Distributed Tracing: Design and Architecture

The previous blog post talked about why Knewton needed a distributed tracing system and the value it can add to a company. This section will go into more technical detail as to how we implemented our distributed tracing solution.

General Architecture and Tracing Data Management

Our solution has two main parts: the tracing library that all services integrate with, and a place to  store and visualize the tracing data. We chose Zipkin, a scalable open-source tracing framework developed at Twitter, for storing and visualizing the tracing data. Zipkin is usually paired with Finagle, but as mentioned in Part I, we ruled it out due to complications with our existing infrastructure. Knewton built the tracing library, called TDist, from the ground up, starting as a company hack day experiment.


Tracing data model

For our solution, we chose to match the data model used in Zipkin, which in turn borrows heavily from Dapper. A trace tree is made up of a set of spans.  Spans represent a particular call from client start through server receive, server send, and, ultimately, client receive.  For example, the call-and-response between ServiceA and ServiceB would count as a single span: .


Each span tracks three identifiers:

  • Trace ID: Every span in a trace will share this ID.
  • Span ID: The ID for a particular span. The Span ID may or may not be the same as the Trace ID.
  • Parent Span ID: An optional ID present only on child spans. The root span does not have a Parent Span ID.

The diagram below shows how these IDs are applied to calls through the tree.  Notice that the Trace ID is consistent throughout the tree.


For more details, read the Dapper paper.


TDist is a Java library that Knewton developed. All of our services use it to enable tracing. TDist currently supports Thrift, HTTP, and Kafka, and it can also trace direct method invocations with the help of Guice annotations.

Each thread servicing or making a request to another service gets assigned a Span that is propagated and updated by the library in the background. Upon receipt of a request (or right before an outgoing request is made), the tracing data are added to an internal queue, and the name of the thread handling the request is changed to include the Trace ID by a DataManager. Worker threads then consume from that queue, and the tracing data get published to our tracing message bus. Java ThreadLocals makes it easy to globally store and access information assigned to a particular thread, and that is  the approach we used in the DataManager.

Often, threads offload the actual work to other threads, which then either do other remote calls or report back to the parent thread. Because of this, we also implemented thread factories as well as executors, which know how to retrieve the tracing data from the parent thread and assign it to the child thread so that the child thread can also be tracked.


Once the tracing data arrive at the tracing message bus through TDist, the Zipkin infrastructure handles the rest of the process. Multiple instances of collectors,consuming from the message bus, store each record in the tracing data store. A separate set of query and web services, part of the Zipkin source code, in turn query the database for traces. We decided to join the query and the web service to keep things simpler, and also because this combined service is internal and has predictable traffic patterns. However, the collector is decoupled from the query and web service because the more Knewton services integrated with the collector, the more tracing data itwould have to process.

Zipkin UI

Out of the box, Zipkin provides a simple UI to view traces across all services. While it’s easy to view logs for a particular Trace ID across all services, the Zipkin UI provides a summarized view of the duration of each call without having to look through hundreds of log statements. It’s also a useful way of identifying  the biggest or slowest traces over a given period of time. Finding these outliers allowed us to flag cases where we were making redundant calls to other services that were slowing down our overall SLA for certain call chains. Here’s a screenshot of a trace appearing in the Zipkin UI:


Of course, the UI doesn’t come without drawbacks. While it’s easy to look at distinct individual traces, we found the Zipkin UI lacking for examining aggregate data. For example, there’s currently no way to get aggregate timing information or aggregate data on most called endpoints, services etc.

Throughout the development process and rolling out of the Zipkin infrastructure, we made several open-source contributions to Zipkin, thanks to its active and growing community.


As mentioned above, the thread name of the current thread servicing a request is also changed, and the trace ID is appended to it. Because of this we can query for logs across all of the trace-enabled services for a particular call. This makes debugging a lot easier, and it’s proven to be very useful in post mortem analysis, log aggregations, debugging for isolated problems, and explaining uncommon platform behavior.


Thrift is a cross-language RPC framework for building up scalable services. The user can define a service and data model spec in Thrift, and Thrift will compile the spec into many different languages. Users can then implement the generated service interfaces in the desired language. Thrift also automatically generates the client code and data structures for the services defined by the user.

Thrift is the most widely used RPC method between services at Knewton. Most of our services talk to each other through this framework, so supporting it while still maintaining backwards compatibility was critical for the success of this project. More precisely, we wanted services that were not tracing-enabled to be able to talk to tracing-enabled services.

When we started looking into adding tracing support to Thrift, we experimented with two different approaches. The first approach involved a modified Thrift compiler, and the second involved modified serialization protocols and server processors. Both methods had their advantages and disadvantages.

Custom Compiler

In this approach, we experimented with modifying the C++ Thrift compiler to generate additional service interfaces that could pass along the tracing data to the user. Modified thrift compilers are not uncommon; perhaps the most famous example is Scrooge. One advantage of a modified compiler was that clients would have to swap out fewer class implementations in their code, since tracing was supported right in the generated code. Clients could also get a reference of the tracing data from the service interface.

Although we didn’t benchmark, we also think that this approach would have been marginally faster, since there are fewer classes delegating to tracing implementations. However, we would have had to recompile all of our Thrift code and deviate from the open-source version, making it harder to upgrade in the future. We also soon realized that allowing the user access to the tracing data might not be desirable or safe, and data management might be better left to TDist for consistency.

Custom Protocols and Server Processors

We ended up using this approach in production. Not having to maintain a custom compiler lowered our development cost significantly. The biggest disadvantage to customizing protocols and server processors was that we had to upgrade to Thrift 0.9.0 (from 0.7.0) to take advantage of some features that would make it easier to plug in our tracing components to the custom Thrift processors and protocols. The upgrade required a lot of coordination across the organization. Thankfully, the newer version of Thrift was backwards-compatible with the older version, and we could work on TDist while Knewton services were being updated to the newer version. However, we still had to release all Knewton services before we could start integrating them with our distributed tracing solution.

Upgrading Thrift

Upgrading libraries when using a dependency framework is relatively easy, but for an RPC framework like Thrift and a service-oriented architecture with a deep call dependency chain, it gets a little more complicated. A typical server will have server and client code, with the server code often depending on other client libraries. Because of this, upgrades needed to start from the leaf services and move up the tree to avoid introducing wire incompatibilities since the outgoing services might not know if the destination service will be able to detect the tracing data coming through the wire.


Another hurdle was that certain services, such as the Cassandra client library Astyanax depended on third-party libraries that in turn depended on the Thrift 0.7.0. For Astyanax, we had to shade the JARs using Maven and change package names so that they didn’t collide with the newer Thrift library. All of this had to happen quickly and without downtime. And because we didn’t want other teams at Knewton incurring the cost of this upgrade, the distributed tracing team had to implement and roll out all the changes.

Tracing Thrift Components: How It Works

Our Thrift solution consisted of custom, backwards-compatible protocols and custom server processors that extract tracing data and set them before routing them to the appropriate RPC call. Our protocols essentially write the tracing data at the beginning of each message. When the RPC call reaches the server, the processor will identify and note whether the incoming call has tracing data so it can respond appropriately. Calls with tracing data get responses with tracing data, and requests from non-integrated services that don’t carry tracing data get responses without tracing data. This makes the tracing protocols backwards-compatible since the server outgoing protocols don’t write tracing data if instructed not to by the processor servicing the request. A tracing protocol can detect whether the payload contains tracing data based from the first few bytes. Thrift appends a protocol ID to the beginning, and if the reading protocol sees that the first few bytes do not indicate the presence of tracing data the bytes are put back on the buffer and the payload is reread as a non-tracing payload. When reading a message, the protocols will extract the tracing data and set them to a ThreadLocal for the thread servicing the incoming RPC call using the DataManager. If that thread ever makes additional calls to other services downstream, the tracing data will be picked up from the DataManager automatically by TDist and will get appended to the outgoing message.


Here’s a diagram showing how the payload is modified to add tracing data:


Kafka Tracing Support

When we were adding tracing support to Kafka, we wanted to keep the Kafka servers, also referred to as brokers, as a black box. In other words, we wanted to pass the data through the brokers without them necessarily knowing and therefore not having to modify the Kafka broker code at all. Similar to our approach with RPC services, we upgraded the consumers before upgrading the producers. The consumers are backwards-compatible and can detect when a payload contains tracing data, deserializing the content in the manner of the Thrift protocols described above. To achieve this, we require clients to wrap their serializers/deserializers in tracing equivalents that delegate reading and writing of the non-tracing payload to the wrapped ones.



HTTP Tracing Support

As some of Knewton’s internal infrastructure and all public facing endpoints are HTTP-based, we needed a simple way of instrumenting HTTP calls to carry tracing information.

This was quite simple, because HTTP supports putting arbitrary data in headers. According to section 5 of rfc2047, the only guideline for adding custom headers is to prefix them with a `X-`.

We elected to continue the Zipkin tradition and use the following headers to propagate tracing information:

  • X-B3-TraceId
  • X-B3-SpanId
  • X-B3-ParentSpanId

Services at Knewton primarily use the Jetty HTTP Server and the Apache HTTP Client. Both of these projects allow for easy header manipulation.

Jetty services requests by routing them to a Servlet. As part of this routing, Jetty allows the request and response to pass through a series of Filters. We felt this was the ideal place to deal with tracing data. When any incoming request comes with tracing data headers, we construct span data from it and submit it to the DataManager.

With the Apache HTTP Client, we use an HttpRequestInterceptor and HttpResponseInterceptor, which were designed to interact with header contents and modify them. These interceptors readtracing data from headers and set them using the DataManager and vice versa.


For those unfamiliar with Guice, it’s a dependency management framework developed at Google. To make the TDist integrations with our existing services easier and less error-prone, we relied on Guice and implemented several modules that our clients simply had to install. Guice handles dependency injection during object instantiation and makes it easy when swapping implementations of interfaces. If throughout this article you have been  thinking that integrating with TDist sounds complicated, a lot of the time all our clients needed to do was install additional Guice modules that would bind our tracing implementations to existing Thrift interfaces. This also meant that our clients never had to instantiate any of our tracing-enabled constructs. Whenever a TDist client forgets to bind something, Guice would notify our clients at compile time. We put a lot of thought into how we laid out our Guice module hierarchies so that TDist didn’t collide with our clients, and we were very careful whenever we had to expose elements to the outside world.

The Tracing Message Bus

The tracing message bus is where all our client services place tracing data prior to its being consumed by the Zipkin collector and persisted. Our two options were Kafka and Kinesis, and we ended up choosing Kinesis. We were considering Kafka because Knewton, has had a stable Kafka deployment for several years. At the time, our Kafka cluster, which we’ve been using as our student event bus, was ingesting over 300 messages per second in production. Our initial estimates for putting us in the range of over 400,000 tracing messages per second with only a partial integration. The idea of straining production systems with instrumentation data made us nervous. Kinesis seemed like an attractive alternative that would be isolated from our Kafka servers, which were only handling production, non-instrumentation data. At the time of implementation, Kinesis was a new AWS service and none of us were familiar with it. Its price, throughput capabilities, and the lack of maintenance on our end sealed the deal for us. Overall, we’ve been satisfied with its performance and stability. It’s not as fast as Kafka, but the nature of our data made it acceptable to have an SLA of even a few minutes from publication to ingestion. Since we deployed the tracing message bus to production, we were also able to easily scale up the number of Kinesis shards without incurring any downtime.

The Tracing Data Store

The tracing data store is where all our tracing data ends up. The data stay there for a configurable time and are queried by the Zipkin query service to display on the UI. Zipkin supports a lot of data stores out of the box, including Cassandra, Redis, MongoDB, Postgres and MySQL. We experimented with Cassandra and DynamoDB, mainly because of the institutional knowledge we have at Knewton, but ended up choosing Amazon’s Elasticache Redis. The most important reasons behind our decision were

  • Time to production, given that we didn’t have to roll out and maintain a new cluster
  • cost
  • easier integration with Zipkin with less code
  • support for TTLs on the data.


Our tracing solution at Knewton has been in all environments for a few months now. So far it has proven to be invaluable. We have only started to scratch the surface with what we can do with the tracing and timing data we’re collecting. We had a lot of fun implementing and rolling out tracing at Knewton, and we have come to understand the value of this data.

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