eBPF: Revolutionizing Observability for DevOps and SRE Teams

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Mark BakkerProduct Owner & Co-Founder
7 min read

Whether you're a system administrator, a developer, or any other DevOps or Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) professional, you know that staying ahead in cloud-native computing is crucial.

One way to keep your competitive edge in the technology game is to embrace the benefits of eBPF (Extended Berkeley Packet Filter). On top of advances in security and networking, eBPF-based tools are particularly impacting the observability landscape.

That's why StackState uses eBPF — it's a game-changer in how our observability platform effectively monitors and understands your operating systems and all the apps within.

Your Operating System Starts with a Kernel

Traditionally, an operating system (OS) is where observability, security, and networking functionalities take place. Every machine, whether it's a computer, cell phone, or other virtual computing device, has a single kernel. It's not an insignificant part: it's the most critical part of any operating system because, without this kernel, no device would be usable.

All containers on any machine share this common kernel, which has made evolving the operating system kernel extremely challenging. This is true for many reasons, especially concerning system reliability and security, and has resulted in slower innovation than service functionalities beyond the OS. eBPF changed all this.

Breaking New Ground with eBPF

Rooted in the Linux kernel, eBPF allows running isolated programs within the operating system kernel, extending OS abilities without loading new modules or modifying its source code.

eBPF allows app developers to add additional capabilities to the operating system by running sandboxed eBPF programs without compromising safety and execution efficiency. This shift has given rise to a revolution of eBPF-based advancements in operating systems, unlocking app innovation to assist in full-stack observability, performance troubleshooting, application tracing, networking and cutting-edge preventive security.

For StackState, the breakthrough lies in accessing the OS kernel via eBPF, which allows us to gain incredible insights into every aspect of the application code running on the machine — and to do it at lightning speed.

Why eBPF Matters in Modern Observability

Let's focus on observability and OpenTelemetry and examine how eBPF earned an important place in our observability toolkit.

As an open-source project for monitoring and collecting performance data in software applications, OpenTelemetry standardizes observability practices across different languages and environments.

Together, eBPF and OpenTelemetry are rewriting the rules, offering more efficient, flexible, and less intrusive ways to gather critical system data. While OpenTelemetry standardizes data transmission, eBPF revolutionizes data collection at the kernel level.

Imagine a lightweight virtual machine inside your Linux kernel, running programs that enhance and monitor system performance without disrupting normal operations. That's eBPF in a nutshell — and it's designed to be safe, efficient, and incredibly powerful.

Programs built on eBPF effortlessly connect with different system events, including function calls in libraries, system calls, and network traffic. Additionally, eBPF makes conducting dynamic tracing at the user level a whole lot easier.

Exceptional Data Processing Takes Center Stage

One of eBPF's standout features is that it helps StackState track all key metrics without the need for manual instrumentation. Plus, the ability to process data at the kernel level drastically reduces the overhead of transferring data between kernel and user space.

This approach aligns with the StackState mission to automatically deliver fast and comprehensive insights, originating from a central, reliable source and with minimal overhead.

If you have 30 minutes to spare, we suggest checking out this excellent documentary film, eBPF: Unlocking the Kernel, which provides an in-depth exploration of the origins of eBPF, how it works, and the stories, challenges, and rewards of this game-changing technology.

Leveraging eBPF for Advanced Observability

At StackState, we make a clear distinction between troubleshooting and observability. Although they are done by the same people and sometimes even with the same tools, they provide a different perspective.

For our purposes, observability is the practice of continuously understanding the state of your landscape, both the application and the underlying platform. Troubleshooting, on the other hand, is aimed at remediating an issue as fast as possible.

StackState provides strong support for both by retrieving the correct data set through eBPF. This combination is also used to establish alerts to observe your entire system and give your teams an understanding of what happened in the past and how that's impacting what's occurring today.

Here's a bit more on the StackState approach using eBPF:

  • Unveiling the Network's Secrets: Our primary focus with eBPF is on comprehensive network analysis. By examining the data flow between processes, even across clusters and clouds, we gain insights into service interactions that were previously hidden. This includes real-time metrics on throughput, latency, and error rates for protocols like HTTP, HTTPS, MongoDB, and Kafka — even when the connections are encrypted.

  • Multi-Cluster and Multi-Cloud Observability: For complex environments spanning multiple clusters and clouds, we've developed innovative techniques to maintain observability. By injecting trace headers, we correlate data across various setups, offering a comprehensive view of your entire infrastructure.

  • Extracting Key Metrics for Informed Decisions: Our eBPF-based solution doesn't just track network traffic; it decodes and distills essential information. This means you get actionable insights into request paths, status codes, and topic names, enabling you to make data-driven decisions for optimizing system performance.

Embracing eBPF for Future-Proof Observability

At StackState, eBPF is more than just a technology; it's a paradigm shift in observability. It lets us provide detailed, real-time views of your systems, ensuring our users are always in control.

Understanding and utilizing eBPF can be a significant advantage for your DevOps and SRE teams. Whether they're managing a single cluster or a sprawling multi-cloud environment, eBPF is your key to unlocking unparalleled observability.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog on OpenTelemetry, and let's continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in system monitoring!

To get the most out of StackState, take us for a test run. Or try us out by exploring our playground!