Generally, I’ve been pretty happy with the way that we do log aggregation, using Elasticsearch, Logstash and Kibana (ELK). That’s not to say it couldn’t use improvements in almost every area, but for now, it does what it needs to do. Its definitely better than we had before, and people are actually using it to answer questions, which I would consider the mark of a successful implementation.

Of all the components in the triumvirate though, Logstash has easily been the worst. Kibana has been basically problem free (somewhat to be expected for a visualisation framework that delegates the majority of its work to the data store) and Elasticsearch has been complicated and somewhat temperamental (mostly because we haven’t had the time nor experience to tune it properly), but Logstash has been a pain.

Version 1.4 flat out did not work properly on Windows with file based inputs, as it didn’t properly remember its position in files it was reading. Version 1.5.0 fixed that problem, but we had to suffer through a number of beta issues because we were forced to use the beta version. Even after the 1.5 release we’ve had some other issues relating to TCP outputs consuming mass amounts of CPU (kind of annoying on CPU Credit limited instances), using the S3 input from behind a proxy and recovering reliably after its TCP output endpoint was down temporarily.

It’s become a bit of meme between myself and one of our operations people that whenever something weird happens with logs (even if its unrelated to the actual process of log aggregation), that it’s probably Logstash’s fault.

When one of our AWS instances responsible for filling API requests became unresponsive a few weeks ago, we joked that it was probably Logstash’s fault.

It turned out that it actually was.

What’s That Thing You Use to Dig Food?

Our API’s all have redundancy built into them via the magic of auto scaling groups and multiple instances. Its the kind of thing you have to have when you’re running anything in AWS, as there is no guarantee that your instances will be long lived. Its likely that they will be fine and everything will go swimmingly, but there is no guarantee. Honestly, that’s no different from normal hosting, the information is just available upfront, instead of after a few months when something explodes. Plan for failure, because it will happen.

Anyway, a few weeks ago one of our API instances stopped doing the thing it was supposed to be doing, i.e. filling API requests, so it was quietly removed from the load balancer. The alarms we have setup for number of healthy instances kicked in and we put the failing instance into standby mode (which spun up a new one to take its place) and started investigating.

Looking at the logs in Kibana, the instance started returning 500’s sporadically early in the morning and then got progressively worse until it was removed from the load balancer a little after 0800. The root cause of the 500’s? OutOfMemoryExceptions, the API process literally could not allocate a piece of memory large enough to do the thing it wanted to do.

My first response was to make that deep guttural noise that only comes from software developers when they know what’s about to happen. A mixture between a groan and a resigned sigh, tinged with frustration.

I’ve dealt with memory leaks before.

They are terrible, and I hate them.

I assumed that we had a memory leak in our deployed .NET application. Although .NET is a managed language, it is surprisingly easy to leak memory, with various ways to root vast amounts of information, stopping the garbage collector from recovering it.

The best tool that I’ve found for visualizing memory leaks in .NET is the SciTech .NET Memory Profiler. Honestly though, other than Visual Studio itself, its basically the only one I’ve really used, so I can’t strictly say that its better than anything else. I can say that it is good at what it does, because its helped me locate and fix quite a few memory leaks.

Being that the API had been running uninterrupted for a few weeks, the memory leak would be slow. it might even be related to specific requests that only happen rarely, or even worse, it might be time based, rather than event based. I knew I would need to either reproduce the problem locally (which might be quite hard) and find some way to get the memory profiler tool into the environment where the problem occurred and then wait until it happened again.

Like I said, I hate memory leaks.

Surprise! It Wasn’t Us

Remoting on to the AWS instance with the memory issue showed an entirely unexpected situation.

Our .NET process wasn’t using much memory at all.

The Java process, however, was using 1.5GB of physical memory and a huge chunk of virtual memory. The only piece of Java code running? Logstash.

Now I had a different problem. At least with a memory leak within our software I could trace it, find it and fix it. I know .NET, I’ve done memory leak analysis before, and while its terrible, its a known problem. It might take me a while to get to the bottom of it, but I would get there.

Logstash runs Ruby via JRuby, which runs inside Java. Its open source, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that mess. How could I find out why it was using so much memory for the apparently simple task of processing some text files? None of our Logstash configs are fancy, they just process text files and shunt the results to another instance of Logstash which puts them into Elasticsearch.

Clearly, The Problem Is Solved

At this particular point in time, I do not have the luxury of getting to the root cause of problems with supplementary components. This makes me sad inside, but that’s how reality rolls sometimes.

The easiest solution right now? Restart the Logstash service every day.

Easy enough to implement with a Scheduled Task that executes Powershell.

I did have one incredibly weird issue with the task. The task name that I generated for the service restart had square braces in it. As a result, so did the folder where the Powershell task puts its transcribed output. The Start-Transcript command does not like square braces in its output file for some reason, and it fails with a Start-Transcript: The host is not currently transcribing, which is incredibly helpful. This particular quirk took far too long to get to the bottom of.

Long term we need to look into the issue in depth. Maybe its a problem in the particular version of Logstash we are using (1.5.2), maybe its our configuration or maybe its the environment. I don’t know, and that particular investigation could be a gigantic time sink, so we’ll have to dedicate some time to it later on.

Another solution would be to not use Logstash directly on the machines generating the logs, and to instead use the Logstash Forwarder, which is a lightweight replacement for Logstash that only forwards events to a remote location. The remote location is typically an actual Logstash instance which has all the logic to parse the event into a meaningful format. To me this just moves the issue around, but it still might be an option.


This is actually the first case that I can remember where a memory leak wasn’t the fault of the software I was actively working on. I call it a memory leak because I can’t conceive how an apparently simple process like Logstash could use so much memory over time, but it might just be what it does. I mean, i wouldn’t consider SQL Server using massive amounts of memory a leak per se (because I understand what it does is hard, and it consumes more memory based on the size of the data), it’s just really weird that a process which should be entirely transient (read, transform, write, discard) could keep using more and more memory over time without there being some sort of bug.

To be honest, I’m extremely unhappy with the installing a scheduled task to restart the logstash service. It’s one of those bandaid fixes that you just know will end up biting you hard at some point in the future. It will probably cause an entirely worse issue, like massive, unexpected data loss or something.

For now, at least I know that the Logstash process will not stop our APi’s from working, which I guess is a victory.

A pyrrhic victory.