OpenCensus Compatibility

Status: Experimental, Unless otherwise specified.


The OpenTelemetry project aims to provide backwards compatibility with the OpenCensus project in order to ease migration of instrumented codebases.

This functionality will be provided as a bridge layer implementing the OpenCensus API using the OpenTelemetry API. This layer MUST NOT rely on implementation specific details of the OpenTelemetry SDK.

More specifically, the intention is to allow OpenCensus instrumentation to be recorded using OpenTelemetry. This Shim Layer MUST NOT publicly expose any upstream OpenTelemetry API.

The OpenCensus Shim and the OpenTelemetry API/SDK are expected to be consumed simultaneously in a running service, in order to ease migration from the former to the latter. It is expected that application owners will begin the migration process towards OpenTelemetry via the shim and adding new telemetry information via OpenTelemetry. Slowly, libraries and integrations will also migrate towards opentelemetry until the shim is no longer necessary.

For example, an application may have traces today of the following variety:

|-- Application - Configured OpenCensus --------------------------------- |
    |--  gRPC -> Using OpenCensus to generate Trace A  --------- |
      |--  Application -> Using OpenCensus to generate a sub Trace B-- |

In this case, the application should be able to update its outer layer to OpenTelemetry, without having to wait for all downstream dependencies to have updated to OpenTelemetry (or deal with incompatibilities therein). The Application also doesn’t need to rewrite any of its own instrumentation.

|-- Application - Configured Otel w/ OpenCensus Shim ------------------- |
    |--  gRPC -> Using OpenCensus to generate Trace A  --------- |
      |--  Application -> Using OpenCensus to generate a sub Trace B-- |

Next, the application can update its own instrumentation in a piecemeal fashion:

|-- Application - Configured Otel w/ OpenCensus Shim ---------------------- |
    |--  gRPC -> Using OpenCensus to generate Trace A  --------- |
      |--  Application -> Using OpenTelemetry to generate a sub Trace B-- |

This layer of Otel -> OpenCensus -> Otel tracing can be thought of as the “OpenTelemetry sandwich” problem, and is the key motivating factor for this specification.

Finally, the Application would update all usages of OpenCensus to OpenTelemetry.

|-- Application - Configured Otel standalone ----------------------------- |
    |--  gRPC -> Using Otel to generate Trace A  --------- |
      |--  Application -> Using OpenTelemetry to generate a sub Trace B-- |

OpenCensus supports two primary types of telemetry: Traces and Stats (Metrics). Compatibility for these is defined separately.

The overridding philosophy for compatibility is that OpenCensus instrumented libraries and applications need make no change to their API usage in order to use OpenTelemetry. All changes should be solely configuration / setup.


OpenTelemetry<->OpenCensus compatibility has the following goals:

  1. OpenCensus has no hard dependency on OpenTelemetry
  2. Minimal changes to OpenCensus for implementation
  3. Easy for users to use, ideally no change to their code

Additionally, for tracing there are the following goals:

  1. Maintain parent-child span relationship between applications and libraries
  2. Maintain span link relationships between applications and libraries


Status: Experimental, Feature Freeze

OpenTelemetry will provide an OpenCensus-Trace-Shim component that can be added as a dependency to ensure compatibility with OpenCensus.

This component MUST be an optional dependency.

Creating Spans in OpenCensus

When the shim is in place, all OpenCensus Spans MUST be sent through an OpenTelemetry Tracer as specified for the OpenTelemetry API.

This mechanism SHOULD be seamless to the user in languages that allow discovery and auto injection of dependencies.

Methods on Spans

All specified methods in OpenCensus will delegate to the underlying Span of OpenTelemetry.

Known Incompatibilities

Below are listed known incompatibilities between OpenTelemetry and OpenCensus specifications. Applications leveraging unspecified behavior from OpenCensus that is specified incompatibly within OpenTelemetry are not eligble for using the OpenCensus <-> OpenTelemetry bridge.

  1. In OpenCensus, there is no specification when parent spans can be specified on a child span. OpenTelemetry specifies that parent spans must be specified during span creation. This leads to some issues with OpenCensus APIs that allowed flexible specification of parent spans post-initialization.
  2. Links added to spans after the spans are created. This is not supported in OpenTelemetry, therefore OpenCensus spans that have links added to them after creation will be mapped to OpenTelemetry spans without the links.
  3. OpenTelemetry specifies that samplers are attached to an entire Trace provider while OpenCensus allows custom samplers per span.
  4. TraceFlags in both OpenCensus and OpenTelemetry only specify the single sampled flag (OpenTelemetry, OpenCensus). Some OpenCensus APIs support “debug” and “defer” tracing flags in additon to “sampled”. In this case, the OpenCensus bridge will do its best to support and translate unspecified flags into the closest OpenTelemetry equivalent.

Context Propagation

The shim will provide an OpenCensus PropagationComponent implementation which maps OpenCenus binary and text propagation to OpenTelemetry context.

Text Context

This adapter MUST use an OpenTelemetry TextMapPropagator to implement the OpenCensus TextFormat.

This adapter SHOULD use configured OpenTelemetry TextMapPropagator on the OpenTelemetry TraceProvider for text format propagation.

This adapter MUST provide a default W3CTraceContextPropagator. If OpenTelemetry defines a global TextMapPropogator, OpenCensus SHOULD use this for OpenCensus traceContextFormat propagation.

B3 Context

This adapter SHOULD use a contributed OpenTelemetry B3Propagator for the B3 text format.

OpenCensus Binary Context

This adapter MUST provide an implementation of OpenCensus BinaryPropogator to write OpenCensus binary format using OpenTelemetry’s context. This implementation may be drawn from OpenCensus if applicable.


Note: resources appear not to be usable in the “API” section of OpenCensus.

Semantic Convention Mappings

Where possible, the tracing shim should provide mappings of labels to attributes defined within the OpenTelemetry semantic convetions.

The principle is to ensure OpenTelemetry exporters, which use these semantic conventions, are likely to export the correct data.

HTTP Attributes

OpenCensus specifies the following HTTP Attributes:

OpenCensus NameOpenTelemetry NameComments
http.pathhttp.targetkey-name change only
http.routeN/APass through ok

Metrics / Stats

Metric compatibility with OpenCensus remains unspecified as the OpenTelemetry metrics specification solidifies for GA. Once GA on metrics is declared, this section will be filled out.

Philosophically, this should follow the same principles as Trace. Specifically: Metric names/attributes should be converted to OTel semantic conventions, All API surface area should map to the closest relevant OTel API and no SDK usage of OpenCensus will be compatible.