This is not authoritative documentation. These features are not currently available in Zuul. They may change significantly before final implementation, or may never be fully completed.

It can be difficult for a user to understand what steps were involved between a trigger event (such as a patchset upload or recheck comment) and a buildset report. If it took an unusually long time it can be difficult to determine why. At present, an operator would need to examine logs to determine what steps were involved and the sources of any potential delays. Even experienced operators and developers can take quite some time to first collect and then analyze logs to answer these questions.

Sometimes these answers may point to routine system operation (such as a delay caused by many gate resets, or preparing a large number of repositories). Other times they may point to deficiencies in the system (insufficient mergers) or bugs in the code.

Being able to visualize the activities of a Zuul system can help operators (and potentially users) triage and diagnose issues more quickly and accurately. Even if examining logs is ultimately required in order to fully diagnose an issue, being able to narrow down the scope using analsys tools can greatly simplify the process.

Proposed Solution

Implementing distributed tracing in Zuul can help improve the observability of the system and aid operators and potentially users in understanding the sequence of events.

By exporting information about the processing Zuul performs using the OpenTelemetry API, information about Zuul operations can be collected in any of several tools for analysis.

OpenTelemetry is an Open Source protocol for exchanging observability data, an SDK implementing that protocol, as well as an implementation of a collector for distributing information to multiple backends.

It supports three kinds of observability data: traces, metrics, and logs. Since Zuul already has support for metrics and logs, this specification proposes that we use only the support in OpenTelemtry for traces.

Usage Scenarios

Usage of OpenTelemetry should be entirely optional and supplementary for any Zuul deployment. Log messages alone should continue to be sufficient to analyze any potential problem.

Should a deployer wish to use OpenTelemetry tracing data, a very simple deployment for smaller sites may be constructed by running only Jaeger. Jaeger is a service that can receive, store, and display tracing information. The project distributes an all-in-one container image which can store data in local filesystem storage.

Larger sites may wish to run multiple collectors and feed data to larger, distributed storage backends (such as Cassandra, Elasticsearch, etc).

Suitability to Zuul

OpenTelemetry tracing, at a high level, is designed to record information about events, their timing, and their relation to other events. At first this seems like a natural fit for Zuul, which reacts to events, processes events, and generates more events. However, OpenTelemetry’s bias toward small and simple web applications is evident throughout its documentation and the SDK implementation.

Traces give us the big picture of what happens when a request is made by user or an application.

Zuul is not driven by user or application requests, and a system designed to record several millisecond-long events which make up the internal response to a user request of a web app is not necessarily the obvious right choice for recording sequences and combinations of events which frequently take hours (and sometimes days) to play out across multiple systems.

Fortunately, the concepts and protocol implementation of OpenTelemtry are sufficiently well-designed for the general case to be able to accomodate a system like Zuul, even if the SDK makes incompatible assumptions that make integration difficult. There are some challenges to implementation, but because the concepts appear to be well matched, we should proceed with using the OpenTelemetry protocol and SDK.


The key tracing concepts in OpenTelemety are traces and spans. From a data model perspective, the unit of data storage is a span. A trace itself is really just a unique ID that is common to multiple spans.

Spans can relate to other spans as either children or links. A trace is generally considered to have a single ‘root’ span, and within the time period represented by that span, it may have any number of child spans (which may further have their own child spans).

OpenTelemetry anticipates that a span on one system may spawn a child span on another system and includes facilities for transferring enough information about the parent span to a child system that the child system alone can emit traces for its span and any children that it spawns in turn.

For a concrete example in Zuul, we might have a Zuul scheduler start a span for a buildset, and then a merger might emit a child span for performing the initial merge, and an executor might emit a child span for executing a build.

Spans can relate to other spans (including spans in other traces), so sequences of events can be chained together without necessitating that they all be part of the same span or trace.

Because Zuul processes series of events which may stretch for long periods of time, we should specify what events and actions should correspond to spans and traces. Spans can have arbitrary metadat associated with them, so we will be able to search by event or job ids.

The following sections describe traces and their child spans.

Event Ingestion

A trace will begin when Zuul receives an event and end when that event has been enqueued into scheduler queues (or discarded). A driver completing processing of an event is a definitive point in time so it is easy to know when to close the root span for that event’s trace (whereas if we kept the trace open to include scheduler processing, we would need to know when the last trigger event spawned by the connection event was complete).

This may include processing in internal queues by a given driver, and these processing steps/queues should appear as their own child spans. The spans should include event IDs (and potentially other information about the event such as change or pull request numbers) as metadata.

Tenant Event Processing

A trace will begin when a scheduler begins processing a tenant event and ends when it has forwarded the event to all pipelines within a tenant. It will link to the event ingestion trace as a follow-on span.

Queue Item

A trace will begin when an item is enqueued and end when it is dequeued. This will be quite a long trace (hours or days). It is expected to be the primary benefit of this telemetry effort as it will show the entire lifetime of a queue item. It will link to the tenant event processing trace as a follow-on span.

Within the root span, there will be a span for each buildset (so that if a gate reset happens and a new buildset is created, users will see a series of buildset spans). Within a buildset, there will be spans for all of the major processing steps, such as merge operations, layout calculating, freezing the job graph, and freezing jobs. Each build will also merit a span (retried builds will get their own spans as well), and within a job span, there will be child spans for git repo prep, job setup, individual playbooks, and cleanup.

SDK Challenges

As a high-level concept, the idea of spans for each of these operations makes sense. In practice, the SDK makes implementation challenging.

The OpenTelemtry SDK makes no provision for beginning a span on one system and ending it on another, so the fact that one Zuul scheduler might start a buildset span while another ends it is problematic.

Fortunately, the OpenTelemetry API only reports spans when they end, not when they start. This means that we don’t need to coordinate a “start” API call on one scheduler with an “end” API call on another. We can simply emit the trace with its root span at the end. However, any child spans emitted during that time need to know the trace ID they should use, which means that we at least need to store a trace ID and start timestamp on our starting scheduler for use by any child spans as well as the “end span” API call.

The SDK does not support creating a span with a specific trace ID or start timestamp (most timestamps are automatic), but it has well-defined interfaces for spans and we can subclass the implementation to allow us to specify trace IDs and timestamps. With this approach, we can “virtually” start a span on one host, store its information in ZooKeeper with whatever long-lived object it is associated with (such as a QueueItem) and then make it concrete on another host when we end it.


This section describes some alternative ideas for dealing with the SDK’s mismatch with Zuul concepts as well as why they weren’t selected.

  • Multiple root spans with the same trace ID

    Jaeger handles this relatively well, and the timeline view appears as expected (multiple events with whitespace between them). The graph view in Jaeger may have some trouble displaying this.

    It is not clear that OpenTelemetry anticipates having multiple “root” spans, so it may be best to avoid this in order to avoid potential problems with other tools.

  • Child spans without a parent

    If we emit spans that specify a parent which does not exist, Jaeger will display these traces but show a warning that the parent is invalid. This may occur naturally while the system is operating (builds complete while a buildset is running), but should be eventually corrected once an item is dequeued. In case of a serious error, we may never close a parent span, which would cause this to persist. We should accept that this may happen, but try to avoid it happening intentionally.

Events and Exceptions

OpenTelemetry allows events to be added to spans. Events have their own timestamp and attributes. These can be used to add additional context to spans (representing single points in time rather than events with duration that should be child spans). Examples might include receiving a request to cancel a job or dequeue an item.

Events should not be used as an alternative to logs, nor should all log messages be copied as events. Events should be used sparingly to avoid overwhelming the tracing storage with data and the user with information.

Exceptions may also be included in spans. This happens automatically and by default when using the context managers supplied by the SDK. Because many spans in Zuul will be unable to use the SDK context managers and any exception information would need to be explicitly handled and stored in ZooKeeper, we will disable inclusion of exception information in spans. This will provide a more consistent experience (so that users don’t see the absence of an exception in tracing information to indicate the absence of an error in logs) and reduce the cost of supporting traces (extra storage in ZooKeeper and in the telemetry storage).

If we decide that exception information is worth including in the future, this decision will be easy to revisit and reverse.

Sensitive Information

No sensitive information (secrets, passwords, job variables, etc) should be included in tracing output. All output should be suitable for an audience of Zuul users (that is, if someone has access to the Zuul dashboard, then tracing data should not have any more sensitive information than they already have access to). For public-facing Zuul systems (such as OpenDev), the information should be suitable for public use.

Protobuf and gRPC

The most efficient and straightforward method of transmitting data from Zuul to a collector (including Jaeger) is using OTLP with gRPC (OpenTelemetry Protocol + gRPC Remote Procedure Calls). Because Protobuf applications include automatically generated code, we may encounter the occasional version inconsistency. We may need to navigate package requirements more than normal due to this (especially if we have multiple packages that depend on protobuf).

For a contemporary example, the OpenTelemetry project is in the process of pinning to an older version of protobuf:

There is an HTTP+JSON exporter as well, so in the case that something goes very wrong with protobuf+gRPC, that may be available as a fallback.

Work Items

  • Add OpenTelemetry SDK and support for configuring an exporter to zuul.conf

  • Implement SDK subclasses to support opening and closing spans on different hosts

  • Instrument event processing in each driver

  • Instrument event processing in scheduler

  • Instrument queue items and related spans

  • Document a simple Jaeger setup as a quickstart add-on (similar to authz)

  • Optional: work with OpenDev to run a public Jaeger server for OpenDev

The last item is not required for this specification (and not our choice as Zuul developers to make) but it would be nice if there were one available so that all Zuul users and developers have a reference implementation available for community collaboration.