Observability has become a critical aspect of modern software development and operations, allowing organizations to gain insights into the health and performance of their applications and systems. One of the key decisions when implementing observability is choosing between commercial or open-source tools. We spoke to several professionals who shared their experiences and insights on this topic, shedding light on the pros and cons of each approach.

One surveyed user mentioned that their company was using Dynatrace, a commercial observability tool, and was moving away from a self-hosted/open-source stack due to the challenges of supporting both systems with limited resources. The move to Dynatrace was driven by out-of-the-box alerting and AI capabilities, enterprise support plans, and cost considerations. Many others also mentioned that they are migrating to Grafana and Prometheus, which are open-source tools commonly used in larger organizations as well.

However, some surveyed users(mostly at larger organizations) were largely relying on custom solutions developed in-house that are neither open-source nor commercial. Some of these custom solutions may eventually be open-sourced, depending on the organization's strategy. With commercial support, the quality of support may not always be satisfactory, and there is widespread knowledge of open-source tools in the industry. Resumes from professionals in the finance industry, for example, often mention experience with Prometheus/Grafana stacks.

One major concern about commercial observability tools was the lack of articles and blog posts compared to open-source tools. One user pointed out that commercial vendors often distribute white papers as part of their sales process, or share information within their customer-facing events, but these may not be as visible to the general public. In contrast, many tech companies and startups encourage their engineers to blog about their projects and build a personal brand, leading to more public exposure for open-source tools.

An interesting point to note here is the cultural difference between tech companies/startups and traditional enterprises. While tech companies and startups tend to encourage engineers to blog and share their knowledge, typical Fortune 500 companies may not have the same culture of promoting personal branding through blogging. This can limit the exposure of commercial tools, as valuable insights and experiences may not be widely shared.

Another major concern is the reliability and support for both commercial and open-source tools. Paying for a commercial solution does not necessarily guarantee better support or accountability from the vendor. Vendors may take time to respond to issues, and organizations may not have full visibility into how the product works or access to the source code. On the other hand, open-source tools provide more transparency as organizations can access the source code and see what's going on under the hood. Additionally, finding talent with knowledge of open-source tools may be easier, and there may be a larger community of experts who can provide support.

The risks associated with engineers leaving the company after setting up observability tools must be considered. With commercial tools, there may be more service providers or partners available to provide support in case of staff turnover. However, with open-source tools, community knowledge and expertise may be more accessible, and there may be a larger pool of talent available for replacements.

Another key insight is that the open-source community tends to have a culture of sharing and collaboration. Many surveyed users mentioned that the open source community is more likely to share information and knowledge through blog posts and other channels. This is because open source tools are typically developed and maintained by a community of volunteers who are passionate about the technology and eager to contribute to the community's collective knowledge. As a result, there is a wealth of information available in the form of blog posts, tutorials, documentation, and other resources for open source monitoring tools.

Another insight is that commercial vendors often have their own conferences, blogs, and communities where they encourage their users to share content. These platforms are usually more focused and targeted compared to general conferences, which are not vendor-specific. Vendors may also prefer to highlight their own products and solutions in their blogs, rather than talking about other companies' products, as it may come across as a sales pitch.

Commercial companies tend to use a mix of tools, both open source and commercial, depending on their needs and requirements. There may be cycles of consolidation and diversification, where companies adopt a commercial tool, then switch to open source or vice versa. This can also contribute to the difference in publications, as companies may not always want to write extensively about their usage of other companies' products, and instead focus on their own in-house developments or successes. Writing about other companies' products may not be as interesting or relevant for some companies' communication strategies. Communication teams may be more interested in showcasing their own products or accomplishments to attract engineers and talent to their organization, rather than writing about other products.

It is believed by many that open source monitoring tools may require more effort to use and learn, as they often require maintaining the backend infrastructure oneself. This can result in a higher demand for blog posts and tutorials on open source monitoring tools, as users may need more guidance and assistance in getting started and effectively utilizing these tools.

The open-source community's culture of sharing and collaboration, the targeted nature of commercial vendors' blogs and communities, the preference of companies to highlight their own products, the cyclical nature of tool adoption, and the potentially higher learning curve of open source tools are all factors that contribute to the adoption of open-source vs commercial observability tools. It is important to consider these insights when seeking information and resources on monitoring tools, and to recognize that both open source and commercial software have their unique advantages and use cases.

In summation, the choice between commercial and open-source observability tools depends on various factors such as the organization's needs, resources, risk tolerance, and company culture. Commercial tools may offer out-of-the-box features, enterprise support, and accountability from vendors, but may have limitations in terms of transparency, access to source code, and community knowledge. Open-source tools may provide more visibility, transparency, and community support, but may require more effort in terms of setting up and maintaining, and may have limitations in terms of commercial support. Ultimately, organizations need to carefully evaluate their requirements and consider the trade-offs between open-source and closed-source.