Application monitoring: Open-source or vendor tools?

The last decade saw quite a lot of innovation in application development. The shift from traditional monolithic architecture to a distributed approach has made life easier for developers. DevOps has also been accepted by various organizations to solve the problem of siloed teams. All these advances have revolutionized the IT sector. And even though these changes have had an overall positive affect, things have gotten harder when talking about monitoring applications. Monitoring is an essential component of any application’s delivery lifecycle. You can’t just hand an application over to users and expect it to work exactly as it’s expected to. There are variables when it comes to an application’s performance. Recently, due to the adoption of a more distributed approach in application building, there is a plethora of moving parts in every application. And although applications developed today are quite resilient, even the slightest outage can lead to a loss of customers and revenue. Monitoring helps developers ensure that their applications are responding to users’ requests in the shortest possible time. Monitoring is critical for any software development company.

What is application monitoring?

Application monitoring entails multiple components. Monitoring begins by measuring your application’s performance. This process constantly captures metrics like load and response time during peak load and also usage metrics of the resources being utilized. These metrics help identify and resolve any issues instantly without leading to an outage. The other activity is to record these measurements for future use. Then comes alerting which is essential if and when an incident occurs that needs manual intervention. Then, we have visualizations to display the different metrics in a user-friendly format so that engineers are constantly able to track their application performance. Most of the monitoring tools in the market automate these tasks to help developers focus on more important things. Today, there are hundreds of tools to choose from based on your organization’s needs.

Why do you need application monitoring tools?

Monitoring tools help organizations automate the performance of their various applications. These tools are important today since manually monitoring a distributed app is almost impossible. Apps are more complex and dynamic than ever before and these tools help you monitor your application as a single integrated unit rather than different disparate components. Modern monitoring tools can support various programming languages and frameworks making them ideal for today’s applications. These tools can be used in all phases of the application development lifecycle from build and testing to support. These tools also help organizations with capacity planning. Based on metrics, organizations can identify if they need more resources to ensure the best user experience.

Open-source vs. vendor-provided monitoring tools

Once organizations have a clear set of requirements in their head, they venture to find the tool that fits their needs best. Now, this is where most software companies end up at crossroads. They can either go with an open-source monitoring tool or a vendor-provided tool. There is no clear answer to this dilemma, but we can try to unwrap both of these options and what they bring to the table.

Open-source monitoring tools

Here are prominent examples of open-source monitoring tools:

  • Graphite
  • Elasticsearch
  • Grafana
  • Prometheus
  • Kafka

Organizations have relied on open-source software for a long time. Many organizations like the idea of being a part of open-source communities and contributing to open-source software. The biggest reason companies go for open-source tools is because they are free, which means you don’t have to pay any amount upfront. You can simply download it from an open-source repository and play with it. It’s free to try these tools and organizations also have the freedom to change their mind if they come across a better option. Open-source monitoring tools can be customizable as users can make changes to the source code. This makes open-source tools appealing because various organizations have specific requirements that a prepackaged vendor-provided tool may not meet. Other than this, there is an active community of volunteers who are constantly using the tool and coming up with new featured and upgrades. The support for a popular open-source tool is bound to be quick as developers all across the world are using the same tool. The support is completely free for most open-source projects. Bugs can be discovered quickly and reported through community discussion boards. Open-source tools also prevent vendor lock-in. Your organization is free to use multiple tools and integrate them rather than investing in proprietary software that makes it hard to switch vendors in the future.

Although open-source monitoring tools are appealing, they have several downsides. Open-source tools can be problematic. The issue is mostly with support. The support can be quick if your issue is common, but most organizations trying to implement certain customizations based on their specific needs might find the free support slow and frustrating. The support can be slow because volunteers might not be particularly interested in working on obscure issues without being paid. Companies can either work on fixes and patches themselves or pay for an expensive support package. Another disadvantage of using open-source software is the knowledge required to implement it. Developers working on these tools need to have a certain level of expertise and skill. This means not all developers will be able to get the most out of these tools.

Vendor-provided monitoring tools

Here are prominent examples of vendor-provided monitoring tools:

  • SolarWinds AppOptics Application Monitoring
  • Dynatrace Application Performance
  • Splunk IT Service Intelligence
  • New Relic APM
  • PagerDuty Incident Management

Vendor-provided monitoring tools are usually more stable, reliable, and mature than their open-source counterparts. These tools are developed with a narrow market in mind and cater to very specific needs, which makes them concise and complete. Vendor tools can be used by unskilled users without having to know the ins and outs of how the software works. Vendor tools precisely capture metrics and display them without any possibility of human error. Not that open-source tools are not accurate; it’s just that large vendors have a lot riding on their offerings. With vendor-provided monitoring tools, you get what you pay for, nothing less, nothing more. These tools are meant for longevity and get constantly upgraded through free and paid updates. With these tools, you get a very specific and speedy support. Whenever you face an issue or a bug, the support is readily available for you.

However, proprietary monitoring tools also have some cons. The biggest one probably is that your hands are pretty much tied. The vendor is bound to work on evolving its tool, but unlike the open-source community, you don’t have much say in that journey. The vendors probably won’t care about an organization’s opinions until or unless it’s a huge customer. Vendor tools can also lead to vendor lock-in as organizations typically won’t be able to use a combination of monitoring tools. With vendor tools, you don’t get to alter the source code. Any fixes you need will have to be requested by your organization. These fixes may take time if they aren’t a priority for your vendor.

Pick the best one for you

When you look at these tools side-by-side, you realize it is a dilemma that has no clear answer. Both kinds of tools have their specific advantage and disadvantages. If you are going by the cost to the organization, open-source tools seem to be the better option. However, there are several hidden costs of using an open-source tool. These are the costs of paid support and loss of actual work hours by employees trying to set up the tool or fixing bugs. In some cases, the hidden cost of using an open-source tool can be way more than the upfront cost of using a vendor tool. The right choice here is subjective. Organizations should take the time to weigh their options and choose the alternative that works for them rather than what works for other organizations.

Featured image: Pixabay

Twain Taylor

My interests lie in DevOps, IoT, and cloud applications. I began my career in tech B2B marketing at Google India, after which I headed marketing for multiple startups. Today, I consult with companies in The Valley on their content marketing initiatives, and write for tech journals.

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Twain Taylor

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