Learn about transparency and its benefits in computer systems, Also learn what problems systems face with no transparency.

Transparency in shipboard engines

Shipboard engineers can tell when something is about to go wrong by the sound of the giant diesel engines. They’ve learned, by living with their engines, to recognize normal, nominal, and abnormal. They are constantly surrounded by the sounds and rhythms of their environment. When something is wrong, the engineers’ knowledge of the linkages within the engines can lead them to the problem with speed and accuracy, and with just one or two clues, in a way that can seem psychic.

The power plant in a ship radiates information through ambient sounds and vibration, through gauges with quantitative information, and in extreme (usually bad) cases through smell.

Transparency in computer systems

Our systems aren’t so naturally exposed. They run in invisible, faceless, far-distant boxes. We don’t see or hear the fans spin. No giant reel-to-reel tape drives whizz back and forth. If we are to get the kind of “environmental awareness” that the shipboard engineers naturally acquire, we must facilitate that awareness by building transparency into our systems.

What does transparency mean?

Transparency refers to the qualities that allow operators, developers, and business sponsors to gain understanding of the system’s historical trends, present conditions, instantaneous state, and future projections. Transparent systems communicate, and in communicating, they train their attendant humans.

In debugging the Black Friday problem, we relied on component-level visibility into the system’s current behavior. That visibility was no accident. It was the product of enabling technologies implemented with transparency and feedback in mind. Without that level of visibility, we probably could’ve known that the site was slow (if a disgruntled user called us or someone in the business happened to hit the site) but have no idea why.

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