OpenTelemetry Protocol Requirements

This document will drive OpenTelemetry Protocol design and RFC.


See the goals of OpenTelemetry Protocol design here.


There are 2 parties involved in telemetry data exchange. In this document the party that is the source of telemetry data is called the Client, the party that is the destination of telemetry data is called the Server.

Examples of a Client are instrumented applications or sending side of telemetry collectors, examples of Servers are telemetry backends or receiving side of telemetry collectors (so a Collector is typically both a Client and a Server depending on which side you look from).

Known Issues with Existing Protocols

Our experience with OpenCensus and other protocols has been that many of them have one or more of the following drawbacks:

  • High CPU consumption for serialization and especially deserialization of received telemetry data.
  • High and frequent CPU consumption by Garbage Collector.
  • Lack of delivery guarantees for certain protocols (e.g. stream-based gRPC OpenCensus protocol) which makes troubleshooting of telemetry pipelines difficult.
  • Not aware / not cooperating with load balancers resulting in potentially large imbalances in horizontally scaled backends.
  • Support either traces or metrics but not both.

Our goal is to avoid or mitigate these known issues in the new protocol.


The following are OpenTelemetry protocol requirements.

Supported Node Types

The protocol must be suitable for use between all of the following node types: instrumented applications, telemetry backends, telemetry agents running as local daemons, stand-alone collector/forwarder services.

Supported Data Types

The protocol must support traces and metrics as data types.

Reliability of Delivery

The protocol must ensure reliable data delivery and clear visibility when the data cannot be delivered. This should be achieved by sending data acknowledgements from the Server to the Client.

Note that acknowledgements alone are not sufficient to guarantee that: a) no data will be lost and b) no data will be duplicated. Acknowledgements can help to guarantee a) but not b). Guaranteeing both at the same is difficult. Because it is usually preferable for telemetry data to be duplicated than to lose it, we choose to guarantee that there are no data losses while potentially allowing duplicate data.

Duplicates can typically happen in edge cases (e.g. on reconnections, network interruptions, etc) when the client has no way of knowing if last sent data was delivered. In these cases the client will usually choose to re-send the data to guarantee the delivery which in turn may result in duplicate data on the server side.

To avoid having duplicates the client and the server could track sent and delivered items using uniquely identifying ids. The exact mechanism for tracking the ids and performing data de-duplication may be defined at the layer above the protocol layer and is outside the scope of this document.

For this reason we have slightly relaxed requirements and consider duplicate data acceptable in rare cases.

Note: this protocol is concerned with reliability of delivery between one pair of client/server nodes and aims to ensure that no data is lost in-transit between the client and the server. Many telemetry collection systems have multiple nodes that the data must travel across until reaching the final destination (e.g. application -> agent -> collector -> backend). End-to-end delivery guarantees in such systems is outside of the scope for this document. The acknowledgements described in this protocol happen between a single client/server pair and do not span multiple nodes in multi-hop delivery paths.


The protocol must ensure high throughput in high latency networks when the client and the server are not in the same data center.

This requirement may rule out half-duplex protocols. The throughput of half-duplex protocols is highly dependent on network roundtrip time and request size. To achieve good throughput request sizes may be too large to be practical.


The protocol must achieve high compression ratios for telemetry data. The protocol design must consider batching of telemetry data and grouping of similar data (both can help to achieve better compression using common compression algorithms).


Industry standard encryption (e.g. TLS/HTTPS) must be supported.

Backpressure Signalling and Throttling

The protocol must allow backpressure signalling.

If the server is unable to keep up with the pace of data it receives from the client then it must be able to signal that fact to the client. The client may then throttle itself to avoid overwhelming the server.

If the underlying transport is a stream that has its own flow control mechanism then the backpressure could be applied by delaying the reading of data from the server’s endpoint which could then be signalled to the client via underlying flow-control. However this approach makes it difficult for the client to distinguish server overloading from network delays (due to e.g. network losses). Such distinction is important for observability reasons. Because of this it is required for the protocol to allow to explicitly and clearly signal backpressure from the server to the client without relying on implicit signalling using underlying flow-control mechanisms.

The backpressure signal should include a hint to the client about desirable reduced rate of data.

Serialization Performance

The protocol must have fast data serialization and deserialization characteristics.

Ideally it must also support very fast pass-through mode (when no modifications to the data are needed), fast “augmenting” or “tagging” of data and partial inspection of data (e.g. check for presence of specific tag). These requirements help to create fast Agents and Collectors.

Memory Usage Profile

The protocol must impose minimal pressure on memory manager, including pass-through scenarios, when deserialized data is short-lived and must be serialized as-is shortly after and when such short-lived data is created and discarded at high frequency (think telemetry data forwarders).

The implementation of telemetry protocol must aim to minimize the number of memory allocations and dealocations performed during serialization and deserialization and aim to minimize the pressure on Garbage Collection (for GC languages).

Level 7 Load Balancer Friendly

The protocol must allow Level 7 load balancers such as Envoy to re-balance the traffic for each batch of telemetry data. The traffic should not get pinned by a load balancer to one server for the entire duration of telemetry data sending, thus potentially leading to imbalanced load of servers located behind the load balancer.

Backwards Compatibility

The protocol should be possible to evolve over time. It should be possible for nodes that implement different versions of OpenTelemetry protocol to interoperate (while possibly regressing to the lowest common denominator from functional perspective).

General Requirements

The protocol must use well-known, mature encoding and transport mechanisms with ubiquitous availability of implementations in wide selection of languages that are supported by OpenTelemetry.