What is Cardinality? Cardinality Metrics for Monitoring and Observability

The transition to cloud-native architectures has led to an explosion in metrics data, both in volume and cardinality. This necessitates the development of monitoring systems capable of managing large-scale, high-cardinality data to achieve effective observability in these environments​​.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the important role of cardinality in monitoring and observability.

Cardinality Defined

Cardinality is a mathematics term that refers to the number of unique elements in a set. It is a concept deeply rooted in set theory, a branch of mathematical logic that studies collections of objects. In the context of data, cardinality refers to the uniqueness of data values contained in a particular column of a database table.

Cardinality in databases is important for several reasons:

  1. Data Integrity: It helps maintain the integrity of data by defining clear and precise relationships between different tables in a database. By specifying how entities relate to each other, cardinality ensures that data is accurately linked and accessible.
  2. Efficient Queries: Understanding cardinality allows for the optimization of query execution plans. When the relationships and data distribution in tables are well-defined, queries can be executed more efficiently, leading to faster retrieval of information and better database performance.
  3. Database Design and Normalization: Cardinality is essential in the database design process, particularly in normalization. It helps in organizing data to minimize redundancy and optimize storage, ensuring that the database is structured in the most effective way possible.
  4. Data Analysis and Reporting: For businesses and organizations, cardinality enables more effective data analysis and reporting. It allows for meaningful data relationships to be established and analyzed, providing valuable insights into customer behavior, operational efficiency, and other key business metrics.

Types of Relationships in Database Cardinality

Within database design and data modeling, cardinality is used to describe the relationship between tables in a database. It can be categorized into high and low cardinality. High cardinality is present when a column or row in a database has many distinct values, whereas low cardinality involves many repeated values. The relationships in a database cardinality can be one-to-one, many-to-many, and one-to-many​​.

  • One-to-One Relationship: In a one-to-one relationship, each row in one database table is linked to one, and only one, row in another table. This relationship is often used to model a situation where each entity is unique to another entity. For example, each person might have a unique social security number. In database diagrams, this relationship is often represented with a line connecting the two entities.
  • Many-to-Many Relationship: A many-to-many relationship exists when multiple records in one table are associated with multiple records in another table. This relationship is common in situations where a variety of entities are interrelated. For example, in a university database, a single student might be enrolled in multiple courses, and each course might have multiple enrolled students. This relationship typically requires an intermediary table (often called a junction table) to track the associations between the two entities.
  • One-to-Many Relationship: In a one-to-many relationship, a single row in one table is associated with multiple rows in another table. This is one of the most common relationship types. For instance, a blog post might have multiple comments; here, the blog post is the 'one' side, and the comments are the 'many' side. The 'many' side will typically have a foreign key column that references the primary key of the 'one' side, establishing the connection between the two.

Each of these relationships serves a unique purpose in data modeling, ensuring that the integrity and structure of the data are maintained and accurately represent the real-world entities and their interactions they are designed to model.

Cardinality in Monitoring and Observability

In monitoring systems, especially in cloud-native and microservices environments, cardinality denotes the number of individual values of a metric. For instance, if an application has two HTTP methods, GET and POST, its cardinality is 2. This concept is crucial in modern monitoring systems due to the vast amount of operational data generated, requiring systems that can manage data with higher cardinality effectively​​.

Cardinality in monitoring and observability enhances the capacity to gather, analyze, and utilize data to maintain system performance, stability, and efficiency. Cardinality enables:

  1. Granular Insights: High cardinality allows for detailed monitoring and precise identification of issues within a system. It enables the observation of metrics at a granular level, such as per user or per transaction, which is crucial for thorough analysis and troubleshooting.
  2. Improved Filtering and Querying: With high cardinality, monitoring systems can filter and query data in a more detailed and specific manner. This leads to better understanding and quicker identification of anomalies or issues within the system.
  3. Adaptability to Complex Systems: In modern cloud-native environments, where the number of data sources and their complexity have increased, high cardinality is essential for effectively monitoring a large number of diverse and dynamic components.
  4. Customization and Flexibility: High cardinality provides the flexibility to tailor monitoring and observability to specific needs. It allows the creation of custom metrics and attributes, enabling targeted monitoring and analysis.

The Importance of High Cardinality

High cardinality refers to a situation where a data attribute or column in a dataset has a large number of distinct values. For example, in a user database, attributes such as user IDs or email addresses typically have high cardinality, as each user has a unique identifier. High cardinality fields are powerful for detailed data analysis and troubleshooting in monitoring and observability systems, as they enable granular tracking of individual records or events. However, managing high cardinality data can be challenging due to the storage requirements and the complexity of queries needed to analyze such diverse data. In an online shopping system, for example, fields like user IDs and order IDs typically have high cardinality, possibly encompassing hundreds of thousands of unique values​​.

The Role of Cardinality Metrics

Cardinality metrics are the metrics that reflect the count of distinct values in a dataset or column. In monitoring systems, these metrics often translate to the unique combinations of metric names and their associated labels or dimensions. High cardinality metrics allow for detailed analysis and troubleshooting but can also lead to challenges in data management and query performance​​.

High cardinality metrics can be challenging to manage due to the significant increase in the number of time series stored and the complexity of the required queries. Splunk Observability solutions address these challenges by allowing queries over a large number of metric time series without performance penalties and treating all dimensions and tags equally for efficient searches​​.

The ability to rapidly analyze high cardinality fields is key to effective observability. It enables the identification of specific issues and their causes, such as pinpointing a user or a particular endpoint causing problems. Platforms like Splunk are designed to handle high cardinality and high dimensionality data, allowing users to freely query and filter on any attribute regardless of its cardinality​​.

Wrapping Up

Cardinality metrics are an essential aspect of modern monitoring and observability, particularly in cloud-native environments where data volume and diversity are substantial. Understanding and effectively managing these metrics is crucial for maintaining efficient and reliable monitoring systems.

What is Splunk?

This posting does not necessarily represent Splunk's position, strategies or opinion.

Stephen Watts
Posted by

Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts works in growth marketing at Splunk. Stephen holds a degree in Philosophy from Auburn University and is an MSIS candidate at UC Denver. He contributes to a variety of publications including CIO.com, Search Engine Journal, ITSM.Tools, IT Chronicles, DZone, and CompTIA.