Server monitoring is a requirement, not a choice. It is used for your entire software stack, web-based enterprise suites, custom applications, e-commerce sites, local area networks, etc. Unmonitored servers are lost opportunities for optimization, difficult to maintain, more unpredictable, and more prone to failure.
While it is very likely that your team has a log management and analysis initiative, it's important to determine if you are only responding to what the logs tell you about the past, or are you planning ahead based on the valuable log data you are monitoring and analyzing?
There are two basic approaches to server monitoring: passive monitoring and active monitoring. They are as much a state of mind as a process. And there are significant differences in the kinds of value each type of server monitoring provides; each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.
What is Passive Server Monitoring?
Passive server monitoring looks at real-world historical performance by monitoring actual log-ins, site hits, clicks, requests for data, and other server transactions. When it comes to addressing issues in the system, the team will review historical log data, and from there they analyze the logs to troubleshoot and pinpoint issues. This was previously done with a manual pull of logs. While this helps developers identify where issues are, using a powerful modern log analysis service to simply automate an existing process is a waste.
Passive monitoring only shows how your server handles existing conditions, but it may not give you much insight into how your server will deal with future ones. For example, if one of the components of the system, a database server, is likely to be overloaded when the load rate of change is reached. This is not going to be clear when server log data has already been recorded, unless your team is willing to stare at a graph in real-time, 24/7…which has been nearly the case in some NOC operations I have witnessed.
What is Active Server Monitoring?
The most effective way to get past these limits is by using active server monitoring. Active monitoring is the approach that leverages smart recognition algorithms to take current log data and use it to predict future states. This is done by some complex statistics (way over my head) that compare real-time to previous conditions, or past issues. For example it leverages anomaly detection, steady state analysis, and trending capabilities to predict that a workload is about to hit its max capacity. Or there is a sudden decrease in external network-received packets, a sign of public web degradation.
Besides finding out what is possibly going to happen, active server monitoring also helps to avoid the time spent on log deep dives. Issues will sometimes still pass you by, and you will still need to take a deeper look, but because information is pushed to you, some of the work is already done, and you can avoid the log hunt.
Oh and active monitoring can help the product and dev team from an architectural standpoint. If, for example, a key page is being accessed infrequently, or if a specific link to that page is rarely used, it may indicate a problem with the design of the referring page, or with one of the links leading to that page. A close look at the log can also tell you whether certain pages are being accessed more often than expected — which can be a sign that the information on those pages should be displayed or linked more prominently.
Any Form of Server Monitoring is Better Than None
Log analysis tools are the heart of both server monitoring approaches. Log analysis can indicate unusual activity which might slip past and already overloaded team. Another serious case is security. A series of attempted page hits that produce “page not found” or access denied” errors, for example, could just be coming from a bad external link — or they could be signs of an attacker probing your site. HTTP request that are pegging a server process could be a sign that a denial of service attack has begun.
It is hard to make the shift from passive to active monitoring. Why? Not because you and your team are not interested in thinking ahead. But more so because many operations are entrenched in existing processes that are also reactive. And sometimes teams are just unaware that their tool can provide this type of functionality. Until one day it does it automatically for you, and you have a pleasant surprise.
Active server monitoring can mean the difference between preventing problems before they get a chance to happen, or rushing to catch up with trouble after it happens. And they are the difference between a modern version of an old process, and moving forward to a modern software delivery pipeline.
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