microservices communication in a distributed system. Monitoring how the messages are exchanged and troubleshooting problems is really complex. This is where the OpenTelemetry project comes into the picture to put tracing in your hands. In this article, we saw how the Kafka clients instrumentation library makes really simple to add tracing information to your Kafka based applications. You can get more information about how producers and consumers are behaving and keeps track of each message from one end to the other. So … what else? Give it a try!

References