Prometheus: Key Features, Components & Use Cases of the Open Source Monitoring Tool

Monitoring plays a crucial role in measuring performance, avoiding bottlenecks, and preventing failures in modern complex systems and applications. Prometheus is well-known for its reliability, efficiency, and ease of use among many open-source monitoring and alerting projects. 

This article describes the key features, components, architecture, and use cases of Prometheus, along with examples of organizations that use it. Additionally, we’ll explore its limitations and the applications and systems that can benefit from leveraging Prometheus for their monitoring and alerting needs. 

What is Prometheus?

Prometheus is a well-known system monitoring and alerting toolkit developed by SoundCloud in 2012. This open-source project was designed to monitor dynamic containerized environments. 

However, Prometheus can also be used to monitor traditional and static infrastructure due to its flexibility, scalability, and ease of use. Currently, Prometheus has become one of the most popular monitoring tools for cloud-native environments. It has been widely adopted by many large companies to monitor their applications and infrastructure. 

Prometheus uses time-series data with a timestamp and optional key-value pairs to store and retrieve metrics data. This metrics data is collected using an HTTP-based pull model in a specific format called the Prometheus exposition format. Prometheus also facilitates alerting based on predefined rules, enabling users to receive notifications when certain conditions are met.

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Key features of Prometheus

The features of Prometheus make it ideal for monitoring different types of applications with great ease and flexibility. The following are some key features of Prometheus:

  • The robust and flexible query language called PromQL allows users to retrieve and process metrics data in real-time.
  • A multi-dimensional data model includes time series data, which is distinguished by the name of the metric and key/value pairs.
  • An HTTP pull model is used to retrieve time-series data, while an intermediary gateway is used to push data.
  • A range of visualization options, including a built-in web UI and integration with third-party tools such as Grafana. The web UI lets users explore and visualize metrics data using a variety of chart types. In the meantime, Grafana provides advanced visualization and dashboarding capabilities.
  •  Individual server nodes can function independently since there is no dependency on distributed storage.
  •  The discovery of targets is accomplished through service discovery or static configuration.

Components and architecture of Prometheus

The following are the core components of Prometheus, which collaborate to provide a highly scalable, flexible, and fault-tolerant monitoring and alerting system.

Prometheus server 

This component collects time-series data from exporters or scrapes data from target systems and stores it in a time-series database.

Prometheus client libraries

This component allows adding instrumentation to client code to facilitate monitoring by exposing metrics via an HTTP endpoint. It provides client libraries for various programming languages such as Go, Java, Scala, Python, Ruby, and Rust. Prometheus also supports several third-party client libraries. 

Special exporters

These special client libraries aid in exposing metrics from systems that cannot directly utilize Prometheus metrics. A few examples of special exporters are HAProxy, StatsD, Graphite, etc. Prometheus also supports other third-party software for metric export without using separate exporters.


This component evaluates user-defined rules and sends alerts to various channels, including integrations such as email, PagerDuty, and Slack. It offers various functionalities like deduplication, grouping, routing, silencing, and inhibition of alerts.

Service discovery

This component is used to discover targets automatically and monitor new service instances. Prometheus supports service discovery mechanisms such as Kubernetes service discovery, DNS, and file_sd.


This is a simple and expressive query language to retrieve and manipulate data. It allows users to easily query and aggregate data based on various criteria. PromQL supports various functions, such as arithmetic, logic, comparison, aggregation, and grouping.

Use cases of Prometheus

  • Application performance monitoring - Prometheus can be used to monitor the performance of applications using metrics such as response times, error rates, and resource utilization of different workflows.
  • Load testing - Prometheus can test infrastructure and applications under varying high loads using metrics like CPU and memory utilization and network traffic. This data can be used to optimize applications to be more scalable and efficient.
  • Infrastructure monitoring - Prometheus can monitor the health and performance of infrastructure components like servers and databases.
  • Analytics and anomaly detection - Prometheus allows users to discover patterns and trends from real-time data. It also enables security teams to detect and rectify anomalies before they pose a threat to the organization.
  • Monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) related to SLAs - Prometheus can collect key metrics such as response times, error rates, and availability and send alerts if they exceed the SLA value.

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Who should use Prometheus?

Prometheus monitoring best suits organizations with complex and dynamic systems that require real-time monitoring and alerting capabilities to allow them to respond quickly to any issues. This makes it ideal for microservice architectures, large-scale distributed systems, and cloud-native applications. 

Microservices and containerized architectures. Prometheus is well-suited for monitoring microservice architectures, which employ independent, decoupled, and highly distributed individual services. It can monitor each service individually and provide a general overview of the system's health.

Large-scale distributed systems. Prometheus can handle distributed systems with many nodes operating at high volume and velocity. It can collect and store large volumes of metrics from different parts of a distributed system. It makes Prometheus ideal for monitoring complex systems with many distributed components.

Cloud-native applications. Prometheus can monitor cloud-native applications that utilize container orchestration tools like Kubernetes. The ability of Prometheus to automatically discover and monitor new containers as they are added to or removed from the system makes it ideal for highly dynamic environments.

For organizations that require highly reliable monitoring systems. Prometheus is a reliable system that operates independently from network storage or other remote services. Even when other parts of your infrastructure are down, you can rely on Prometheus, and you do not need to set up extensive infrastructure to use it.

Scenarios where Prometheus is not suitable

While the Prometheus monitoring system and alerting toolkit can be applied to a wide range of systems and applications, there are still certain limitations that make it unsuitable for some scenarios. For instance, Prometheus is not a good option in the following situations:

When the collected data is not detailed and complete enough

For example, Prometheus is not the best option if you want to collect and analyze data for billing as it may not provide the accuracy required for billing purposes. 

Besides, it may not be ideal for collecting and aggregating data from different sources.

For organizations that are too complex to use open-source tools

Prometheus requires significant skills and expertise when it comes to using third-party tools and writing custom code. Organizations with complex systems may lack that expertise and resources. Although Prometheus has support from its open-source community, it may lack the support required for organizations with complex systems. 

Those organizations may need more dedicated support and maintenance services than open-source projects can handle. Additionally, Prometheus depends on pull-based metrics collection, which may not be suitable for handling large numbers of targets in excessively complex systems. 

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For systems with high scalability requirements

While Prometheus can handle many targets and metrics, it has some limitations when it comes to scalability. So, it is better to consider a different monitoring solution if you need to monitor many targets or collect a large number of metrics. Configuring Prometheus to meet those demands may result in overly complex Prometheus deployments, which are difficult to maintain. 

If the system requires keeping metrics data for long periods

Prometheus lacks distributed tracing, which is critical for troubleshooting microservices-based architectures.

Companies that have implemented Prometheus for monitoring and alerting

Apart from SoundCloud, many other organizations have leveraged Prometheus for monitoring and alerting. Some of the examples are:

DigitalOcean, a cloud service provider, uses Prometheus to monitor its network and server infrastructure. DigitalOcean was able to gain various benefits by using Prometheus, including:

  • Better visibility into its systems
  • Fast identification and resolution of issues
  • improved overall service quality

Grafana Labs supports the development of the Prometheus project by integrating Prometheus into Grafana and utilizing Prometheus maintainers. The cloud-based monitoring solution of Grafana Labs, Grafana Cloud, incorporates Prometheus as a core component. This integration provides users with a comprehensive monitoring solution. 

Docker utilizes Prometheus monitoring in several ways to help users monitor their Docker containers and applications. For example, Kubernetes integration with Prometheus helps users collect metrics about their Kubernetes environment and applications.

ShuttleCloud email and contact data import system has integrated Prometheus in many ways to monitor its infrastructure and applications. For instance, it utilizes Prometheus Blackbox Exporter for external black box monitoring, Grafana charts for visual monitoring dashboards, and Pagerduty integration for creating on-call schedules for critical alerts.

Is Prometheus the right choice for your organization?

Prometheus is a widely adopted system monitoring and alerting tool that is well-known for its reliability, flexibility, and ease of use. It has several intuitive features, including:

  • A flexible query language and data model
  • A range of visualization options
  • An HTTP pull model for time-series data
  • the use of an autonomous server node

It is best suited for companies that use microservices architectures, distributed systems and cloud-native applications. However, it is ill-suited for companies with systems that are too complex for handling open-source tools or have large scalability requirements.

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Shanika Wickramasinghe is a software engineer by profession and a graduate in Information Technology. Her specialties are Web and Mobile Development. Shanika considers writing the best medium to learn and share her knowledge. She is passionate about everything she does, loves to travel and enjoys nature whenever she takes a break from her busy work schedule. She also writes for her Medium blog sometimes. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.