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If anybody actually reads this blog, it would be easy to see that my world has been all about log processing and aggregation for a while now. I mean, I do other things as well, but the questions and problems that end up here on this blog have been pretty focused around logging for as far back as I care to remember. The main reason is that I just like logging, and appreciate the powerful insights that it can give about your software. Another reason is that we don’t actually have anyone who sits in the traditional “operations” role (i.e. infrastructure/environment improvement and maintenance), so in order to help keep the rest of the team focused on our higher level deliverables, I end up doing most of that stuff.

Anyway, I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon, so on with the show.

While I was going about regaining control over our log stack, I noticed that it was extremely difficult to reason about TCP traffic when using an AWS ELB.

Why does this matter?

Well, the Broker layer in our ELK stack (i.e the primary ingress point), uses a Logstash configuration with a TCP input and as a result, all of the things that write to the Broker (our externally accessible Ingress API, other instances of Logstash, the ELB Logs Processor) use TCP. That’s a significant amount of traffic, and something that I’d really like to be able to monitor and understand.

Stealthy Traffic

As is my current understanding, when you make a TCP connection through an ELB, the ELB records the initial creation of the connection as a “request” (one of the metrics you can track with CloudWatch) and then pretty much nothing else after that. I mean, this makes sense, as its the ELB’s job to essentially pick an underlying machine to route traffic to, and most TCP connections created and used specifically as TCP connections tend to be long lived (as opposed to TCP connections created as part of HTTP requests and responses).

As far as our three primary contributors are concerned:

  • The Logging Ingress API is pretty oblivious. It just makes a new TCP connection for each incoming log event, so unless the .NET Framework is silently caching TCP connections for optimization purposes, it’s going to cause one ELB request per log event.
  • The ELB Logs Processor definitely caches TCP connections. We went through a whole ordeal with connection pooling and reuse before it would function in production, so its definitely pushing multiple log events through a single socket.
  • The Logstash instances that we have distributed across our various EC2 instances (local machine log aggregation, like IIS and application logs) are using the Logstash TCP output. I assume it uses one (or many) long live connections to do its business, but I don’t really know. Logstash is very mysterious.

This sort of usage makes it very hard to tell just how many log events are coming through the system via CloudWatch, which is a useful metric, especially when things start to go wrong and you need to debug which part of the stack is actually causing the failure.

Unfortunately, the monitoring issue isn’t the only problem with using the Logstash TCP input/output. Both input and output have, at separate times, been…flakey. I’ve experienced both sides of the pipeline going down for no obvious reason, or simply not working after running uninterrupted for a long time.

The final nail in the coffin for TCP came recently, when Elastic.co released the Logstash Persistent Queue feature for Logstash 5.4.0, which does not work with TCP at all (it only supports inputs that use the request-response model). I want to use persistent queues to remove both the Cache and Indexer layers from our log stack, so it was time for TCP to die.

Socket Surgery

Adding a HTTP input to our Broker layer was easy enough. In fact, such an input was already present because the ELB uses a HTTP request to check whether or not the Broker EC2 instances are healthy.

Conceptually, changing our Logstash instances to use a HTTP output instead of TCP should also be easy. Just need to change some configuration and deploy through Octopus. Keep in mind I haven’t actually done it yet, but it feels simple enough.

In a similar vein, changing our Logging Ingress API to output through HTTP instead of TCP should also be easy. A small code change to use HttpClient or RestSharp or something, a new deployment and everything is puppies and roses. Again, I haven’t actually done it yet, so who knows what dragons lurk there.

Then we have the ELB Logs Processor, which is a whole different kettle of fish.

It took a significant amount of effort to get it working with TCP in the first place (connection pooling was the biggest problem), and due to the poor quality of the Javascript (entirely my fault), its pretty tightly coupled to that particular mechanism.

Regardless of the difficulty, TCP has to go, for the good of the log stack

The first issue I ran into was “how do you even do HTTP requests in Node 4.3.2 anyway?”. There are many answers to this question, but the most obvious one is to use the HTTP API that comes with Node. Poking around this for a while showed that it wasn’t too bad, as long as I didn’t want to deal with a response payload, which I didn’t.

The biggest issue with the native Node HTTP API was that it was all callbacks, all the time. In my misadventures with the ELB Logs Processor I’d become very attached to promises and the effect they have on the readability of the resulting code, and didn’t really want to give that up so easily. I dutifully implemented a simple promise wrapper around our specific usage of the native Node HTTP API (which was just a POST of a JSON payload), and incorporated it into the Lambda function.

Unfortunately, this is where my memory gets a little bit fuzzy (it was a few weeks ago), and I don’t really remember how well it went. I don’t think it went well, because I decided to switch to a package called Axios which offered promise based HTTP requests out of the box.

Axios of Evil

Axios was pretty amazing. Well, I mean, Axios IS pretty amazing, but I suppose that sentence gave it away that the relationship didn’t end well.

The library did exactly what it said it did and with its native support for promises, was relatively easy to incorporate into the existing code, as you can see from the following excerpt:

// snip, whole bunch of setup, including summary object initialization

let axios = require('axios').create({
    baseURL: 'http://' + config.logstashHost,
    headers: {'Content-Type': 'application/json'}
});

// snip, more setup, other functions

function handleLine(line) {
    summary.lines.encountered += 1;

    var entry = {
        Component: config.component,
        SourceModuleName: config.sourceModuleName,
        Environment: config.environment,
        Application: config.application,
        message: line,
        type: config.type,
        Source: {
            S3: s3FileDetails
        }
    };
        
    var promise = axios
        .post("/", entry)
        .then((response) => {
            summary.lines.sent += 1;
        })
        .catch((error) => { 
            summary.failures.sending.total += 1;
            if (summary.failures.sending.lastFew.length >= 5) {
                summary.failures.sending.lastFew.shift();
            }
            summary.failures.sending.lastFew.push(error);
        });

    promises.push(promise);
}

// snip, main body of function (read S3, stream to line processor, wait for promises to finish

Even though it took a lot of effort to write, it was nice to remove all of the code relating to TCP sockets and connection pooling, as it simplified the whole thing.

The (single, manual) test proved that it still did its core job (contents of file written into the ELK stack), it worked in CI and it worked in Staging, so I was pretty happy.

For about 15 minutes that is, until I deployed it into Production.

Crushing Disappointment

Just like last time, the implementation simply could not deal with the amount of traffic that was being thrown at it. Even worse, it wasn’t actually logging any errors or giving me any indication as to why it was failing. After a brief and frustrating investigation, it looked like it was simply running out of memory (the Lambda function was only configured to use 192 MB, which had been enough for the TCP approach) and it was simply falling over once it reached that amount. This was my hypothesis, but I was never able to conclusively prove ii, but it was definitely using all of the memory available to the function each time it ran.

I could have just increased the available memory, but I wanted to understand where all the memory was going first.

Then I realised I would have to learn how to do memory analysis in Javascript, and I just gave up.

On Javascript that is.

Instead, I decided to rewrite the ELB Logs Processor in .NET Core, using a language that I actually like (C#).

Conclusion

This is one of those cases where looking back, with the benefits of hindsight, I probably should have just increased the memory until it worked and then walked away.

But I was just so tired of struggling with Javascript and Node that it was incredibly cathartic to just abandon it all in favour of something that actually made sense to me.

Of course, implementing the thing in C# via .NET Core wasn’t exactly painless, but that’s a topic for another time.

Probably next week.

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