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Log Management

An Intro to Logging Basics: Tips, Tricks and In-depth Resources

What is Log Management?

Log management is the process of handling log events generated by all software applications and infrastructure on which they run. It involves log collection, aggregation, parsing, storage, analysis, search, archiving, and disposal, with the ultimate goal of using the data for troubleshooting and gaining business insights, while also ensuring the compliance and security of applications and infrastructure.

Logs are typically recorded in one or more log files. Log Management allows you to gather the data in one place and look at it as part a of a whole instead of separate entities. As such, you can analyze the collected log data, identify issues and patterns so that you can paint a clear and visual picture of how all your systems perform at any given moment.

Log management has become an integral part of any DevOps team. Log management solutions vary in use: from using the popular open source ELK stack, typically deployed on your own infrastructure, to using fully managed log management solutions, such as Sematext Cloud.

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Getting Started with Logs

A log file is a continuous digital record of messages, events that are automated by software applications and various operating system subsystems and processes. They show you what happened behind the scenes and when it happened so that if something should go wrong with your systems you have a detailed record of every action prior to the anomaly.

Therefore, log files make it easier for developers, DevOps, SysAdmins or SecOps to get insights and identify the root cause of issues with applications and infrastructure.

There are many different sources of logs, as well as log types. Here are some of the top log sources we see today, starting from the bottom of the stack.

Network Gear

While most of us interact with mobile apps, web apps, websites, etc., behind the curtain are massive quantities of various network gear – network routers, network switches, etc.  All this network gear emits logs as it routes bits around our planet. Unlike server and application logs that tend to use more modern formats and increasingly more structured logs, the network gear still uses various versions of Syslog.

Also Read: What is Syslog: Daemons, Message Formats for more on Syslog.

Server and Application Logs

Traditional sources of log events are servers and applications running on those servers. An example of that might be Nginx web server logs. A Java web application running in an Apache Tomcat or a PHP application running in Apache web server is also likely to emit various informative, error, or debug log events.

Some of these logs use standardized formats, like Common Log Format, while others use various custom formats, including various structured logging formats, like key=value or even JSON logs.

Container Logs

Nowadays more and more applications are deployed in containers. As such, containers and applications running inside them are another big source of logs. Unlike traditional apps and servers, and certainly network gear, containers are very “promiscuous”. Container orchestration frameworks like Kubernetes move containers from host to host, adapting to demand and resource availability. An average container’s lifespan is shorter than that of a firefly or a bee. (which translates into a few days)

On top of that the practice to “ssh in”, poke around, tail and grep the logs to troubleshoot was deemed a bad practice in the cloud-native world. Hence various Docker monitoring and log management challenges require new approaches and new docker log management tools.

Mobile Devices and App Logs

Mobile apps and devices are ubiquitous and although we may not think of them as sources of logs, they are massive generators of data, including logs. Telecom service providers, device manufacturers, app developers – they all want to know how and where you are using your devices and apps, and what your experience on a mobile device is like.

Sensors, IoT, Industrial IoT

In the consumer space we have sensors in cars, smart thermostats, internet-connected fridges, and other smart-home devices and, on a bigger scale, smart cities.

The Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, connects machines and devices in industries such as transportation, power generation, manufacturing, and healthcare. All these are sources of extremely large volumes of data, whether in the form of log events or simply data points with measurements of one kind or another.

Why is Log Management Important?

Log management provides insight into the health and compliance of your systems and applications.

Without it, you’d be stumbling around in the dark hoping to pinpoint sources of performance issues, bugs, unexpected behavior, and similar issues. You’d be forced to manually inspect multiple log files while trying to troubleshoot production issues.  This is painfully slow, error-prone, expensive, and not scalable.

Log management is especially important for cloud-native applications because of their dynamic, distributed and ephemeral nature.  Unlike traditional applications, cloud-native applications often run in containers and emit logs to standard output instead of writing them to log files.  Due to this, it’s impossible to manually inspect logs post facto in log files. The only opportunity to capture such log events is capturing them in real-time and shipping them to a centralized log management solution.

In a nutshell, log management enables application and infrastructure operators (developers, DevOps, SysAdmins, etc.) to troubleshoot problems and allow business stakeholders (product managers, marketing, BizOps, etc.) to derive insights from data embedded in log events.  Logs are also one of the key sources of data for security analytics – threat detection, intrusion detection, compliance, network security, etc., collectively known as SIEM (Security Information and Event Management).

To fully understand the importance of log management, we’ve gathered some of the main benefits below:

Monitoring and Troubleshooting

The most common and core log management use case is software application and infrastructure troubleshooting.  Log events go hand in hand with application monitoring and server monitoring. Developers, DevOps, SysAdmins, and SecOps utilize both metrics and logs so that they are alerted about application and infrastructure performance and health issues, but also to find the root cause of those issues.  Having good log management tools or solutions helps reduce MTTR (Mean Time To Recovery) which in turn helps improve user experience. Long downtimes or even applications and infrastructure that perform poorly can also cause profit loss. Thus, log management solutions play a critical role in reducing MTTR.

Besides troubleshooting performance issues, log monitoring can help you spot opportunities to optimize your systems and application performance thus allowing you to better control your budget.

Related Monitoring and Troubleshooting Articles:

Improved Operations

As applications and systems become more and more complex, so does the size and difficulty of your operations. SecOps, SysAdmins, and DevOps would have a harder time monitoring everything “manually”, thus requiring more time and financial resources.

With centralized log management, you can identify trends across your whole company’s infrastructure, allowing you to adapt early and come up with solutions that prevent “fires” vs having to “put them out”.

Better Resource Usage

When it comes to system performance problems, system overload is always like a dark cloud looming over. However, you need to keep in mind that it’s not always your software at fault but rather the requests you have on your server. Whether there are too many or too complex, your system can have difficulties dealing with them.

In this case, what log management does is help track resource usage. You can then see when your system is close to being overloaded so you can better allocate your resources.

User Experience

One of the biggest headaches people report with applications is long response times to queries or not getting a response at all.  Log management allows you to monitor network requests and see which are underperforming so that you can step in and understand why this happened, while troubleshooting the issue, thus keeping you in control of your users’ experience.

Understand Site Visitor Behavior

Log management can help track your users’ journey through your site or platform so that you can gain insight into their behavior and improve their experience. As such, you can identify how many visitors you’ve had on your site, which pages they spent the most time on, if there are changes in the number of visitors, etc..

That way you can spot opportunities such as when to launch a new product, when to close your site for maintenance or when to offer discounts.

Extra Security

There’s no such thing as too much protection when it comes to IT security. Log data analysis adds another layer of protection against virtual attacks, including DNS attacks, that can possibly compromise your data. It helps security administrators stay vigilant and react, in real-time, by providing a live stream of log events.

So whenever someone is attempting to breach your walls — whether it’s from the inside or an external threat, you’ll be alerted before the issues escalate.

Ensure Compliance with Regulations

Seeing as virtual attacks are becoming more and more difficult to detect and solve, it’s critical that your company meets compliance requirements of security policies, audit, regulation, and forensics.

Some of the most important are HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) or GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Furthermore, increasing regulations require that you collect log data, store it and protect it against threats while having it available for audit. Otherwise, if a data breach happens, your company could be susceptible to profit loss as well as hefty fines due to various regulations put in place by several organizations.

Log management will help alert the right people of any suspicious activity concerning user data.

Also read: GDPR: Top 5 Logging Best Practices One Should Follow

How Does Log Management Work?

Log management has 5 key elements that, if followed, will ensure your logging and monitoring go smoothly. Let’s review what those 5 elements are:

Log Collection

Log collection

As mentioned above, all your systems and applications generate log files at any given moment, which may be stored in various locations on your software stack, operating system, containers, cloud infrastructure, and network devices.

What log collection does is gets the data you’re interested in analyzing and sends it to a centralized location. In other words, you set up agents to read log files you’re interested in, and they send the data to a log management tool.

Related Log Shipping Articles:

Log Aggregation to Centralized Log Storage

The next key element in log management is log aggregation, where log files are centralized in a single location and converted into first-class data. What that means is parsing the log files, identifying common elements and, lastly, turning all logs into a common format that will make it easy for you to search and analyze. Instead of working with several different log-file formats, you now only have one.
Once indexed, the files are then compressed, stored and archived.

Further reading:

Log Search and Analysis

Stored and indexed, your aggregated log files are now like a database where you can search for any information you need using normal language, just as you do on Google, an API, and regular expressions. This makes it easier for you to conduct and compare broad and detailed searches, thus helping you spot issues faster and quickly dive into root cause analysis.

Also read: Log Analysis: What it is & Tools (coming soon)

Log Monitoring and Alerting

Log management helps keep you on your toes, constantly providing data about how your systems and applications are performing. It also keeps you informed whether your infrastructure is working normally or if there are activity anomalies or security breaches.

A key part of this process is that it allows you to set up rules and alerts so that the right teams or people are notified in real-time to take measures before users are affected.

For example, a rule could be to alert your security team whenever a certain number of logins fail or the sales staff when too many people abandon their shopping carts.

Related Articles:

Log Visualization and Reporting

All team members — and other cross-functional team members — should have access to the same information so everyone is on the same page. Reports and visualization make everything that happens behind the scenes accessible for everyone, including people outside the IT department.

When building reports for business stakeholders you’ll be able to show data trends as time series line charts, group data and draw tasty pie charts. Not to mention, graphs, visual representation of trends and dashboards have a much higher impact — such as when you see a huge spike — on decision makers.

Having a clear picture of how large volumes of data perform over time makes it easier to spot trends or anomalies in behavior. You can then just skip to the log line that’s at fault for the spike.

Logging and Monitoring Best Practices

Log management can indeed help you manage and grant actionable insights from the massive amount of log events that your infrastructure and applications generate. However, that’s only the case if you do it right. Otherwise, you’d be tempted to say that you’re losing time and money and you’re better off without it.

There are however a couple of best practices for log management and monitoring that can help you make sure you reap the full benefits of having a log management solution.

We’ve also rounded up more ideas on this topic in our Best Practices for Efficient Log Management and Monitoring post.

Log Management Solutions: Why do You Need One?

Although log data has its merits, monitoring and analyzing separate log files is no easy feat.

Here’s why:

Large volumes of data

There’s constantly a huge amount of log data to process and it will only continue to grow as application complexity increases. Log management gives you the opportunity to sift through that data quickly in order to find the right insights.

Logs stay in different locations

With log data spread across hundreds of stacks, systems, and devices, it would be burdensome, even impossible to troubleshoot issues in a timely manner. It’s not enough to know the specifics of an issue if you don’t see it as part of a bigger picture. As such, log management tools will help bring all the log data together and correlate it across different data sources for deeper insight.

Compliance regulations and requirements

There are compliance regulations you need to subject your logging process too. Some of them require to collect all data, store and protect it, meaning that developers are not allowed to access the production environment. Instead, log management makes it so that they can work in a centralized location that’s actually a real-time replica of the production environment.

You would need to spend a lot of time hunting down the problem and you’d have even less information to solve it — by then, it has probably escalated. There are a lot of log management solutions out there that can deal with everything concerning log data. Think of them as proactive administrators who work around the clock without fail and can provide the what, where, when and by whom for every event that took place across your infrastructure in your absence. Your only job is to check their record and keep an eye for either issues or opportunities.

Log Management Tools

There are many good log management solutions available today, both open source and paid. We tested some of them over the years and made a list with the best open source log management tools and software that we tested over the years. Check it out!

Sematext as a Log Management Solution

Sematext Cloud is a full-stack observability platform that bridges the gap between infrastructure monitoring, tracing, log management, and real user monitoring.

It’s an all-in-one solution that improves efficiency and grants you actionable insights faster.

You can easily identify and troubleshoot issues before they affect your users and spot opportunities to drive business growth –  we encourage you to explore it in more depth here.

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