Telemetry Conventions

July 20, 2020

I’m a big fan of telemetry. It’s arguably the most important elixir project released in the past few years. Most of the mainstream libraries have started to adopt it, and that’s a good thing. But, there’s still a lot of inconsistency in how telemetry is used across projects. I thought it would be good to write up some of the conventions that I’ve been using.

I’m treating this as a living document. I expect that things may change and I’ll try to capture those changes here.

Keep your names consistent

Your events should all follow a naming scheme like: [:my_lib, :function_call, ...]. Do not allow users to customize the event names in any way and don’t change them based on whatever module is use-ing your library. If you need to differentiate between multiple instances of your library, you should provide that information in the event’s metadata.

Keeping your event names consistent makes it trivial for monitoring tools to start capturing your events and exporting them as time-series, logs, APM, or whatever else.

Use spans

The telemetry events you produce should be usable in several contexts. One of the best ways to do this is to use “spans”. The notion of a span is straightforward. When you start a function call you execute a [:lib, function, :start] event. When you finish the function call you execute a [:lib, :function, :stop] event. If something inside the function call raises or throws you execute a [:lib, :function, :exception] event.

These 3 events will cover at least 90% of your user’s needs. If your consumer wants to support APM or tracing they can do that by listening to all events. If they just want to emit time series, they only need to listen to the stop and exception events.

There are times when spans won’t be enough, and when that happens feel free to execute a one-off event. Otherwise, just use spans.

Add errors to your stop events

Sometimes things go poorly inside of a function call that doesn’t lead to an exception. When this happens you should include the error to your events metadata inside an optional :error key. Consumers can use this to add labels to their time-series or add errors to their traces.

Give me all your metadata

You don’t know what people are going to do with the events that you’re executing. You want to support as many use cases as you can (including all of the use cases you haven’t thought of yet). So lean towards providing more metadata in your events than you think you need to.

Allow users to add more metadata

Speaking of metadata, its totally reasonable for you to allow users to add additional information to an events metadata. This is often useful for users who want to add additional context or business related metrics to each event.

Don’t rely on middleware to emit your events

A lot of libraries use middleware to emit telemetry events. I have some feedback on this pattern:

Stop it.

Unless there’s no other way to provide telemetry, you should be executing your events from your core library code. The only reasons to use middleware would be for users to opt-in to telemetry or for customization of your telemetry event names. But, telemetry is already opt-in. Users have to attach handlers to your events and executing an event with no handler is low-cost.

Allowing users to customize the event names isn’t something you should do, as we’ve already discussed.

A major problem with emiting telemetry in middleware is that it necessarily means that you aren’t getting the full trace. You won’t be capturing the time between your library being called and your library calling the telemetry middleware. This problem gets worse if the user happens to place the middleware after other, potentially expensive, middleware. The end result is a solution that is less precise and error prone. If you have no other solution, by all means, provide a middleware. But otherwise, avoid it.

Durations should be in native units (or explicitly stated)

You should default to native units for all of your duration measurements. If you really don’t want to use native units, then return a tuple stating exactly what units you’re using like: {100, :microseconds}.

Use a single module for telemetry and include all of your context and docs in that module

All of my projects include a module called Lib.Telemetry, and they all follow the same pattern:

defmodule LibName.Telemetry do
  @moduledoc """
  Description of all events

  @doc false
  def start(name, meta, measurements \\ %{}) do
    time = System.monotonic_time()
    measures = Map.put(measurements, :system_time, time)
    :telemetry.execute([:app_name, name, :start], measures, meta)

  @doc false
  def stop(name, start_time, meta, measurements \\ %{}) do
    end_time = System.monotonic_time()
    measurements = Map.merge(measurements, %{duration: end_time - start_time})

      [:app_name, name, :stop],

  @doc false
  def exception(event, start_time, kind, reason, stack, meta \\ %{}, extra_measurements \\ %{}) do
    end_time = System.monotonic_time()
    measurements = Map.merge(extra_measurements, %{duration: end_time - start_time})

    meta =
      |> Map.put(:kind, kind)
      |> Map.put(:error, reason)
      |> Map.put(:stacktrace, stack)

    :telemetry.execute([:app_name, event, :exception], measurements, meta)

  @doc false
  def event(name, metrics, meta) do
    :telemetry.execute([:app_name, name], metrics, meta)

This keeps all of my other code relatively easy to read and provides a module where I can add docs for all of the events I’m going to emit.

Speaking of docs, you need to write some. For each event, explain what measurements you’re going to return, what metadata you’re going to return, and in what context the specific event is going to be executed.

Test your events

Your telemetry is an API and breaking it is probably more costly than if you break some sort of functional interface. At least if you break your functions the user of your library is likely to notice it before they deploy to production. If you make backward-incompatible changes to your telemetry events, the user probably has no clue and won’t discover it until they’ve deployed to production and realize that their monitors and dashboards are now broken.

Luckily, it’s pretty straightforward to test your telemetry events. I typically do something like this (which iirc. is a pattern I stole from Redix’s test suite).

test "telemetry events" do
  {test_name, _arity} = __ENV__.function
  parent = self()
  ref = make_ref()

  handler = fn event, measurements, meta, _config ->
    assert event == [:your_app, :name, :start]
    assert is_integer(measurements.system_time)
    send(parent, {ref, :start})

      [:your_app, :name, :start],

  # some function call...

  assert_receive {^ref, :start}
  assert_receive {^ref, :stop}


I hope that this provides a good framework for anyone who wants to add telemetry to their libraries or applications. As library authors, we need to view good telemetry the same way we view good docs or good tests. These things matter and they can dramatically enhance the experience of using your library. Hopefully, we can spread these ideas across the ecosystem.