A metric is a measurement about a service, captured at runtime.

A metric is a measurement about a service, captured at runtime. Logically, the moment of capturing one of these measurements is known as a metric event which consists not only of the measurement itself, but the time that it was captured and associated metadata.

Application and request metrics are important indicators of availability and performance. Custom metrics can provide insights into how availability indicators impact user experience or the business. Collected data can be used to alert of an outage or trigger scheduling decisions to scale up a deployment automatically upon high demand.

OpenTelemetry defines three metric instruments today:

  • counter: a value that is summed over time – you can think of this like an odometer on a car; it only ever goes up.
  • measure: a value that is aggregated over time. This is more akin to the trip odometer on a car, it represents a value over some defined range.
  • observer: captures a current set of values at a particular point in time, like a fuel gauge in a vehicle.

In addition to the three metric instruments, the concept of aggregations is an important one to understand. An aggregation is a technique whereby a large number of measurements are combined into either exact or estimated statistics about metric events that took place during a time window. The OpenTelemetry API itself does not allow you to specify these aggregations, but provides some default ones. In general, the OpenTelemetry SDK provides for common aggregations (such as sum, count, last value, and histograms) that are supported by visualizers and telemetry backends.

Unlike request tracing, which is intended to capture request lifecycles and provide context to the individual pieces of a request, metrics are intended to provide statistical information in aggregate. Some examples of use cases for metrics include:

  • Reporting the total number of bytes read by a service, per protocol type.
  • Reporting the total number of bytes read and the bytes per request.
  • Reporting the duration of a system call.
  • Reporting request sizes in order to determine a trend.
  • Reporting CPU or memory usage of a process.
  • Reporting average balance values from an account.
  • Reporting current active requests being handled.

For more information, see the metrics specification.