HTrace Developer Guide


Apache HTrace is an open source framework for distributed tracing. It can be used with both standalone applications and libraries.

By adding HTrace support to your project, you will allow end-users to trace their requests. In addition, any other project that uses HTrace can follow the requests it makes to your project. That`s why we say HTrace is “end-to-end.”

HTrace was designed for use in big distributed systems such as the Apache Hadoop Distributed Filesystem and the Apache HBase storage engine. However, there is nothing Hadoop-specific about HTrace. It has no dependencies on Hadoop, and is a useful building block for many distributed systems.

The HTrace Core Library

In order to use HTrace, your application must link against the appropriate core library. HTrace`s core libraries have been carefully designed to minimize the number of dependencies that each one pulls in. HTrace currently has Java, C, and C++ support.

HTrace guarantees that the API of core libraries will not change in an incompatible way during a minor release. So if your application worked with HTrace 4.1, it should continue working with HTrace 4.2 with no code changes. (However HTrace 5 may change things, since it is a major release.)


The Java library for HTrace is named htrace-core4.jar. This jar must appear on your CLASSPATH in order to use tracing in Java. If you are using Maven, add the following to your dependencyManagement section:


If you are using an alternate build system, use the appropriate configuration for your build system. Note that it is not a good idea to shade htrace-core4, because some parts of the code use reflection to load classes by name.


The C library for HTrace is named The interface for is described in htrace.h

As with all dynamically loaded native libraries, your application or library must be able to locate in order to use it. There are many ways to accomplish this. The easiest way is to put in one of the system shared library paths. You can also use RPATH or LD_LIBRARY_PATH to alter the search paths which the operating system uses.


The C++ API for HTrace is a wrapper around the C API. This approach makes it easy to use HTrace with any dialect of C++ without recompiling the core library. It also makes it easier for us to avoid making incompatible ABI changes.

The interface is described in htrace.hpp the same as using the C API, except that you use htrace.hpp instead of htrace.h.

Core Concepts

HTrace is based on a few core concepts.


Spans in HTrace are lengths of time. A span has a beginning time in milliseconds, an end time, a description, and many other fields besides.

Spans have parents and children. The parent-child relationship between spans is a little bit like a stack trace. For example, the span graph of an HDFS “ls” request might look like this:

+--- FileSystem#createFileSystem
+--- Globber#glob
|  +---- GetFileInfo
|      +---- ClientNamenodeProtocol#GetFileInfo
|          +---- ClientProtocol#GetFileInfo
+--- listPaths
   +---- ClientNamenodeProtocol#getListing
       +---- ClientProtocol#getListing

“ls” has several children, “FileSystem#createFileSystem”, “Globber#glob”, and “listPaths”. Those spans, in turn, have their own children.

Unlike in a traditional stack trace, the spans in HTrace may be in different processes or even on different computers. For example, ClientProtocol#getListing is done on the NameNode, whereas ClientNamenodeProtocol#getListing happens inside the HDFS client. These are usually on different computers.

Each span has a unique 128-bit ID. Because the space of 128-bit numbers is so large, HTrace can use random generation to avoid collisions.


TraceScope objects manage the lifespan of Span objects. When a TraceScope is created, it often comes with an associated Span object. When this scope is closed, the Span will be closed as well. “Closing” the scope means that the span is sent to a SpanReceiver for processing. We will talk more about what that means later. For now, just think of closing a TraceScope as similar to closing a file descriptor-- the natural thing to do when the TraceScope is done.

HTrace tracks whether a trace scope is active in the current thread by using thread-local data. This approach makes it easier to add HTrace to existing code, by avoiding the need to pass around context objects.

TraceScopes lend themselves to the try... finally pattern of management:

TraceScope computationScope = tracer.newScope("CalculateFoo");
try {
} finally {

Any trace spans created inside calculateFoo will automatically have the CalculateFoo trace span we have created here as their parents. We don`t have to do any additional work to set up the parent/child relationship because the thread-local data takes care of it.

In Java7, the try-with-resources idiom may be used to accomplish the same thing without a finally block:

try (TraceScope computationScope = tracer.newScope("CalculateFoo")) {

The important thing to remember is to close the scope when you are done with it.

Note that in the C++ API, the destructor of the htrace::Scope object will automatically close the span.

htrace::Scope(tracer_, "CalculateFoo");

TraceScope are associatewith particular threads. If you want to pass a trace scope to another thread, you must detach it from the current one first. We will talk more about that later in this guide.


Tracers are the API for creating trace scope objects. You can see that in the example above, we called the Tracer#newScope function to create a scope.

It is difficult to trace every operation. The volume of trace span data that would be generated would be extremely large! So we rely on sampling a subset of all possible traces. Tracer objects contain Samplers. When you call Tracer#newScope, the Tracer will consult that Sampler to determine if a new span should be created, or if an empty scope which contains no span should be returned. Note that if there is already a currently active span, the Tracer will always create a child span, regardless of what the sampler says. This is because we want to see the complete graph of every operation, not just “bits and pieces.” Tracer objects also manage the SpanReceiver objects which control where spans are sent.

A single process or library can have many Tracer objects. Each Tracer object has its own configuration. One way of thinking of Tracer objects is that they are similar to Log objects in log4j. Just as you might create a Log object for the NameNode and one for the DataNode, we create a Tracer for the NameNode and another Tracer for the DataNode. This allows users to control the sampling rate for the DataNode and the NameNode separately.

Unlike TraceScope and Span, Tracer objects are thread-safe. It is perfectly acceptable (and even recommended) to have multiple threads calling Tracer#newScope at once on the same Tracer object.

The number of Tracer objects you should create in your project depends on the structure of your project. Many applications end up creating a small number of global Tracer objects. Libraries usually should not use globals, but associate the Tracer with the current library context.


HTrace contains many helpful wrapper objects like TraceRunnable TraceCallable and TraceExecutorService These helper classes make it easier for you to create trace spans. Basically, they act as wrappers around Tracer#newScope.


HTrace is a pluggable framework. We can configure where trace spans are sent at runtime, by selecting the appropriate SpanReceiver.


As a developer integrating HTrace into your application, you do not need to know what each and every SpanReceiver does-- only the ones you actually intend to use. The nice thing is that users can use any span receiver with your project, without any additional effort on your part. The span receivers are decoupled from the core library.

When using Java, you will need to add the jar file for whichever span receiver you want to use to your CLASSPATH. (These span receivers are not added to the CLASSPATH by default because they may have additional dependencies that not every user wants.) For C and C++, a more limited set of span receivers is available, but they are all integrated into, so no additional libraries are needed.


Clearly, HTrace requires configuration. We need to control which SpanReceiver is used, what the sampling rate is, and many other things besides. Luckily, as we discussed earlier, the Tracer objects maintain this configuration information for us. When we ask for a new trace scope, the Tracer knows what configuration to use.

This configuration comes from the HTraceConfiguration object that we supplied to the Tracer#Builder earlier. In general, we want to configure HTrace the same way we configure anything else in our distributed system. So we normally create a subclass of HTraceConfiguration that accesses the appropriate information in our existing configuration system.

To make this a little more concrete, lets suppose we are writing Bobs Distributed System. Being a pragmatic (not to mention lazy) guy, Bob has decided to just use Java configuration properties for configuration. So our Tracer#Builder invoation would look something like this:

this.tracer = new Tracer.Builder("Bob").
    conf(new HTraceConfiguration() {
        public String get(String key) {
          return System.getProperty("htrace." + key);

        public String get(String key, String defaultValue) {
          String ret = get(key);
          return (ret != null) ? ret : defaultValue;

You can see that this configuration object maps every property starting in “htrace.” to an htrace property. So, for example, you would set the Java system property value “htrace.span.receiver.classes” in order to control the HTrace configuration key “span.receiver.classes”.

Of course, Bob probably should have been less lazy, and used a real configuration system instead of using Java system properties. This is just a toy example to illustrate how to integrate with an existing configuration system.

Bob might also have wanted to use different prefixes for different Tracer objects. For example, in Hadoop you can configure the FsShell Tracer separately from the NameNode Tracer, by setting “”. This is easy to control by changing the HTraceConfiguration object that you pass to Tracer#Builder.

Note that in C and C++, this system is a little different, based on explicitly creating a configuration object prior to creating a tracer, rather than using a callback-based system.


SpanReceiver objects often need to make a network connection to a remote serveice or daemon. Usually, we don`t want to create more than one SpanReceiver of each type in a particular process, so that we can optimize the number of these connections that we have open. TracerPool objects allow us to acheieve this.

Each Tracer object belongs to a TracerPool. When a call to Tracer#Builder is made which requests a specific SpanReceiver, we check the TracerPool to see if there is already an instance of that SpanReceiver. If so, we simply re-use the existing one rather than creating a new one.

Normally, you don`t need to worry about TracerPools. However, if you have an explicit need to create multiple SpanReceivers of the same type, you can do it by using a TracerPool other than the default one, or by explicitly adding the SpanReceiver to your Tracer once it has been created. This is not a very common need.

When the application terminates, we will attempt to close all currently open SpanReceivers. You can attempt to close the SpanReceivers earlier than that by calling tracer.getTracerPool().removeAndCloseAllSpanReceivers().

Passing Span IDs over RPC

So far, we have described how to use HTrace inside a single process. However, since we are dealing with distributed systems, a single process is not enough. We need a way to send HTrace information across the network.

Unlike some other tracing systems, HTrace works with many different RPC systems. You do not need to change the RPC framework you are using in order to use HTrace. You simply need to find a way to pass HTrace information using the RPC framework that you`re already using. In most cases, what this boils down to is figuring out a way to send the 128-bit parent ID of an operation over the network as an optional field.

Let`s say that Bob is writing the server side of his system. If the client sent its parent ID over the wire, Bob might write code like this:

BobRequestProto bp = ...;
SpanId spanId = (bp.hasSpanId()) ? bp.getSpanId() : SpanId.INVALID;
try (TraceScope scope = tracer.newScope("bobRequest", spanId)) {

By passing the spanId to Tracer#newScope, we ensure that any new span we create will have a record of its parent.

Handling work done in multiple threads

Sometimes, you end up performing work for a single request in multiple threads. How can we handle this? Certainly, we can use the same approach as we did in the RPC case above. We can have the child threads create trace scopes which use our parent ID object. SpanId objects are immtuable and easy to share between threads.

try (TraceScope bigScope = tracer.newScope("bigComputation")) {
    SpanId bigScopeId = bigScope.getCurrentSpanId();
    Thread t1 = new Thread(new Runnable() {
        public void run() {
            TraceScope scope = (bigScopeId.isValid()) ?
                tracer.newScope("bigComputationWorker", bigScopeId) :
            try {
            } finally {
    }, "myWorker");

Note that in this case, the two threads are not sharing trace scopes. Instead, we are setting up a new trace scope, which may have its own span, which has the outer scope as a parent. Note that HTrace will be well-behaved even if the outer scope may be closed before the inner one. The SpanId object of a TraceScope continues to be valid even after a scope is closed. It`s just a number, essentially-- and that number will not be reused by any other scope.

Why do we make the worker Thread call newNullScope in the case where the outer scopes span id is invalid? Well, we dont want to ever create the inner span if the outer one does not exist. Calling newNullScope ensures that we get a scope with no span, no matter what samplers are configured.

What if we don`t want to create more than one span here? In that case, we need to have some way of detaching the TraceScope from the parent thread, and re-attaching it to the worker thread. Luckily, HTrace has an API for that.

final TraceScope bigScope = tracer.newScope("bigComputation");
Thread t1 = new Thread(new Runnable() {
    public void run() {
        try {
        } finally {
}, "myWorker");

Note that in this case, we don`t need to close the TraceScope in the containing thread. It has already been closed by the worker thread.