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Custom instrumentation for Elixir

In order to find out what specific pieces of code are causing performance problems it's useful to add custom instrumentation to your application. This allows us to create better breakdowns of which code runs slowest and what type of action the most amount of time was spent on.

Custom instrumentation is possible in two ways: using function decorators and instrumentation helper functions. The function decorators are easiest to use, but are less flexible than the instrumentation helper functions.

This short guide will help you set up custom instrumentation. More details on the usage of certain helpers can be found in the Hex docs for the AppSignal package.

Note: Make sure you've integrated AppSignal before adding custom instrumentation to your application if it's not automatically integrated by one of our supported integrations.

Note: This page only describes how to add performance instrumentation to your code. To track errors please read our exception handling guide.

Appsignal.instrument/2-3

The instrument/2 function is used to add instrumentation by wrapping a piece of code in a span. A span eventually becomes a sample, or an event in another span's sample in AppSignal.

Add spans to traces

In the following example we have a Phoenix controller with an index/2 function which calls a slow function. The slow function is instrumented using the Appsignal.instrument/2 function which records it as a separate event in this Phoenix request. It will show up on AppSignal.com in the event timeline of this sample to provide more insight in where the most time was spent during the request.

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defmodule AppsignalPhoenixExampleWeb.PageController do
  use AppsignalPhoenixExampleWeb, :controller

  def index(conn, _params) do
    slow()
    render(conn, "index.html")
  end

  defp slow do
    Appsignal.instrument("slow", fn ->
      :timer.sleep(1000)
    end)
  end
end

Here, we wrap our function's contents with a call to Appsignal.instrument3, and we pass "slow" as the name for the event.

Starting new traces

In the Phoenix example an AppSignal trace has already been started, thanks to the first-party support for Phoenix in the AppSignal package. Not all frameworks and packages are currently supported directly and automatically start traces. The same is true for your own pure Elixir applications.

Like when adding spans to already-instrumented traces, a new root span is created using the Appsignal.instrument/2 function:

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defmodule AppsignalElixirExample do
  def instrument do
    Appsignal.instrument("instrument", fn ->
      :timer.sleep(500)
    end)
  end
end

This example creates a sample named "instrument" in the "background" namespace in AppSignal. The name will also be used as the category name for the main span. To use a different category name, use instrument/3 instead:

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defmodule AppsignalElixirExample do
  def instrument do
    Appsignal.instrument("instrument", "call.instrument", fn ->
      :timer.sleep(500)
    end)
  end
end

When passing a function that takes an argument, the instrument/2-3 function calls it with the opened span to allow further customization:

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defmodule AppsignalElixirExample do
  def instrument do
    Appsignal.instrument("instrument", "call.instrument", fn span ->
      Appsignal.Span.set_namespace(span, "custom_namespace")
      :timer.sleep(500)
    end)
  end
end

Exception handling

To report errors using custom instrumentation please read more in our exception handling guide.

Function decorators

Using the Appsignal.Instrumentation.Decorators decorator module, it's possible add custom instrumentation to your Elixir applications without changing the functions' contents.

Transaction events

In the following example we have a Phoenix controller with an index/2 function which calls a slow function. The slow function is instrumented using the AppSignal transaction_event decorator which records it as a separate event in this Phoenix request. It will show up on AppSignal.com in the event timeline of this transaction sample to provide more insight in where the most time was spent during the request.

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# Phoenix controller example
defmodule PhoenixExample.PageController do
  use PhoenixExample.Web, :controller
  # Include this
  use Appsignal.Instrumentation.Decorators

  def index(conn, _params) do
    slow()
    render conn, "index.html"
  end

  # Decorate this function to add custom instrumentation
  @decorate transaction_event()
  defp slow do
    :timer.sleep(1000)
  end
end

If you want to group certain events together under the same event group (other group are phoenix_controller, phoenix_render, ecto, etc.) you can also supply a group name to the transaction_event decorator.

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@decorate transaction_event("github_api")
defp get_data_from_github do
  # Third-party API call
end

This will create an event get_data_from_github.github_api in the event timeline. For more information on how event names are used, please read our event naming guidelines.

Transactions

In the Phoenix example an AppSignal transaction has already been started, thanks to the first-party support for Phoenix in the AppSignal package. Not all frameworks and packages are currently supported directly and automatically start transactions. The same is true for your own pure Elixir applications.

In order to track transaction_event decorators we will need to start an AppSignal transaction beforehand. We can start a transaction with the transaction function decorator.

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# Pure Elixir example
defmodule FunctionDecoratorsExample do
  # Include this
  use Appsignal.Instrumentation.Decorators

  # No transaction is started beforehand like in Phoenix, so we need to start
  # it ourselves.
  @decorate transaction()
  def call do
    slow()
    # ...
  end

  # Decorate this function to add custom instrumentation
  @decorate transaction_event()
  defp slow do
    :timer.sleep(1000)
  end
end

Note: When using pure Elixir applications, make sure that the AppSignal application is started before you start a transaction. For more information, see how to integrate AppSignal.

Namespaces

In order to differentiate between HTTP requests and background jobs we can pass a namespace to the transaction once we start it.

The following two namespaces are official namespaces supported by AppSignal.

  • http_request - the default - is called the "web" namespace
  • background_job - creates the "background" namespace
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defmodule FunctionDecoratorsExample do
  # Include this
  use Appsignal.Instrumentation.Decorators

  # No namespace argument defaults to `:http_request`
  @decorate transaction()
  def web_function do
    # do stuff
  end

  # The "background" namespace
  @decorate transaction(:background_job)
  def background_function do
    # do stuff
  end
end

For more information about what namespaces are, please see our namespaces documentation.

Custom namespaces

You can also create your own namespaces to track transactions in a separate part of your application such as an administration panel. This will group all the transactions with this namespace in a separate section on AppSignal.com so that slow admin controllers don't interfere with the averages of your application's speed.

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@decorate transaction(:admin)
def some_function do
  # do stuff
end

Phoenix channels

There is a custom function decorator for Phoenix channels. This decorator is meant to be put before the handle_in/3 function of a Phoenix.Channel module.

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defmodule FunctionDecoratorsExample.MyChannel do
  # Include this
  use Appsignal.Instrumentation.Decorators

  # Add this channel function decorator
  @decorate channel_action()
  def handle_in("ping", _payload, socket) do
    # your code here..
  end
end

Channel events will be displayed under the "background" namespace, showing the channel module and the action argument that it's used on.

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