BuzzSaw - Overview


The School of Informatics has approximately 1100 managed Linux machines which, since the upgrade to the SL6 platform, send a copy of all syslog messages over the network to a central log server. The central log server is primarily intended as a secure medium-term storage location for all system messages. This avoids the potential for data loss when the security of a system is compromised or a system crashes before all data can be written to local storage. A secondary benefit of this centralised log storage is that it makes it possible to easily search for interesting data across multiple hosts and over long time periods. When system log messages are only held locally on a machine it is typically quite awkward to execute large-scale queries across many hosts. It is also the case that data is often only held for short periods due to disk space constraints.

The BuzzSaw project was developed to take advantage of the goldmine of data which became available with the introduction of centralised storage. The log messages are stored on disk in separate directories for each machine and rotated daily so clearly it would be possible to do a certain amount of data analysis using basic command-line text processing tools (e.g. awk, grep, sort). This simple approach rapidly breaks down though once you need to do more complex queries based on information which is derived from certain types of messages (e.g. username or source IP address). It is also non-trivial to restrict queries to date and time ranges using this processing method. Using these command-line tools has many advantages, it is easy and quick to filter files for messages which match strings and requires no extra skills or knowledge. Any advanced data-analysis system must be similarly straightforward to use whilst providing the extra features necessary to fully explore the depths of the data.

There are many system log processing tools available, both open-source and proprietary. Having examined a few of the options it was clear that most are large, complex projects which provide vastly more features than are required by Informatics. This makes them difficult to comprehend or configure. There were also issues related to installation and management which meant we felt they were not a good match to our systems. It was thus decided that we would develop software internally which could parse, filter and store the data of interest from the system logs. We also required a framework for report generation but the intention was that users would not be tied into any particular single solution for report generation. These requirements were developed into the BuzzSaw project.

Design Philosophy

Store only the interesting data

The rsyslog daemon running on the central log server is doing a very good job of storing the complete set of system log messages for each machine into files. This is a lightweight and simple approach which guarantees a high degree of reliability. From examining the data it was clear that most of it is of little interest to us on a daily basis. For example, on a busy SSH server the ssh daemon authentication data that we actually wish to analyse only constitutes 10% of the entire daily system logs. With this in mind we decided to develop a data importing pipeline which could process the log messages stored in the files on a regular basis (hourly, daily, weekly, as necessary) and filter out the data of interest for storage in a separate database. The aim was that the design should not prevent the addition, at some later date, of a facility to import log messages "live" from the incoming stream of messages but that this would not be necessary.

Avoid unnecessarily parsing messages and files multiple times

The log rotation and compression system we have in place means that log files frequently change names. To avoid excessive processing time and minimise computing resource consumption, any log processing system should be intelligent enough to avoid reprocessing files where only the file name has been altered. Similarly, if the file compression level has changed (but not the actual true content) then log messages should not be parsed more than once.

Allow reprocessing of the log messages

Clearly if the approach is to ignore a large percentage of the log messages and avoid reparsing previously seen messages then occasionally a need to re-process the log files will occur. This is most likely when an administrator has a new requirement to analyse data related to some facility and generate long-term statistics. It should be possible to go back through the system logs and import more log messages where required.

A single, straightforward query mechanism

It should be possible to query all the data using a single, straightforward query mechanism. The most obvious solution was to import the data of interest into an SQL database. This means that administrators can query the data directly using the SQL language which is relatively simple, well understood and well documented. As well as being a very powerful query language, this has significant advantages over the command-line tool approach in that it is not necessary to know the syntax for multiple different tools (e.g. awk, grep, sed). The additional benefit is that querying SQL databases is extremely well supported in most programming languages (e.g. using DBI in Perl and psycopg2 in Python).

Support multiple data sources

Currently we only have syslog style logs stored on our central log server but there is no technical reason not to aggregate logs from other services (e.g. apache). Consequently there must be the option to import from multiple different sources. There should also be no restrictions on the storage formats of the raw data. It should be possible to process raw data from any file type, process a live stream or work with an external database if required.

Support parsing multiple formats

With our current rsyslog configuration the log messages have the date and time formatted as an RFC3339 timestamp. Other logging systems (e.g. apache) use different timestamp formats and at some point in the future we may wish to alter our chosen format. This leads to the requirement that it should be possible to have the log messages from different sources parsed in different ways.

Support flexible filtering and processing

The way in which filtering is done must be flexible and must allow the administrator to easily configure the stack of filters and the sequence in which they are applied. It must be possible to have as many (or as few) filters as necessary. It must also be possible for the filters to modify and extend the data associated with log messages of interest. It should be possible to use the same filter multiple times in a stack. Filters should be able to see which filters have already been run and process the results from those filters as well as the raw data itself. This would allow, for instance, a user name classifier filter to work on user names discovered by various filters earlier in the stack (e.g. SSH and Cosign).

It must be straightforward and relatively simple to develop new filters to select the log messages of interest. If possible there should be support for using a generic filter module with a specific set of configuration parameters to avoid the need to write new code in simple situations.

Provide a report generation framework

Although it should be possible to generate reports in any desirable manner using SQL queries there should also be a standard report generation framework. This would provide an easy to use interface which handles the most common situations.

The reporting framework must use a standard template system. It should be possible to send the results to stdout or by email to multiple addresses. It should be possible to generate multiple formats, for example html web pages, as well as text.

Typically an administrator needs to generate reports on a regular basis (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly) so those types of recurring reports must be supported.

It must be straightforward and relatively simple to develop new reports. If possible there should be support for using a generic report module with a specific set of configuration parameters to avoid the need to write new code in simple situations.