Learn about gauges, counters, delta counters, histograms, and spans.

Wavefront supports monitoring time series, histograms, and traces.

  • Each time series consists of numeric data points for a metric, for example, CPU load or failed network connections. Time series can use one of the supported data formats. The type of data that you’re collecting determines the type of metric. Wavefront supports gauges, counters, delta counters, and more.

  • Wavefront histograms let you compute, store, and use distributions of metrics rather than single metrics. Histograms are useful for high-velocity metrics about your applications and infrastructure–-particularly metrics that are gathered across many distributed sources.
  • Distributed tracing enables you to track the flow of work that is performed by an application as it processes a user request. We support the OpenTracing standard. You can either visualize and examine traces coming from a 3rd-party system such as Jaeger or Zipkin, or instrument your application for tracing using one of our SDKs.

Summary of Metric Types

The following table gives an overview of metric types. We introduce each type in more detail below.

Gauge Shows current value for each point in time. CPU load, network connections
Counter Shows values as they increase (and decrease). Number of failed connections, registered users.
Delta counter Useful for monitoring bursty traffic in a Function-as-a-Service (serverless) environment. Shows how many times an FaaS function executed (or failed).
Histogram Supports computing, storing, and using distributions of metrics that use the Wavefront histogram format. Useful for very high frequency data. See the discussion of histograms.
Trace A trace shows you how a request propagates from one microservice to the next in a distributed application. The basic building blocks of a trace are its spans. You can think of a trace as a tree of related spans. The trace has a unique trace ID, which is shared by each member span in the tree. See "Sample Application for an example.
Span Spans are the fundamental units of trace data. Each span corresponds to a distinct invocation of an operation that executes as part of the request. For example, in our BeachShirts sample application, we have the beachshirts.shopping operation, which includes many invocations of the Printing.getAvailableColors span.


A gauge shows the current value for each point in time. Think of a thermometer that shows the current temperature or a gauge that shows how much electricity your Tesla has left.

Many metrics that come into Wavefront are gauges. For example, Wavefront internal metrics include ~alert.checking_frequency.{id} and ~alert.query_time.{alert_id}.

Cumulative Counters

Cumulative counters (counters) show information over time. Think of a person with a counter at the entrance to a concert. The counter shows the total number of people that have entered so far.

Counter metrics usually increase over time but might reset back to zero, for example, when a service or system restarts. Users can wrap rate() around a counter if they want to ignore temporary 0 values and see only the positive rate of change. Using Cumulative Counters gives several examples.

Wavefront internal metrics that are counters include ~metric.new_host_ids and ~query.requests.

Delta Counters

Delta counters bin to a minute timestamp and treat write operations to the same bin as deltas. They are well suited for the kind of bursty traffic you typically get in a Function-as-a-Service environment. Many functions execute simultaneously and it’s not possible to monitor bursty traffic like that without losing metric points to collision.

For example, instead of one person with a counter standing at a concert entrance, is an example. No single person can capture the composite count, so you add up the counters. In the same way, the Wavefront service can aggregate delta counter information.

To have Wavefront treat a metric as a delta counter, you have several choices:

  • Use the cs() instead of the ts() function.
  • Add a delta character prefix to the metric.

Using Delta Counters gives details and best practices.


Wavefront can receive and store metrics at 1 point per second per unique source. However, some scenarios generate metrics even more frequently. Suppose you are measuring the latency of web requests. If you have a lot of traffic at multiple servers, you may have multiple distinct measurements for a given metric, timestamp, and source. Using “normal” metrics, we can’t measure this.

To address high frequency data, Wavefront supports histograms – a mechanism to compute, store, and use distributions of metrics. A Wavefront histogram is a distribution of metrics collected and computed by the Wavefront proxy. Histograms are supported by Wavefront proxy 4.12 and later. Wavefront Histograms describes the histogram format, histogram ports, and some examples.


Traces and Spans

Wavefront follows the OpenTracing standard for representing and manipulating trace data.

  • A trace represents an individual workflow in an application. A trace shows you how a particular request propagates through your application or among a set of services.

  • Spans are the individual segments of work in the trace. A Wavefront trace consists of one or more spans. Each span represents time spent by an operation in a service (often a microservice).

Because requests normally consist of other requests, a trace actually consists of a tree of spans.

Learn More!

Search this doc set for details on any of the metric types, or read this:

  • [Metrics and the Metrics Browser] examines the structure of a metric and explains how to use the Metrics Browser.
  • Cumulative Counters and Delta Counters discusses the 2 kinds of counters that Wavefront supports and includes examples for both types.
  • Histograms are useful for distribution of metrics in high-velocity environment. We support a set of query language functions just for histograms.
  • Our Tracing UI lets you drill down from the service level to the individual spans and examine outliers to find bottlenecks.