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Why Elasticsearch is Suitable for Application Log Analytics

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Handling Application Logs

Enterprise application development using Web technologies has been around for a long time. In recent years we have seen a sharp increase in the deployment of such applications. This is partly due to the proliferation of ecommerce sites, social media sites, mobile application supporting sites, as well as the desire of enterprises to have their applications available 24x7. In most cases, such applications cater to huge load and are deployed on cloud infrastructure. Monitoring deployed applications is increasingly becoming a crucial task, as deployed applications are bound to fail, irrespective of the robust techniques used during development.

Whenever an application fails, the most common resolution method starts by examining the application log. If the application has implemented logging properly, the logs can reveal the cause of application failure. Examination of log files is usually done by viewing the file using tools like vi, less, more, tail or grep. Another method is to download the file to a Windows system and viewing it using an editor like Notepad++. Engineers usually scan the log information to look for clues that point to the reasons for failure. Once the cause of failure is identified, suitable action is taken for restoring the application and/or service.

The Key to Application Log Analytics

This process, of logging onto a remote system and viewing logs is tedious. Additionally, many of the tools do not provide support to make the task of issue identification any simpler. Even when using tools like grep (if we know the pattern), we still need to view the logs in order to go through other information that has been logged, such as the log information that precedes the failure point.

While it has always been possible to develop applications to parse application logs, the recent renewed interest in application log analytics is due to the acceptance of NoSQL-like technologies and the availability of standard tools to parse application logs. Though relational databases (RDBMS) have for many years provided the facility to store structured data, they are not well-suited for handling log data, as in many cases, the structure of the logged information is not the same across the file. This does not fit well in the rigidly defined world of an RDBMS. In comparison, NoSQL allows document flexibility and documents with different schemas can be stored in the same database / index / store.

The ability to convert log data into a well-defined structure, as well as the ability to search, are key to implement a modern log analytics solution. In this document, we cover how Elasticsearch. Elasticsearch can store documents, giving us the benefit of structured storage without the overheads of a database system.

The Suitability of Elasticsearch

In the following subsections, we share our views as to why Elasticsearch is a suitable data store for an application log analytics solution. Elasticsearch is part of a popular trio of tools, commonly known as ELK. Of these, L stands for Logstash, the log parser; E stands for Elasticsearch, the document store; and K stands for Kibana, the visualization tool.

Storing Documents

Logstash can be used to parse plain text data into structured text. Once data has some structure, it becomes easy to find information by enabling search on it. While parsing application logs is not a challenge, the challenge has been in storing the data and enabling search on it. Most prior solutions have used an RDBMS for storage, but the varying structure and textual nature of application logs makes it difficult to use an RDBMS table structure to store data. RDBMSs are not geared toward ‘search’. They are geared for maintaining a ‘single value of truth’ for the data, defining relations between the data, ensuring their consistency and so on.

Search is also not a strong point for RDBMSs as they use exact matches for values, while Elasticsearch supports exact matches as well as partial matches. It also supports document scoring, which attaches a confidence factor to the documents located. Elasticsearch supports documents in JSON format and uses the NoSQL philosophy for document storage. This has the advantage of allowing a flexible schema for the data. Unlike an RDBMS, Elasticsearch is a search engine at heart and hence is built for the same.

Though Elasticsearch uses NoSQL for storing documents, it does not provide robust methods to update stored data. Not supporting updates is a serious disadvantage in most cases. In the case of application logs, not supporting updates actually works in favour of Elasticsearch. In case of machine logs, updates are not really required. Application logs are generated from a debugging perspective – having data handy for debugging purposes in the event of application crash or incorrect execution. They usually record important events from application execution and provide additional information to allow application developers to identify the reasons for failure. Additionally, existing information in application logs is rarely, if ever, updated. New information is continually being written to the logs, with no need to refer to old information. This plays to Elasticsearch’s strength, which is able to ingest and index new information very quickly.

Search

One of the easiest ways of locating information from large volumes of logs is to perform a search. Elasticsearch is well suited not only to handle search, it also supports huge volume of data, using distributed computing (implemented using Shards). While Kibana is one of the commonly used tools to display and visualize information stored in Elasticsearch, it is more suited to display standard charts like bar chart, column chart and pie chart. If the features provided by Kibana are not enough, we can always use Elasticsearch’s REST API support and it’s Query DSL (Domain-Specific Language), to search for required information. The Query DSL and the result of the query are in JSON format. Though this format makes it easy for applications to parse and process, users would need a friendly user interface to interact with the data.

Handling Voluminous Data

Elasticsearch supports distributed search out of the box – using the concept of ‘shards’. A shard is a single Lucene instance and is managed by Elasticsearch. Two types of shards, namely ‘primary shard’ and ‘replica shard’ are supported. By default, a document is first indexed on the primary shard and then on the replica shards. The number of primary shards can be specified, to cater to the expected volume. By default, Elasticsearch creates five shards for an index. But, once the number of primary shards is decided, it cannot be changed. A replica shards are copies the primary shard. They are used to handle fail-over and the increase performance.

While performance across voluminous data can be handled by sharding, it is important to note that shards, once created for an index, cannot be changed. Thus, the sharding strategy of the data has to be decided in advance, after an assessment of the data and an estimation of its growth. In the case of application logs, the sharding strategy can be based on the application name, the business unit ID, the application OD or the application’s geolocation, just to name a few.

Analytics

By storing data in a structure, analytics can be enabled on the data. Not only can application perform a simple search, it is also possible to restrict the search for specific terms or over a specified time period. Structured storage also makes it easier to develop reports with well-defined visualizations, which in turn makes it easy to understand the current state of applications. It is also possible to perform various analytics operations like time series analysis using the timestamp and identification of patterns from the data using machine learning techniques (assuming, we have the right kind of data in the logs). Though Elasticsearch does not provide built-in support for analytics, applications can benefit from its fast search capability and also from its ability to handle voluminous data sets.

In Closing

One of the main hurdles for application logs has been the ability to search for information from the huge volume of data. By parsing application log files using Logstash, we can convert a flat file into structured data. Structured data, once stored in Elasticsearch, is easier to search and locate. Visualizations and business logic for generating alerts and tickets is easier to develop on structured data. Elasticsearch, which stores and searches documents, along with its ability to scale over huge volume of data, is a good candidate for inclusion in an application log analytics solution.

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