Log Aggregation – Best Tools and Practices in 2020

IT setups supporting business operations have evolved significantly over the years. From monolith applications running on mainframes within enterprise data centers to microservices-based applications deployed in hybrid cloud environments, IT environments have come a long way. Today, a typical enterprise has either dedicated teams or third-party managed services providers handling their network and security operations centers. Even small organizations rely on a myriad of tools and processes to manage their complex systems and applications. Amidst this complex environment, logs provide a crucial headway in troubleshooting technical issues. In this article, we’ll discuss why organizations need log aggregation and how they can make the most of their logs.

Why Do Organizations Need Log Aggregation Tools

There was a time when IT teams maintained logs primarily for compliance and audit purposes. Occasionally, an administrator would inspect the local logs using the tail -f command to troubleshoot a rare issue. However, today logs have become crucial for keeping track of health and performance issues of different applications and IT infrastructure. In modern IT environments, logs are omnipresent. They can originate from an application code instrumented by developers, application servers, message queues like Kafka, load balances, firewalls, routers, and cloud-based services, and more. Inspecting all these logs individually can take time and effort. To meet this challenge, organizations use centralized log aggregators, which help in collecting all these logs in a single location. Many of these cloud-based log aggregators transform and preprocess logs before forwarding them for further processing and indexing.

Best Practices for Log Aggregation

Select a Reliable Protocol

There are three major protocols for transmitting log data:

  • UDP (User Datagram Protocol) – A fast and resource-efficient protocol; however, lacks reliability as it doesn’t require acknowledgment of receipt (ACK). It also doesn’t support secure encryption of logs.
  • TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) – Most commonly used protocol for streaming; adds reliability to every message transfer with ACK. However, requirements for the handshake and active connection makes it resource intensive.
  • RELP (Reliable Event Logging Protocol) – The most reliable protocol, explicitly designed for Rsyslog. Like TCP it also involves the acknowledgment step and resends the log message if encounters an error. The protocol is commonly employed for log streaming in highly regulated industries unable to afford message loss.

Secure Log Transfers With Encryption

Logs may contain crucial information about customers’ personally identifiable information, financial data, and other business-sensitive data. Threat actors can use sophisticated sniffers to read your log data, and it becomes increasingly exposed when transmitted in clear text over the internet. Ensuring customer data is anonymized is an important step in information security. However, to add another layer of security, all log data should be encrypted using protocols such as TLS.

Use a Cloud-Based Centralized Log Management Tool

You can create your own log management setup using open-source tools. However, when using open-source tools, you have to be ready for various configuration challenges. A self-managed logging setup requires multiple complex integrations, constant infrastructure monitoring, and significant time investment in maintenance and upgrades. On the other hand, commercial cloud-based log management solutions offer quicker provisioning, higher scalability, greater performance, easier integration, dedicated technical support, and all this at a much lower Total Cost of Ownership (Total Cost of Ownership).

Best Tools for Log Aggregation and Management in 2020

Logstash

Logstash

As logs from different on-premises and cloud-based sources can vary in their format, Logstash is used to ingest and transform these logs into a common format for further processing. It can automatically filter and parse your event messages for easier analysis and visualization. Logstash is commonly deployed along with Elasticsearch and Kibana as part of the ELK-stack, which is used by many large organizations for log management and analytics. Being open-source, the ELK stack provides a high level of flexibility.

Fluentd

Fluentd

Organizations can also explore Fluentd in place of Logstash to create their log management and log analysis needs. Fluentd is also a log aggregator, which requires lower resource consumption than Logstash but may involve more complex configuration. A major advantage of using Fluentd is it structures your data as JSON, which is a commonly accepted structured data format. As logs are formatted in a common format, their parsing, filtering, buffering, querying, and analysis becomes more efficient.

Rsyslog

Rsyslog

Rsyslog, another open-source log aggregator, claims to be the Swiss Army Knife of logging with features designed to support faster processing of logs. As shown in the image, it accepts all kinds of logs from different sources, transforms them into a common format, and forwards them to a preferred destination. With Rsyslog, organizations can transfer a large volume of log messages every second to local destinations without any heavy processing needs. However, when transferring messages to a remote destination, you may experience a performance lag.

Syslog-ng
Syslog-ng

Syslog-ng is another well-known log aggregator, which can help you collect and route logs from any source to your desired destinations parallelly in near real time. This allows large organizations to transmit their logs to different locations, log viewers, and log analysis tools. Like other tools mentioned above, Syslog-ng can also automatically parse and format data and allows secure transfer over a wide range of protocols.

Papertrail

Papertrail log monitoring

SolarWinds® Papertrail™ is a commercial Logging as a Service (LaaS) offering, which helps organizations manage and analyze their logs effortlessly. You can aggregate all your logs with Papertrail and use its event viewer for real-time analysis. The tool supports the live tail feature and presents log messages in the intuitive viewer, which provides a stream of log messages in an infinite scroll. It also allows you to query your logs using common search operators and provides quick results for search queries, even when searching through a massive volume of logs. Being a cloud-logging solution, Papertrail offers quicker setup without any elaborate configuration needs. You can also configure threshold-based alerts and integrate Papertrail with popular notification services like Slack, Hipchat, etc. to stay on top of your environment. Moreover, you can start using Papertrail now with a lifetime free trial.

What’s the Next Step?

We’ve discussed why organizations rely on centralized log management to get granular visibility into their systems and applications. However, as IT setups and application stacks become more complex, organizations need better tools to manage and analyze their logs. Cloud-logging tools like Papertrail can meet the most basic and advanced logging needs for organizations of all sizes. If your organization has a roadmap to implement full-stack monitoring of distributed environments with logs, metrics, and distributed tracing, Papertrail appears to be the best option. It’s part of the SolarWinds APM suite, which includes Pingdom® and AppOptics™ for full-stack monitoring. We recommend you to get a free trial of Papertrail now and explore higher plans or the APM suite, whenever you’re ready.