Vince Veselosky

Author of Awesome Fantasy

Web Analytics for Operations

June 19, 2011

Web analytics packages, from free to exorbitant, have grown in complexity over the life of the web. That's great news for marketers using the web as a tool to deliver a message to an audience. These tools allow them to measure audience reach, time spent viewing a page, return visits, session length, and other useful customer engagement factors that helps shape the business strategy.

Unfortunately, while the marketers have won some great tools, where does that leave the techies who need to operate the infrastructure? We don't need to know how long a visitors spent on the site, nor to measure the difference between a "page view" and an "interaction", we need to know how many requests per second the application will generate. Where marketing-oriented analytics goes to great pains to filter out automated crawlers, we desperately need to know when a rampant robot is eating up server resources.

There isn't much in the way of off-the-shelf software to fit our needs. Mostly, we grow our own solutions, cobbled together with a tool here and a tool there.

Lately I've had a need to do some log analysis over a large farm of Apache web servers. I looked at a few open source packages that I knew about: AWStats and Webalizer being the perhaps the best known. But I wasn't happy with either of these solutions. I wanted a tool that would allow me to aggregate not just hits, but time spent generating each page (in milliseconds), and I wanted to break down traffic by five minute increments for a detailed shape in my graphs. So finally, and somewhat reluctantly, I settled on analog.

Analog is not pretty nor user-friendly by any means. The configuration file is touchy and somewhat arcane, and its convention for command line parameters is non-standard. However, analog generates 44 different reports, including time breakdowns from annual down to my desired five minute interval, reports for successes, failures, redirects, and other interesting outcomes, and a processing time report with fine resolution. It can read compressed log files, and it has no problem processing files out of chronological order.

Most importantly, analog is blazingly fast. It chewed through my 20 million lines of compressed Apache logs in six minutes. The speed at which it consumes log files seems to be limited more by I/O rate than CPU, though as a single-process, single threaded application, analog will only tax one of your CPU cores. If you find CPU a limiting factor on a multi-core system, you might try decompressing the files using gzip and piping the output to analog. This allows the decompression to happen in a separate process, and therefore on a separate CPU core, but I don't know if that would speed things up much.

I'm still not entirely pleased with this solution. I would prefer a solution that was a little more intuitive, and a little easier to customize. Analog has plenty of knobs to turn, but there is no built-in extension mechanism, so it makes me work pretty hard to pull out custom metrics.

I would love to hear what other folks are using to analyze your Apache logs. How do you get operational intelligence? Are you using remote logging? Shoot me an email or leave a comment.