W3C trace context overview

Background and scenarios for using W3C tracing context and headers with Dapr

Dapr uses the Open Telemetry protocol, which in turn uses the W3C trace context for distributed tracing for both service invocation and pub/sub messaging. Dapr generates and propagates the trace context information, which can be sent to observability tools for visualization and querying.


Distributed tracing is a methodology implemented by tracing tools to follow, analyze, and debug a transaction across multiple software components.

Typically, a distributed trace traverses more than one service, which requires it to be uniquely identifiable. Trace context propagation passes along this unique identification.

In the past, trace context propagation was implemented individually by each different tracing vendor. In multi-vendor environments, this causes interoperability problems, such as:

  • Traces collected by different tracing vendors can’t be correlated, as there is no shared unique identifier.
  • Traces crossing boundaries between different tracing vendors can’t be propagated, as there is no forwarded, uniformly agreed set of identification.
  • Vendor-specific metadata might be dropped by intermediaries.
  • Cloud platform vendors, intermediaries, and service providers cannot guarantee to support trace context propagation, as there is no standard to follow.

Previously, most applications were monitored by a single tracing vendor and stayed within the boundaries of a single platform provider, so these problems didn’t have a significant impact.

Today, an increasing number of applications are distributed and leverage multiple middleware services and cloud platforms. This transformation of modern applications requires a distributed tracing context propagation standard.

The W3C trace context specification defines a universally agreed-upon format for the exchange of trace context propagation data (referred to as trace context). Trace context solves the above problems by providing:

  • A unique identifier for individual traces and requests, allowing trace data of multiple providers to be linked together.
  • An agreed-upon mechanism to forward vendor-specific trace data and avoid broken traces when multiple tracing tools participate in a single transaction.
  • An industry standard that intermediaries, platforms, and hardware providers can support.

This unified approach for propagating trace data improves visibility into the behavior of distributed applications, facilitating problem and performance analysis.

W3C trace context and headers format

W3C trace context

Dapr uses the standard W3C trace context headers.

  • For HTTP requests, Dapr uses traceparent header.
  • For gRPC requests, Dapr uses grpc-trace-bin header.

When a request arrives without a trace ID, Dapr creates a new one. Otherwise, it passes the trace ID along the call chain.

W3C trace headers

These are the specific trace context headers that are generated and propagated by Dapr for HTTP and gRPC.

Copy these headers when propagating a trace context header from an HTTP response to an HTTP request:

Traceparent header

The traceparent header represents the incoming request in a tracing system in a common format, understood by all vendors:

traceparent: 00-0af7651916cd43dd8448eb211c80319c-b7ad6b7169203331-01

Learn more about the traceparent fields details.

Tracestate header

The tracestate header includes the parent in a potentially vendor-specific format:

tracestate: congo=t61rcWkgMzE

Learn more about the tracestate fields details.

In the gRPC API calls, trace context is passed through grpc-trace-bin header.

Last modified July 19, 2024: Fixed typo in links (#4267) (32fce1d)