I recently read this thread in the CNCF slack from someone wanting to send metrics and traces directly to Postgres. Reasonable enough right? After all once your data is in postgres you can query it to your heart’s content. And isn’t the general culture of OpenTelemetry that you should be able to do all of Observability without resorting to SaaS tools?

The thread, however, is pretty universally opposed to this approach; and I have to say that I agree. While several replies recommend SaaS tools as endpoints to receive OpenTelemetry data, and the tools mentioned are great, there are also fully open-source and self-hosted tools that will make your life much much easier than trying to import directly to Postgres.

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This is not the first time I’ve seen conversations about using Postgres, MariaDB, or another ‘all-purpose’ DB for storing OpenTelemetry data.

Generic databases vs. the right tool

One of the first responses that comes in on this thread mentions that Clickhouse provides better performance for observability queries than Postgres. CNCF ambassador and member of Dynatrace Adam Gardener gives a good synopsis:

There are paid-for vendor solutions who invest massively on how to do this properly and at scale. They’ve spent years learning about tracing, how to do it, store it and analyze it properly. I see little benefit of re-inventing the wheel. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

When it’s time to see your data in a dashboard, again you won’t want to use Postgres to store your data. Matthew Macdonald-Wallace of Contino.io offers a great consideration

If you want Grafana to talk to your proposed PostgreSQL solution, you will need to make sure that the data is in the correct format as well, because it needs to be able to "see" specific attributes on the data in order to build any kind of service map/node graph etc.

Postgres, or any other more generalized SQL system, is incredibly good at the tasks it’s been built for. But either a closed-source SaaS observability database or Clickhouse will both perform better at things like timeseries queries that are needed for observability.

Real Talk on Costs: Beyond the Cash Price

I don’t really need to hammer on the reasons to use a purpose-built tool, but Matthew Macdonald-Wallace has a great writeup on his blog on the real costs of DIY

Let's assume you need a team of 5 people to design, run, support, and improve a Prometheus at scale (at least 1000 instances/servers/containers across used by multiple teams) for you on an average salary of £40,000/year, and that you need to spend an additional £250/person in training, along with internal charge-backs of around £2500/month for the infrastructure:

Annual Salary: £40,000 * 5 = £200,000

Annual Hosting: £2,500 * 12 = £30,000

First Year Training Costs: £250 * 5 = £1,250

Total First Year Costs: £231,250

Ongoing Annual Costs: £230,000

Quite the cost for a free tool!

Notably: if you’re a very large team of developers, this actually might make sense. If observability problems are causing major crises for Operations, and you have reason to beleive that your problems are unique, maybe it’s worth a quarter million pounds per annum to fix. For most of us though: we should either buy a tool or find the right FOSS product.

On the other hand: Why not both? Advanced analysis

Reading so far, it seems like the agreement is universal: you should never ever send Otel data straight to your database unless it’s purpose-built. Martin Thwaites of Honeycomb talks about one reason to send your data to more than one place:

This is a very common usecase. Send to a vendor or OSS backend to have the analysis features for production observability, then push to something like S3 and use athena for auditing and other types of querying that doesn't need really fast querying and visualisations […] I used to put trace data into redshift years ago to look at search data for trend/performance analysis over 12 months.

Here we see one of the superpowers of OpenTelemetry. With the OTel Collector you can send data almost anywhere, even sending copies to multiple endpoints. And there will always be ways that an out-of-the-box observability tool doesn’t do all the analysis you want. Martin makes a strong point that while you shouldn’t use your own DB for all your observability, it’s a good tool to keep in your quiver.

A hybrid option: SaaS for prod, local for dev

This ability to route OpenTelemetry data to multiple endpoints: using self hosted tools for your development and QA environments, with a SaaS offering for your data from production. There are some definite advantages to this approach, firstly for production. We often need our production observability data to be shared across a large team. Everyone from Support to Sales might want to do a quick check of the system health. So a SaaS tool that works from anywhere is appealing. We also generally need observability data from production to be bulletproof: we don’t want a system outage to also disable the thing that alerts us of outages! So a SaaS tool can definitely be tempting for monitoring prod.

In our dev and QA space, the situation is largely reversed: we have a smaller number of people who need access, anyone with access is also able to access a small controlled network, and it is probably okay if the system sometimes fails. One final advantage is the experimentation that self-hosted observability allows. If we let our developers and operations engineer try out changes to our observability setup **and** control the observability backend, they’ll have greater ownership of the process. This can lead us to improvements in our developer experience, largely ‘for free’ just by enabling our teams to experiment with their monitoring.

Open source options can help!

There are several projects built specifically to receive and process OpenTelemetry data, without having to start from scratch. One of these is SigNoz.

SigNoz is a complete solution to the need for ‘out of the box’ observability tooling for storing, analyzing, and displaying your data. SigNoz uses ClickHouse as its datastore, as mentioned above that means great performance for observability data. That means you can host your own OpenTelemetry endpoint without needing to lock into a closed-source SaaS tool. If you want to use open tools but don’t want the headache of running your own data storage for observability, consider SigNoz cloud, our latest offering that takes the self hosting off your plate. Sign up to demo our cloud tool today!