Instrumentation for OpenTelemetry Erlang/Elixir

Instrumentation is the act of adding observability code to an app yourself.

If you’re instrumenting an app, you need to use the OpenTelemetry SDK for your language. You’ll then use the SDK to initialize OpenTelemetry and the API to instrument your code. This will emit telemetry from your app, and any library you installed that also comes with instrumentation.

If you’re instrumenting a library, only install the OpenTelemetry API package for your language. Your library will not emit telemetry on its own. It will only emit telemetry when it is part of an app that uses the OpenTelemetry SDK. For more on instrumenting libraries, see Libraries.

For more information about the OpenTelemetry API and SDK, see the specification.


Add the following dependencies to your project:

  • opentelemetry_api: contains the interfaces you’ll use to instrument your code. Things like Tracer.with_span and Tracer.set_attribute are defined here.
  • opentelemetry: contains the SDK that implements the interfaces defined in the API. Without it, all the functions in the API are no-ops.
# mix.exs
def deps do
    {:opentelemetry, "~> 1.3"},
    {:opentelemetry_api, "~> 1.2"},


Initialize Tracing

To start tracing a TracerProvider is required for creating a Tracer. When the OpenTelemetry SDK Application (opentelemetry) boots, it starts and configures a global TracerProvider. A Tracer for each loaded OTP Application is created once the TracerProvider has started.

If a TracerProvider is not successfully created (for example, the opentelemetry application is not booted or fails to boot), the OpenTelemetry APIs for tracing will use a no-op implementation and will not generate data.

Acquiring a Tracer

Each OTP Application has a Tracer created for it when the opentelemetry Application boots. The name and version of each Tracer is the same as the name and version of the OTP Application the module using the Tracer is in. If the call to use a Tracer is not in a module, for example when using the interactive shell, a Tracer with a blank name and version is used.

The created Tracer’s record can be looked up by the name of a module in the OTP Application:


This is how the Erlang and Elixir macros for starting and updating Spans get a Tracer automatically without need for you to pass the variable in each call.

Create Spans

Now that you have Tracers initialized, you can create Spans.

?with_span(main, #{}, fun() ->
                        %% do work here.
                        %% when this function returns the Span ends
require OpenTelemetry.Tracer


OpenTelemetry.Tracer.with_span :main do
  # do work here
  # when the block ends the Span ends

The above code sample shows how to create an active Span, which is the most common kind of Span to create.

Create Nested Spans

parent_function() ->
    ?with_span(parent, #{}, fun child_function/0).

child_function() ->
    %% this is the same process, so the span parent set as the active
    %% span in the with_span call above will be the active span in this function
    ?with_span(child, #{},
               fun() ->
                   %% do work here. when this function returns, child will complete.
require OpenTelemetry.Tracer

def parent_function() do
    OpenTelemetry.Tracer.with_span :parent do

def child_function() do
    # this is the same process, so the span :parent set as the active
    # span in the with_span call above will be the active span in this function
    OpenTelemetry.Tracer.with_span :child do
        ## do work here. when this function returns, :child will complete.

Spans in Separate Processes

The examples in the previous section were Spans with a child-parent relationship within the same process where the parent is available in the process dictionary when creating a child Span. Using the process dictionary this way isn’t possible when crossing processes, either by spawning a new process or sending a message to an existing process. Instead, the context must be manually passed as a variable.

To pass Spans across processes we need to start a Span that isn’t connected to particular process. This can be done with the macro start_span. Unlike with_span, the start_span macro does not set the new span as the currently active span in the context of the process dictionary.

Connecting a span as a parent to a child in a new process can be done by attaching the context and setting the new span as currently active in the process. The whole context should be attached in order to not lose other telemetry data like baggage.

SpanCtx = ?start_span(child),

Ctx = otel_ctx:get_current(),

proc_lib:spawn_link(fun() ->

                        %% do work here

span_ctx = OpenTelemetry.Tracer.start_span(:child)
ctx = OpenTelemetry.Ctx.get_current()

task = Task.async(fn ->
                      # do work here

                      # end span here

_ = Task.await(task)

Linking the New Span

A Span can be created with zero or more Span Links that causally link it to another Span. A Link needs a Span context to be created.

Parent = ?current_span_ctx,
proc_lib:spawn_link(fun() ->
                        %% a new process has a new context so the span created
                        %% by the following `with_span` will have no parent
                        Link = opentelemetry:link(Parent),
                        ?with_span('other-process', #{links => [Link]},
                                   fun() -> ok end)
parent = OpenTelemetry.Tracer.current_span_ctx()
task = Task.async(fn ->
                    # a new process has a new context so the span created
                    # by the following `with_span` will have no parent
                    link =
                    Tracer.with_span :"my-task", %{links: [link]} do

Adding Attributes to a Span

Attributes let you attach key/value pairs to a Span so it carries more information about the current operation that it’s tracking.

The following example shows the two ways of setting attributes on a span by both setting an attribute in the start options and then again with set_attributes in the body of the span operation:

?with_span(my_span, #{attributes => [{'start-opts-attr', <<"start-opts-value">>}]},
           fun() ->
               ?set_attributes([{'my-attribute', <<"my-value">>},
                                {another_attribute, <<"value-of-attribute">>}])
Tracer.with_span :span_1, %{attributes: [{:"start-opts-attr", <<"start-opts-value">>}]} do
  Tracer.set_attributes([{:"my-attributes", "my-value"},
                         {:another_attribute, "value-of-attributes"}])

Semantic Attributes

Semantic Attributes are attributes that are defined by the OpenTelemetry Specification in order to provide a shared set of attribute keys across multiple languages, frameworks, and runtimes for common concepts like HTTP methods, status codes, user agents, and more. These attribute keys are generated from the specification and provided in opentelemetry_semantic_conventions.

For example, an instrumentation for an HTTP client or server would need to include semantic attributes like the scheme of the URL:


?with_span(my_span, #{attributes => [{?HTTP_SCHEME, <<"https">>}]},
           fun() ->
alias OpenTelemetry.SemanticConventions.Trace, as: Trace

Tracer.with_span :span_1, %{attributes: [{Trace.http_scheme(), <<"https">>}]} do


Adding Events

A Span Event is a human-readable message on an Span that represents a discrete event with no duration that can be tracked by a single timestamp. You can think of it like a primitive log.

?add_event(<<"Gonna try it">>),

%% Do the thing

?add_event(<<"Did it!">>),
Tracer.add_event("Gonna try it")

%% Do the thing

Tracer.add_event("Did it!")

Events can also have attributes of their own:

?add_event(<<"Process exited with reason">>, [{pid, Pid)}, {reason, Reason}]))
Tracer.add_event("Process exited with reason", pid: pid, reason: Reason)

Set Span Status

A Status can be set on a Span, typically used to specify that a Span has not completed successfully - StatusCode.ERROR. In rare scenarios, you could override the Error status with StatusCode.OK, but don’t set StatusCode.OK on successfully-completed spans.

The status can be set at any time before the span is finished:


?set_status(?OTEL_STATUS_ERROR, <<"this is not ok">>)
Tracer.set_status(:error, "this is not ok")


The metrics API, found in apps/opentelemetry_experimental_api of the opentelemetry-erlang repository, is currently unstable, documentation TBA.


The logs API, found in apps/opentelemetry_experimental_api of the opentelemetry-erlang repository, is currently unstable, documentation TBA.

Next Steps

You’ll also want to configure an appropriate exporter to export your telemetry data to one or more telemetry backends.