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Open source

Service graphs

A service graph is a visual representation of the interrelationships between various services. Service graphs help you to understand the structure of a distributed system, and the connections and dependencies between its components:

  • Infer the topology of a distributed system. As distributed systems grow, they become more complex. Service graphs help you to understand the structure of the system.
  • Provide a high-level overview of the health of your system. Service graphs display error rates, latencies, as well as other relevant data.
  • Provide an historic view of a system’s topology. Distributed systems change very frequently, and service graphs offer a way of seeing how these systems have evolved over time.

Service graphs example

How they work

The metrics-generator processes traces and generates service graphs in the form of Prometheus metrics.

Service graphs work by inspecting traces and looking for spans with parent-children relationship that represent a request. The processor uses the OpenTelemetry semantic conventions to detect a myriad of requests. It currently supports the following requests:

  • A direct request between two services where the outgoing and the incoming span must have span.kind, client, and server, respectively.
  • A request across a messaging system where the outgoing and the incoming span must have span.kind, producer, and consumer respectively.
  • A database request; in this case the processor looks for spans containing attributes span.kind=client as well as

Every span that can be paired up to form a request is kept in an in-memory store, until its corresponding pair span is received or the maximum waiting time has passed. When either of these conditions are reached, the request is recorded and removed from the local store.

Each emitted metrics series have the client and server label corresponding with the service doing the request and the service receiving the request.

  tempo_service_graph_request_total{client="app", server="db", connection_type="database"} 20

Virtual nodes

Virtual nodes are nodes that form part of the lifecycle of a trace, but spans for them are not being collected because they’re outside the user’s reach (for example, an external service for payment processing) or are not instrumented (for example, a frontend application).

Virtual nodes can be detected in two different ways:

  • The root span has span.kind set to server. This indicates that the request has initiated by an external system that’s not instrumented, like a frontend application or an engineer via curl.
  • A client span does not have its matching server span, but has a peer attribute present. In this case, we make the assumption that a call was made to an external service, for which Tempo won’t receive spans.
    • The default peer attributes are peer.service, and db.system.
    • The order of the attributes is important, as the first one that is present will be used as the virtual node name.


The following metrics are exported:

traces_service_graph_request_totalCounterclient, server, connection_typeTotal count of requests between two nodes
traces_service_graph_request_failed_totalCounterclient, server, connection_typeTotal count of failed requests between two nodes
traces_service_graph_request_server_secondsHistogramclient, server, connection_typeTime for a request between two nodes as seen from the server
traces_service_graph_request_client_secondsHistogramclient, server, connection_typeTime for a request between two nodes as seen from the client
traces_service_graph_unpaired_spans_totalCounterclient, server, connection_typeTotal count of unpaired spans
traces_service_graph_dropped_spans_totalCounterclient, server, connection_typeTotal count of dropped spans

Duration is measured both from the client and the server sides.

Possible values for connection_type: unset, messaging_system, or database.

Additional labels can be included using the dimensions configuration option.

Since the service graph processor has to process both sides of an edge, it needs to process all spans of a trace to function properly. If spans of a trace are spread out over multiple instances, spans are not paired up reliably.