Learn how the context API works in instrumented applications.

OpenTelemetry works by storing and propagating telemetry data. For example, when an instrumented application receives a request and a span starts, the span must be available to a component which creates child spans. To address this need, OpenTelemetry stores the span in the active context.

PHP execution context

The context API is globally available within a single PHP execution context, and there can only be one active context in the current execution context.


Context can store values (for example, a Span), and it uses Storage to keep track of the stored values. By default, a generic ContextStorage is used. OpenTelemetry for PHP supports other context storage for less common use cases, like asynchronous or concurrent execution with fibers.

Context keys

Values as stored in context as key-value pairs. Context keys are used to store and retrieve values from context.

Keys can be created by calling OpenTelemetry\Context\Context::createKey(), for example:

use OpenTelemetry\Context\Context;

$key1 = Context::createKey('My first key');
$key2 = Context::createKey('My second key');

Active context

The active context is the context which is returned by Context::getCurrent(). The context object contains entries which allow telemetry components to communicate with each other. For example, when a span is created it can be activated, which creates a new active context and stores the span. Later, when another span is created it can use the span from the active context as its parent span. If no context is active, the root context is returned, which is just the empty context object.

use OpenTelemetry\Context\Context;

// Returns the active context
// If no context is active, the root context is returned
$context = Context::getCurrent();

Set and get context values

Values are stored in Context by using the $context->with($key, $value) method. Setting a context entry creates a new context with the new entry in its storage, containing $value.

Context is immutable. Setting a context entry creates a new context with the new entry in its storage: $context->with($key, $value). Retrieve values using $context->get($key), for example:

use OpenTelemetry\Context\Context;

$key = Context::createKey('some key');

// add a new entry
$ctx2 = Context::getCurrent()->with($key, 'context 2');

// ctx2 contains the new entry
var_dump($ctx2->get($key)); // "context 2"

// active context is unchanged
var_dump(Context::getCurrent()->get($key)); // NULL

If a value is not found in the current context, then each parent is checked until either the key is found, or the root context is reached.

Activate a context

A context can be made active by calling $context->activate().

use OpenTelemetry\Context\Context;

$key = Context::createKey('my-key');
$ctx = Context::getCurrent();
$ctx2 = $ctx->with($key, 'context 2');
assert($ctx2 === Context::getCurrent());


The return value of $context->activate() is a Scope. You must detach() the scope to deactivate that context, which reactivates the previously-active context.

The return value of $scope->detach() is an integer. A return value of 0 means that the scope was successfully detached. A non-zero value means that the call was unexpected. This could happen if the context associated with the scope was:

  • Already detached
  • Not a part of the current execution context
  • Not the active context


To assist developers in locating issues with context and scope, there is DebugScope. In a PHP runtime with assertions enabled, an activated Context is wrapped in a DebugScope. The DebugScope keeps track of when the scope was activated, and has a destructor which triggers an error if the scope was not detached. The error output contains a backtrace of which code activated the context.

The following code would trigger an error, complaining that a scope was not detached, and giving a backtrace of where the scope was created:

use OpenTelemetry\Context\Context;

$key = Context::createKey('my-key');
$scope = Context::getCurrent()->with($key, 'value')->activate();

//exit without detaching $scope

This can be problematic in some situations, particularly in legacy applications which might exit or die. In that case, active spans are not completed and exported, and the DebugScope complains loudly.

If you understand why DebugScope is complaining and accept the risks, then you can disable the feature entirely by setting OTEL_PHP_DEBUG_SCOPES_DISABLED to a truthy value.

Nested context

Active context executions can be nested. This is how traces can have nested spans:

use OpenTelemetry\Context\Context;

$key = Context::createKey('my-key');

var_dump(Context::getCurrent()->get($key)); //NULL
$scope2 = Context::getCurrent()->with($key, 'context 2')->activate();
var_dump(Context::getCurrent()->get($key)); //'context 2'
$scope3 = Context::getCurrent()->with($key, 'context 3')->activate();
var_dump(Context::getCurrent()->get($key)); //'context 3'

$scope3->detach(); //context 2 is active
$scope2->detach(); //original context is active
var_dump(Context::getCurrent()->get($key)); //NULL

Context in asynchronous environments

For asynchronous PHP programming, for example Swoole or the Fiber-based Revolt event loop, there can be multiple active contexts, but still only one active context per execution context.

For fiber-based implementations, Context is associated with the active fiber, and forks, switches and is destroyed as appropriate by hooking into PHP’s fiber initialization, forking, and destruction handlers.

For other async implementations, custom context storage might be needed to interoperate correctly. Check the registry for storage implementations.

Last modified January 31, 2024: adding php context page (#3857) (34444309)