Logs: Still a Problem after So Many Years

August 23, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_tNote: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

System logs detail everything that happens when a computer is powered on. Logs are traditionally important because they can reveal operating problems that would otherwise go unnoticed. Chris Siebenmann’s CSpace blog explains why log monitoring is not as helpful as it used to be aka it is akin to herding cats: “Monitoring Your Logs Is Mostly A Tarpit.”

Siebenmann writes that monitoring system logs wastes time and leads to more problems than its worth. System logs consist of unstructured data and they yield very little information. You can theoretically search for a specific query but the query’s structure could change. Log messages are not API and they often change.

Also you must know what the specific query looks like, i.e. knowing how the source code is written. The data is unstructured so nothing is standard. The biggest issue is this:

“Finally, all of this potential effort only matters if identifiable problems appear in your logs on a sufficiently regular basis and it’s useful to know about them. In other words, problems that happen, that you care about, and probably that you can do something about. If a problem was probably a one time occurrence or occurs infrequently, the payoff from automated log monitoring for it can be potentially quite low…”

Monitoring logs does offer important insights but the simplicity disappeared a long time ago. You can find positive and negative matches but it is like searching for information to rationalize a confirmation bias. Siebenmann likens log monitoring to a tarpit because you quickly get mired down by all the trails. We liken it to herding cats because felines are independent organisms that refuse to follow herd mentality.

Whitney Grace, August 23, 2023


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