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What is a Span?

The “span” is the primary building block of a distributed trace, representing an individual unit of work done in a distributed system.

Each component of the distributed system contributes a span - a named, timed operation representing a piece of the workflow.

Spans can (and generally do) contain “References” to other spans, which allows multiple Spans to be assembled into one complete Trace - a visualization of the life of a request as it moves through a distributed system.

Each span encapsulates the following state according to the OpenTracing specification:

  • An operation name
  • A start timestamp and finish timestamp
  • A set of key:value span Tags
  • A set of key:value span Logs
  • A SpanContext


Tags are key:value pairs that enable user-defined annotation of spans in order to query, filter, and comprehend trace data.

Span tags should apply to the whole span. There is a list available at listing conventional span tags for common scenarios. Examples may include tag keys like db.instance to identify a database host, http.status_code to represent the HTTP response code, or error which can be set to True if the operation represented by the Span fails.


Logs are key:value pairs that are useful for capturing span-specific logging messages and other debugging or informational output from the application itself. Logs may be useful for documenting a specific moment or event within the span (in contrast to tags which should apply to the span as a whole).


The SpanContext carries data across process boundaries. Specifically, it has two major components:

  • An implementation-dependent state to refer to the distinct span within a trace
    • i.e., the implementing Tracer’s definition of spanID and traceID
  • Any Baggage Items
    • These are key:value pairs that cross process-boundaries.
    • These may be useful to have some data available for access throughout the trace.

Example Span:

    t=0            operation name: db_query               t=x

     | · · · · · · · · · ·    Span     · · · · · · · · · · |

- db.instance:"customers"
- db.statement:"SELECT * FROM mytable WHERE foo='bar'"
- peer.address:"mysql://"

- message:"Can't connect to mysql server on ''(10061)"

- trace_id:"abc123"
- span_id:"xyz789"
- Baggage Items:
  - special_id:"vsid1738"