2018-03-27

Introducing Network Error Logging

Let’s say you’ve got a web site or REST service. You have clients that send requests to your server, which performs some interesting processing and sends responses back. The clients might be people using a browser, or native code in a mobile app making requests on behalf of the user, or something more exotic. But the overall picture is the same:

request service flow

How do you monitor this service — especially when that annoying cloudy bit in the middle is completely out of your control?


Server logs are a great source of information, and are typically part of the answer. Your server creates a record for every single connection attempt that it receives, including information about the client, the resource they requested, and whether or not the request succeeded:

server

192.0.2.1 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:04:05.123 +0000] "GET /about/" 200 -
192.0.2.1 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:04:17.456 +0000] "GET /login/" 200 -
198.51.100.13 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:04:24.924 +0000] "GET /unknown/" 402 -
198.51.100.13 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:04:38.129 +0000] "GET /" 200 -
198.51.100.13 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:05:08.751 +0000] "GET /about/" 200 -
192.0.2.1 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:05:13.314 +0000] "GET /contact/" 200 -
192.0.2.1 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:05:48.624 +0000] "GET /directions/" 200 -
203.0.113.56 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:08:08.242 +0000] "GET /" 200 -
203.0.113.56 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:08:52.018 +0000] "GET /about/" 200 -
203.0.113.56 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:09:03.483 +0000] "GET /contact/" 200 -
203.0.113.56 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:10:32.851 +0000] "GET /logout/" 500 -
192.0.2.1 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:10:50.823 +0000] "GET /menu/" 200 -
192.0.2.1 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:12:03.802 +0000] "GET /specials/" 200 -
198.51.100.13 - - [26/Mar/2018:03:12:24.516 +0000] "GET /login/" 200 -

There are a couple of interesting wrinkles. First, how do you get at those server logs? Your web server will typically write those to disk on the machine that it’s running on, so you need to somehow copy the contents of the logs to whatever monitoring or observability platform you’re using. (When you’re first starting off, you can get away with manually logging into the servers and grepping through the files directly, but that doesn’t scale as you add machines or developers.) This isn’t an unsolvable problem, but it does add some operational complexity to your setup.

More interesting is that your server logs don’t have visibility into all of the problems that your clients might encounter — especially those that involve the network! Since the network isn’t under your control, you have to consider it a black box: your client puts requests into one side, and hopefully those requests come out the other side at your server.

To have an end-to-end view of your request traffic, you need to instrument the client side of the connection, too. Have it record every time it attempts a request:

client

2018-03-26 03:04:04 https://example.com/about/ ⇒ 200
2018-03-26 03:04:16 https://example.com/login/ ⇒ 200
2018-03-26 03:05:13 https://example.com/contact/ ⇒ 200
2018-03-26 03:05:47 https://example.com/directions/ ⇒ 200
2018-03-26 03:10:50 https://example.com/menu/ ⇒ 200
2018-03-26 03:12:02 https://example.com/specials/ ⇒ 200

Then send those records to the same analysis platform that you send the server logs to. If there’s a record that appears on the client side, but not on the server side, then you’ve found an interesting case where the network dropped your connection! (The next step is to figure out why the connection was dropped, which is a topic worthy of its own post.)

When you have control over the client code (for instance, writing native code for a mobile app), this is pretty doable. Most of the libraries that you’d use to make those HTTP requests provide all of the necessary hooks to add in this kind of instrumentation. Of course, that’s one more bit of operational coding that takes you away from working on your actual service.

This also works if you’re trying to monitor a site or service that is accessed from a browser. You’d attach custom JavaScript callbacks to onerror events, for instance, and check for errors on manual fetch requests. It’s a bit tedious, but definitely doable. But there are two ways that this can fall over:

First, there are some browser-initiated requests that don’t provide the hooks that you need (navigation requests, for instance). There’s no amount of client-side coding that can give you visibility into these requests.

More interestingly, it’s the site that initiates the request that would get to see these events, not the origin that receives them. For instance, if you’ve written a popular REST API that lots of sites decide to use, you really want to instrument all uses of your API, without requiring those sites to do any manual work. You could provide a JavaScript wrapper API that instruments every request that it makes, but what about the request to download that JavaScript code? What if it fails? The site that uses your API would have visibility into that failure, but you, the API author, and the person best placed to fix the problem, would not!

Given all of these issues, wouldn’t it be nice if the browser or HTTP library would do all of this client-side monitoring work for you?

Enter Network Error Logging (NEL), a new web platform spec that we’re working on in the W3C’s Web Performance Working Group. With NEL, you can instruct user agents to collect the same set of information that would appear in your server logs. Those instructions would apply to all requests to your server’s origin, regardless of how (and on which containing sites) those requests were initiated. And since the data is collected directly by the user agent, you should have visibility into all of your clients’ connection requests, not just those that made it to your serving infrastructure.

NEL is still in its early stages. We have what we think is a good initial draft, and we’re wrapping up proof-of-concept implementations (both in the browser and in a handful of HTTP request libraries). But we’d love to hear feedback. Do you have any interesting outages that NEL would’ve given you better visibility into? Is there anything you think we’ve missed? Let me know through the usual channels or by filing an issue on our Github repo.

Thanks to Ilya Grigorik for comments and corrections.