Pēteris Caune

Using Logs to Troubleshoot Failing Cron Jobs

Let’s say you have a script that works when run in an interactive session, but does not produce expected results when run from cron. What could be the problem? Some potential culprits include:

  • The cron daemon does not see the new job. You added the job definition to a file that the cron daemon does not read.
  • The schedule is wrong. The job will run eventually, but not at your intended schedule.
  • cron’s PATH environment variable is different from the one in your interactive shell, so the script could not find a binary.
  • cron uses /bin/sh, which may be /usr/bin/dash instead of /usr/bin/bash, and your script relies on a bash-only feature.
  • The script uses relative filesystem paths and is intended to be run from a specific directory. When run by cron, the filesystem paths are all wrong.

Or it could be something else. How to troubleshoot this then, and where to start? Instead of trying fixes at random, I prefer to start by looking at logs:

  • Look at the system logs to see if cron ran the script at all.
  • Inspect the script’s stdout and stderr output for error messages and other clues.

System Logs

To check system logs on modern Linux systems using systemd, use the “journalctl” command:

journalctl -t CRON --since "today"

The “-t CRON” argument tells journalctl to show log entries with the “CRON” tag only. The “–since” parameter accepts timestamps and time durations in various formats. A couple of examples:

journalctl -t CRON --since "30 minutes ago"
journalctl -t CRON --since "2023-01-25"

If cron did run the job, you will find log entries that look like this:

jan 25 15:27:01 foo CRON[511824]: (user) CMD (/home/user/make-backup.sh)
jan 25 15:27:01 foo CRON[511823]: (CRON) info (No MTA installed, discarding output)

The first line shows the command line cron tried to run. The second line shows that the command generated some output, and cron discarded it. If the command completes without producing any output, or if your system has an MTA such as Postfix or sSMTP installed, the second line will be absent.

Checking Script’s Output

If a cron job produces output, cron will attempt to email the command’s output to the email address specified in the MAILTO= line in crontab. For this to work, the system needs to have a configured message transfer agent (MTA). See How to Send Email From Cron Jobs for instructions on how to configure sSMTP as a MTA.

Logging to System Logs

If you want to avoid the hassle of setting up a working MTA, a simpler option is to pipe the script’s output to the system log:

0 4 * * * /home/user/make-backup.sh 2>&1 | logger -t backups

Let’s analyze the above line:

  • The cron expression 0 4 * * * means “run this job ar 4:00 every day”.
  • /home/user/make-backup.sh is the script we want cron to run.
  • 2>&1 redirects sderr to stdout.
  • |, the pipe character, pipes output (both stdout and stderr, thanks to the redirection) from the previous command into the following command.
  • logger -t backups reads data from stdin and writes it to systemd logs, tagged as “backups”.

After the cron job has run, you can inspect its output with the journalctl utility:

journalctl -t backups --since "today"

To view live logs in the follow mode:

journalctl -t backups -f

Logging to Files

An even simpler option for an ad-hoc debugging session is to write the script’s output to a file. In this example, the log file gets overwritten each time the job runs, so it will only contain the output of the most recent run:

0 4 * * * /home/user/make-backup.sh > /tmp/backups.log 2>&1
  • > (right angle bracket) redirects output to a file.
  • 2>&1 redirects sderr to stdout.

Note: bash has a shorthand for redirecting stdout and stderr to a file: &> /path/to/file. dash does not support it, so it is safer to use the longer form: > /path/to/file 2>&1.

In this example, logs from each run get appended to a single file, and each line is prefixed with a timestamp:

0 4 * * * /home/user/make-backup.sh 2>&1 | ts >> /tmp/backups.log
  • 2>&1 redirects sderr to stdout.
  • The combined output is piped to ts, which prefixes each line with a timestamp.
  • Finally, >> redirects output to a file in append mode.

Note: The “ts” utility may not be installed by default. For Debian-based systems, it is available in the “moreutils” package.

Logging to Healthchecks.io

And yet another option is to forward the logs to Healthchecks.io and view them in the web browser. With this option, you also get external monitoring and notifications when your job does not complete on schedule or exits with non-zero exit status:

0 4 * * * m=$(/home/user/make-backup.sh 2>&1); curl --data-raw "$m" https://hc-ping.com/<uuid>/$?
  • The m=$(...) syntax runs the enclosed command and assigns its output to the variable $m
  • The semicolon separates two consecutive commands (without piping one’s output to the other)
  • curl’s --data-raw "$m" parameter sends the contents of $m in HTTP request body
  • $? is the exit status of the previous command. We tack it onto the URL so Healthchecks knows if the command finished successfully (exit status 0) or unsuccessfully (exit status > 0).

That is all for now,
Happy scripting,
Pēteris

How Healthchecks Sends Signal Notifications

When a cron job does not run on time, Healthchecks can notify you using various methods. One of the supported methods is Signal messages. Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messenger app run by a non-profit Signal Foundation. Signal’s mobile client, desktop client, and server are free and open-source software (with some exceptions–read on!).

No Incoming Webhooks

Unlike most other instant messaging services, Signal does not provide incoming webhooks for posting messages in chats. If you want to send messages on the Signal network, you must run a full client, and follow all the same cryptographic protocols that normal end-user clients follow. This is inconvenient for the integration developer but makes sense: the main feature of Signal is strong cryptography and as little as possible sharing of information with the Signal servers. The servers pass around messages, and help with peer discovery, but (as far as I know) cannot send their own messages on the user’s behalf. Official incoming webhooks would conflict with the overall architecture of the system.

signal-cli

signal-cli is a third-party open-source Signal client. It uses the same signal client libary that the official clients use but offers a programmatic interface for sending and receiving messages. signal-cli supports command-line, DBUS, and JSON-RPC interfaces.

Signal’s official position on the signal-cli client seems to be–they do not support it, but they also have not explicitly banned it. When I asked Signal Support about their stance regarding signal-cli (and also about advice regarding rate-limit issues discussed below), I got just this short response back:

Due to our limitations as a non-profit organization, we can only provide support for the product we provide. Signal-cli is not provided or maintained by us, therefore we cannot provide any support for it.

Using signal-cli in Healthchecks

I coded the initial Signal integration in January 2021. To send messages, it was running a signal-cli send -m 'text goes here' command for every message. Each send took a minimum of one second, as every signal-cli invocation was initializing JVM, and initializing network connections, just to do one small send operation. A more efficient approach was to run signal-cli in daemon mode and talk to it via DBUS or JSON-RPC.

Also in January 2021, I upgraded the integration to talk to signal-cli over DBUS. This took some tinkering to figure out the DBUS interface configuration and to get python code to talk to it. But it worked, and message delivery was now much quicker.

In December 2021, signal-cli added the JSON-RPC interface, and I switched the Healthchecks integration to it. Again, it took a fair bit of tinkering and support from the signal-cli author until I figured out how it all hangs together, how to read and write messages over a UNIX socket, and how to interpret them. There were two important improvements over the previous DBUS code:

  • Simpler operations: I did not need the DBUS service with its associated configuration files anymore.
  • The Healthchecks project did not need the “dbus-python” dependency anymore.

Rate limiting and CAPTCHAs

Around April 2022 I started to notice that some send operations were failing with an error message asking to solve a CAPTCHA challenge. These errors were infrequent at first and seemed to only affect the very first messages to new recipients. I added code to email me the CAPTCHA challenges, and I added a crude command-line utility to submit the CAPTCHA solutions. As the CAPTCHA challenges came in, I manually solved and submitted them. Signal was using Google reCAPTCHA, and I got plenty of opportunities to demonstrate my intelligence by expertly clicking on fire hydrants, crosswalks, and traffic lights. Sometimes at odd hours, sometimes roadside over a mobile hotspot.

As the frequency of CAPTCHAs gradually increased, I tried to make solving them less annoying:

  • I figured out that being logged in gmail.com helps the CAPTCHA solving a lot. Usually just a single click, no fire hydrants.
  • I set up my computer to automatically put the CAPTCHA solution in the clipboard.
  • I made a web form for submitting CAPTCHA solutions. No need to fire up the terminal, just click a link in the email, and paste the solution.

Now solving a CAPTCHA challenge took just a few clicks, but the end-user experience was still not great. For some users, Signal notifications would not work until I showed up and solved yet another CAPTCHA. I did some spelunking in the signal-server code base. There is a class listing various rate-limiters and their parameters. For any rate limiter, I could trace back where and how it was used. But I still could not pinpoint the piece of code that triggers the specific rate-limit errors I was seeing. Signal-Server has an “abusive-message-filter” module, which is private code, perhaps the logic lives there.

It seemed only the initial messages to new recipients were triggering rate-limit errors. After a single message got through, the following messages would work with no issues. So my next idea was to change the Signal integration onboarding flow:

  • After the user has entered the phone number of the Signal recipient, ask them to send a test message
  • If the test message generates a rate-limit error, ask the user to initiate a conversation with us from their side, then try again:

My working theory is that users initiating the conversation with Healthchecks will look less abusive to Signal’s abusive message filter, and will help avoid hitting rate limits. But, if the theory fails and we still get rate-limit errors, at least the users will not create dysfunctional integrations (the “Save Integration” button becomes available only after successfully sending a test message).

In Summary

In summary, Healthchecks uses signal-cli to send Signal messages. It talks to signal-cli over JSON-RPC. To avoid rate limits, it asks the user to send the first message from their end. Building and maintaining the Signal integration has taken more effort than any other integration. But that is fine and, aside from the manual CAPTCHA solving, time well spent. I’m glad Healthchecks supports it, and I’m happy to see that the Signal integration is popular among Healthchecks.io users.

Happy monitoring and messaging,
Pēteris

Notice: RU IP Block Starting January 1, 2023

Starting from January 1, 2023, our ping endpoints (hc-ping.com, hchk.io) will reject requests from the Russian Federation IP addresses. The web dashboard at https://healthchecks.io will remain accessible and functional. We’ve sent email notifications to the affected user accounts.

The rejected ping requests will receive HTTP 403 responses. We will be using the GeoIP2 database to geo-locate IP addresses. To test a particular IP address, you can use the GeoIP2 demo tool. If your address gets geolocated incorrectly, please let us know.

Using Run IDs to Track Run Times Of Overlapping Jobs

Healthchecks.io recently got a new feature: run IDs.

RID=`uuidgen`
# Send a "start" signal, specify ?rid query parameter
curl https://hc-ping.com/your-uuid-here/start?rid=$RID
# ... do some work here ...
# Send a "success" signal, specify the same ?rid value
curl https://hc-ping.com/your-uuid-here?rid=$RID

Run IDs are client-chosen UUID values that the client can optionally add as a “rid” query parameter to any ping URL (success, /start, /fail, /log, /{exitcode}).

What are run IDs useful for? Healthchecks.io uses them to group events from a single “run”, and calculate correct run durations. This is most important in cases where multiple instances of the same job can run simultaneously, and partially or fully overlap. Consider the following sequence of events:

  1. 12:00 start
  2. 12:01 start
  3. 12:05 success
  4. 12:06 success

Without run IDs, we cannot tell if the second success event corresponds to the first or the second start event. But with run IDs we can:

  1. 12:00 start, rid=05f4aa48…
  2. 12:01 start, rid=7671e111…
  3. 12:05 success, rid=05f4aa48…
  4. 12:06 success, rid=7671e111…

The usage of run IDs is completely optional. You don’t need them if your jobs always run sequentially. If you do use run IDs, make sure that:

  • the rid values are valid UUIDs in the canonical text form (with no curly braces, with no uppercase letters)
  • you use the same rid value for matching start and success/fail events

Healthchecks.io will show the run IDs in a shortened form in the “Events” section:

In the above image, note how the execution times are available for both “success” events. If the run IDs were not used, event #4 would not show an execution time since it is not directly preceded by a “start” event.

Alerting Logic When Using Run IDs

Healthchecks.io monitors the time gaps between “start” and “success” signals: if a job sends a “start” signal, but then does not send a “success” signal within its configured grace time, Healthchecks.io will assume the job has failed and notify you. However, if multiple instances of the same job run concurrently, Healthchecks.io will only monitor the run time of the most recently started run and alert you when it exceeds the grace time. Under the hood, each check tracks a single “last started” value, which gets overwritten with every received “start” event.

To illustrate, let’s assume the grace time of 1 minute, and look at the above screenshot again. Event #4 ran for 6 minutes 39 seconds and so overshot the time budget of 1 minute. But Healthchecks.io generated no alerts because the most recently started run finished within the time limit (it took 37 seconds, which is less than 1 minute).

Happy monitoring!
–Pēteris

Schedule Cronjob for the First Monday of Every Month, the Funky Way

The crontab man page (“man 5 crontab” or read online) contains this bit:

Note: The day of a command’s execution can be specified by two fields — day of month, and day of week. If both fields are restricted (i.e., don’t start with *), the command will be run when either field matches the current time. For example, 30 4 1,15 * 5 would cause a command to be run at 4:30 am on the 1st and 15th of each month, plus every Friday.

What does it mean precisely? If you specify both the day of month and the day of week field, then cron will run the command when either of the fields match. In other words, there’s a logical OR relationship between the two fields. Let’s look at an example:

0 0 1 * MON

This expression translates to “Run at the midnight if it’s the first day of the month OR Monday”. An expression like this could be handy for a job that sends weekly and monthly reports as it probably needs to run at the start of every week, and the start of every month. However, if either field is unrestricted, the logical relationship between the fields changes to “AND”. For example:

0 0 * * MON

Here, the day of month field is unrestricted. Cron will run this command when both the day of month field AND the day of week fields match. Since * matches any day of month, this expression effectively translates to “Run at midnight every Monday”.

So far so good! The sometimes-OR relationship between the two fields is a relatively well-known cron gotcha. But let’s look closer at what values cron considers “unrestricted”. Star (*) is of course unrestricted, but, according to the man page, any value that starts with the star character is also unrestricted. For example, */2 is unrestricted too. Can we think of any useful schedules that exploit this fact? Yes, we can:

0 0 1-7 * */7

Here, the day of month is restricted to dates 1 to 7. Cron will interpret */7 in the day of week field as “every 7 days starting from 0 (Sunday)”, so, effectively, “Every Sunday”. Since the day of week field starts with *, cron will run the command on dates 1 to 7 which are also Sunday. In other words, this will match midnight of the first Sunday of every month.

In the above example, */7 is a trick to say “every Sunday” in a way that starts with the star. Unfortunately, this trick only works for Sunday. Can we make an expression that runs on, say, the first Monday of every month? Yes, we can!

0 0 */100,1-7 * MON

The day of month field here is */100,1-7, meaning “every 100 days starting from date 1, and also on dates 1-7”. Since there are no months with 100+ days, this again is a trick to say “on dates 1 to 7” but with a leading star. Because of the star, cron will run the command on dates 1 to 7 that are also Monday.

OK, but does any of this work? Is the man page accurate? Yes: you can check the cron source here and see how it initializes the DOW_STAR and DOM_STAR flags by testing just the first character of the fields. I’ve also tested both expressions empirically by setting up dummy cron jobs and monitoring when they run. I ran them in a VM with an accelerated clock, which I’ve used for experiments before.

An important caveat before you use these tricks for scheduling your tasks: there are many systems that support cron-like syntax for scheduling tasks. It’s a safe bet not all of them implement all the quirks of the classic cron. Always check if your scheduler supports the syntax and logic you are planning to use. And always monitor if your scheduled tasks do run at the expected times (wink wink)!

Healthchecks.io Hosting, Questions and Answers

The article Healthchecks.io Hosting Setup, 2022 Edition was recently on Hacker News. I was answering questions in the comments section. Here’s a recap of some of the questions and my answers. I’ve edited some of the questions for clarity.

Q: Can you share more details about what the 4 HAProxy servers are doing?

  • The traffic from the monitored systems comes with spikes. Looking at netdata graphs, currently the baseline is 600 requests/s, but there is a 2000 requests/s spike every minute, and 4000 requests/s spike every 10 minutes.
  • Want to maintain redundancy and capacity even when a load balancer is removed from DNS rotation (due to network problems, or for upgrade).

There are spare resources on the servers, especially RAM, and I could pack more things on fewer hosts. But, with Hetzner prices, why bother? 🙂

Q: Why Braintree, not Stripe?

When I started, Stripe was not yet available in my country, Latvia (it now is).

Personally I’ve had good experience with Braintree. Particularly their support has been impressively good – they take time to respond, but you can tell the support agents have deep knowledge of their system, they have access to tools to troubleshoot problems, and they don’t hesitate to escalate to engineering.

Q: I’d like to hear more on your usage of SSLMate and SOPs.

SSLMate it is a certificate reseller with a convenient (for me) interface – a CLI program. It’s no fun copy-pasting certificates from email attachments.

I’m using both RSA and ECDSA certificates (RSA for compatibility with old clients, ECDSA for efficiency). I’m not sure but looks like ECDSA is not yet generally available from Let’s Encrypt.

On sops: the secrets (passwords, API keys, access tokens) are sitting in an encrypted file (“vault”). When a Fabric task needs secrets to fill in a configuration file template, it calls sops to decrypt the vault. My Yubikey starts flashing, I tap the key, the Fabric task receives the secrets and can continue.

Q: I would love to hear more detail how WireGuard is set up.

I use vanilla Wireguard (the wg command and the wg-quick service). I set up new hosts and update peer configuration using Fabric tasks. It may sound messy, but works fine in practice. For example, to set up Wireguard on a new host:

  • On the new host, I run a Fabric task which generates a key pair and spits out the public key. The private key never leaves the server.
  • I paste the public key in a peer configuration template.
  • On every host that must be able to contact the new host, I run another Fabric task which updates the peer configuration from the template (wg syncconf).

One thing to watch out is any services that bind to the Wireguard network interface. I had to make sure on reboot they start after wg-quick.

Q: I am curious how sites like this handle scheduled tasks that have to run at high frequencies? Cron on one machine? Celery beat?

Healthchecks runs a loop of

10 send any due notifications
20 SLEEP 2
30 GOTO 10

The actual loop is of course a little more complicated, and is being run concurrently on several machines.

Q: How did you go about implementing the integrations (email, Signal, Discord….)?

Started with just the email integration, and added other integration types over time, one by one. A few were contributed as GitHub PRs.

The Signal one took by far the most effort to get going. But, for ideological reasons, I really wanted to have it 🙂 Unlike most other services, Signal doesn’t have public HTTP API for sending messages. Instead you have to run your own local Signal client and send messages through it. Healthchecks is using signal-cli.

Q: What volume of data are you storing in PostgreSQL? Any reason not to use a hosted PostgreSQL provider?

Around 200 write tx/s as a baseline. Spikes to 2000 write tx/s at the start of every minute, and 4000 write tx/s every 10 minutes.

Not using a hosted PostgreSQL provider for several reasons:

  • Cost
  • Schrems II
  • From what I remember, both Google Cloud SQL and AWS RDS used to have mandatory maintenance windows. The fail-over was not instant, so there was some unavoidable downtime every month. This was a while ago – maybe it is different now.

Q: Is the decision not to use Patroni for HA PostgreSQL in this case, so that you don’t add more complexity?

Yes. Plus, from reading database outage postmortems, I was not comfortable making the “do we fail-over now?” decision automatic. Think about the brownouts, where the primary is still up, but slow. Or it experiences intermittent packet loss.

I’ve automated the mechanics of the fail-over, but it still must be initiated manually.

Q: I’m getting the impression, the bus factor at Healthchecks.io seems to be 1. If I’d run a one man show type of business, I’d love to have some kind of plan B in case I’d be incapacitated for more than half a day.

Yes, the bus factor is 1, and it’s bugging me too. I think any realistic plan B involves expanding the team.

Q: How much does it all cost?

I don’t have a precise number, but somewhere in the €800/mo region.

Q: How do you think open-sourcing the self-hosted version of your product impacted your sales? Positively, negatively?

I can’t say definitely, but my gut feeling is positively.

What if another operator takes the source code, and starts a competing commercial service? I’ve seen very few (I think 1 or 2) instances of somebody attempting a commercial product based on Healthchecks open-source code. I think that’s because it’s just a lot of work to run the service professionally, and then even more work to find users and get people to pay for it.

What if a potential customer decides to self-host instead? I do see a good amount of enthusiasts and companies self-hosting their private Healthchecks instance. I’m fine with that. For one thing, the self-hosting users are all potential future clients of the hosted service. They are already familiar and happy with the product, I just need to sell the “as a service” part.

We Moved Some Data to S3

When clients make HTTP POST requests to ping URLs, Healthchecks captures and stores request body data. You can use this feature to log a command’s output and have it available for inspection later:

$ cowsay hello | curl --data-binary @- https://hc-ping.com/some-uuid-here

Same thing, using runitor instead of curl:

$ runitor -uuid some-uuid-here -- cowsay hello

You can view the request body data in the web UI:

Healthchecks also captures and stores email messages, when pinging by email:

There is a limit to how much data gets stored. The limit used to be 10KB. For example, if a client sends 50KB in an HTTP POST request body, Healthchecks would store the first 10KB, and ignore the remaining 40KB. I recently bumped up the size limit to 100KB. Users can now attach 10x more log information to every HTTP POST request, and HTML-heavy email messages are now less likely to get chopped off in the middle.

In theory, the limit change could have been as simple as adding one zero to a configuration parameter, but in practice, there was a little bit more to it!

Database vs S3

Healthchecks used to store request body data in its primary and only data store, a PostgreSQL database. Bumping up the limit and throwing more data in the database would work in the short term, but would create problems in the long run. Backup sizes and processing times would grow at a quicker rate. Network I/O to the database server would also increase, and sooner become a bottleneck.

Now, how about outsourcing ping body storage to AWS S3? This would allow bumping up the size limit without ballooning the database size (yay!). On the other hand, this would add a new moving part to the system, and increase code and operational complexity (oh no!). But perhaps still worth it?

Healthchecks would be doing lots of small S3 PUT requests, and AWS S3 has per-request fees. Quick napkin math: AWS charges $0.005 per 1000 PUT requests. Let’s say we’re uploading 20 objects to S3 per second. That’s 20 * 60 * 60 * 24 * 30 = 52M PUT requests per month, or $260 added to the AWS bill. AWS also charges for bandwidth and storage. And what about Schrems II? There could be personal data in ping bodies, so we would need to encrypt them before handing them off to AWS.

Luckily there are alternate, S3-compatible object storage providers, some of them based in the EU, and some of them charge no per-request fees! Scaleway and OVH looked like two promising candidates.

Sync vs Async Uploads

OK, let’s dive into implementation decisions. When Healthchecks receives a ping, should it upload request body data to S3 right away, in the HTTP request-response cycle? Or should it stash the request body data somewhere and have a background process deal with the uploads?

The synchronous approach is simple operationally (no background processing to worry about), but the S3 upload operations can slow down the request-response cycle.

The async approach is more fiddly to set up. The background worker process can throw an exception or grow a backlog of jobs, it needs to be monitored. On the upside, any S3 API hiccups or slowdowns would not affect the ping handler’s throughput.

Easy solution–I implemented both methods! The open-source Healthchecks project uploads ping bodies synchronously. But on the hosted service (healthchecks.io), the ping handler stores received pings on the filesystem, and a separate worker process picks them up and uploads them to S3.

Homegrown API requests vs S3 Client Library

Moving forward, how does one upload an object to an S3 bucket? I’ve used boto3 in the past, but how hard could it possibly be to send the right payload to the right API endpoint?

Well, by the time I got a small request signing experiment to work, I decided I’ll use a library after all! I picked minio-py as the S3 client library. It is smaller and has fewer dependencies than boto3.

Upgrade From Storing Strings to Storing Bytes

If the ping body is just a few bytes in size, does it still make sense to offload its storage to S3? Probably not. There should be some threshold value (say, 100 bytes), below which ping bodies still get stored in the database.

Any data that we put or retrieve from object storage we will treat as binary. But the “body” field in the Healthchecks database has historically been a text field, only appropriate for storing Unicode strings.

To avoid the inconsistency of storing short ping bodies as Unicode strings, and longer ping bodies as binary data, I added a new “body_raw” binary field in the database and updated the application code to use it by default.

Object Key Naming Scheme

What naming scheme to use for keys in the S3 bucket? The most straightforward naming scheme would be /<uuid>/<n>:

  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/1
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/2
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/3
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/100
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/101

Here “uuid” would be the unique UUID of a check, and “n” is the serial number of the received ping: “1” for the first received ping, “2” for the second received ping, and so on.

Now, let’s say we are cleaning up old objects and want to delete all objects with uuid=504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd and n<50. How to do that? With the above naming scheme, we could:

  1. Retrieve a list of all objects with the prefix /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/.
  2. Filter the list, keeping only the entries with n<50
  3. Then run the DeleteObjects API call and pass the filtered list to it.

I noticed the list_objects call has an optional start_after argument, perhaps it can be used to avoid the client-side filtering (step 2)?

Yes, it can – if we add specially crafted sorting prefixes to the object keys:

  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/zi-1
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/zh-2
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/zg-3
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/xijj-100
  • /504eb741-1966-49fe-a6e7-4d3133d2b2bd/xiji-101

If we want all keys with n<50, we can now do:

list_objects(prefix="504eb741-...-4d3133d2b2bd/", start_after="yej")

Exercise time: looking at just the above examples, can you work out how the zi, zh etc. prefixes are generated, and why this works?

If you are interested, here is the function that generates the sorting prefix.

Boolean Serialization Issue

I ran into an issue when using the minio-py’s remove_objects call: when generating a request XML, it was serializing boolean values as True and False, instead of true and false. When testing, this was accepted by AWS S3 API, but both Scaleway and OVH were rejecting these requests as invalid.

  • I filed an issue with minio-py, and they fixed the code to serialize boolean values to lowercase strings.
  • I reported the issue to Scaleway and OVH, both fixed their S3 implementation to accept capitalized boolean values.

Object Storage Cleanup

Let’s say a user is closing their Healthchecks account, and we want to delete their data. With Django and relational databases, it is remarkably easy to do:

user.delete()  # that's it

Django will delete the user record from the auth_user table, and will also take care of deleting all dependent objects: projects, checks, channels, pings, notifications, etc. All of that, with one line of code!

For the S3 object storage though we will need to take care of data cleanup ourselves. I wrote a pruneobjects management command which iterates through the S3 bucket and removes all objects referencing checks that do not exist in the database anymore.

Testing Object Storage Providers

I initially planned to use Scaleway Object Storage. I contacted their support and got a confirmation that my planned use case is reasonable. As I was using Scaleway to test my work-in-progress code, I saw their DeleteObjects API calls were rather slow. They would often take seconds, and sometimes tens of seconds to complete. Around that time Scaleway object storage also happened to have a multi-hour outage. API calls were returning “InternalError” responses, the dashboard was not working.

I switched my focus to OVH. Same as with Scaleway, I contacted OVH support and described my use case and planned usage patterns. I explicitly asked about API request rates, they said–no limits. I set up the account and got busy testing. The API operations seemed significantly quicker. DeleteObjects would typically complete in a sub-second.

I did run into several hopefully teething troubles with OVH too. API would sometimes return “ServiceUnavailable, Please reduce your request rate.” OVH would acknowledge the issue with this masterpiece of an explanation:

The problem you have encountered is due to occasional operations that have taken place on the platform.

When the number of objects in the bucket went above 500’000, OVH dashboard couldn’t display the bucket’s contents anymore. The page would take a long time to load and eventually display “Internal server error”. This issue has not been resolved yet. But the API works.

“Ping Body Not Yet Available” Special Case

If ping bodies are being uploaded asynchronously, we can run into a situation where we want to show the ping body to the user, but it is still sitting in a queue, waiting to be uploaded to S3. Here’s an example scenario:

  • Client sends a “fail” event with data in the request body.
  • Ping handler registers the ping and adds the body data to the upload queue.
  • Milliseconds later, the “sendalerts” process sees the failure and prepares an email notification. It needs the ping body, which is not present in the S3 bucket yet.

Note that the ping handler and sendalerts may be running on different machines, so sendalerts cannot peek in the upload queue either.

My “good enough” solution for this was to add a conditional delay to the email sending logic:

  • Fetch the request body from S3.
  • If not found, wait 5 seconds, then fetch it again.
  • If still nothing, use a “The request body data is being processed” fallback message in the email.

The idea here is that request bodies usually upload quickly. Assuming normal operation and no significant backlog, 5 seconds should be plenty. But if the request body is still not available after the 5 seconds, we don’t want to delay the email notification too much, and use the fallback message.

S3 Backup

In theory, OVH claims a 100% resilience rate for their object storage service. But we know entire data centers can and sometimes do burn down, and ultimately it is our responsibility to be able to recover the data. My S3 backup solution is a cron job on a dedicated VPS, doing the following:

  • Download entire contents of the bucket using “aws s3 sync”.
  • Pack the files together using tar, encrypt them with gpg, and upload the resulting file to a different bucket at a different provider.
#!/bin/bash

SRC_ENDPOINT=https://s3.sbg.perf.cloud.ovh.net
BUCKET=***
TIMESTAMP=`date +"%Y%m%d-%H%M%S"`
DST_PATH=s3://***/objects-$TIMESTAMP.tar.gpg

set -e

runitor -uuid *** \
    -- aws --profile src --endpoint-url $SRC_ENDPOINT s3 sync s3://$BUCKET $BUCKET --delete

tar -cf - $BUCKET | gpg --encrypt --recipient 832DDD6E | aws --profile dst s3 cp - $DST_PATH

The “aws” command is provided by the awscli tool. s3cmd also has a “sync” command, but in my testing, it could not handle a bucket with hundreds of thousands of objects.

The “n % 50 == 0” Bug

As I was working on implementing S3 backup, I noticed that the bucket contains more data than I was expecting. Some checks had 8000 and more ping bodies stored. How?

The cleanup logic for asynchronous uploads is:

  • Pick a ping body from the queue, upload it to S3.
  • If the ping’s serial number is divisible by 50, run a cleanup routine.

The idea is to run the cleanup routine every 50 pings. Now, what happens if the client sends alternating “start” events as HTTP GET requests, and “success” events as HTTP POST with a request body? We can have a situation where every POST has an odd serial number, and so our cleanup routine never runs! My “good enough” fix here was to change the constant “50” to a non-even number.

The 10KB to 100KB Limit Increase

With the above in place, I added OVH to the list of sub-processors in the Privacy Policy, increased the ping body limit to 100KB and gradually rolled out the changes to production servers. After several days of testing to see if everything is coping well, I announced the limit increase on Twitter.

Here are graphs from Netdata showing the object uploads per second, and the backlog size, aggregated across all web servers:

And that’s how “we” moved some data to S3. Thanks for reading!
–Pēteris.

Using OpenSMTPD as a Local Relay-Only MTA

I recently made a change to how Healthchecks sends transactional email. Before:

The Healthchecks Django app is directly connecting to a 3rd-party SMTP relay (think AWS SES, SendGrid, Mailgun, but in our specific case it is Elastic Email), and sends SMTP commands over a TLS-encrypted connection. If the send operation fails, the Django app retries a couple times, then gives up and the email is lost.

After:

A local OpenSMTPD instance runs on the same machine as the Django app. It accepts connections from local clients only, and relays all received messages to the external SMTP relay operated by, in our case, Elastic Email.

In this setup, the Django app can quickly hand off the outgoing emails to OpenSMTPD, and OpenSMTPD retries failed sends for minutes, hours or even days. If the 3rd-party SMTP relay has an outage, emails are not lost, just delayed. At least that’s the theory – we shall see how well this works in practice.

The OpenSMTPD configuration for this use case is surprisingly compact:

table secrets file:/etc/mail/secrets
listen on lo inet4 port 25
action "relay" relay host smtp+tls://smtp@external.smtp.host:587 auth <secrets>
match for any action "relay"

And /etc/mail/secrets contains:

smtp external-smtp-username:external-smtp-password

I also experimented with Postfix (as recommended here), and it gets the job done too. I also considered more lightweight relay-only MTAs: dma and nullmailer. Neither supports listening on port 25, instead you enqueue emails by piping data to /usr/sbin/sendmail. This complicates integration with the Django app somewhat. I ultimately went with OpenSMTPD because it seemed to have the right balance of features and simplicity.

Healthchecks.io Hosting Setup, 2022 Edition

Here’s the summary of the hardware and the software that powers Healthchecks.io.

Hardware

Since 2017, Healthchecks.io runs on dedicated servers at Hetzner. The current lineup is:

  • HAProxy servers: 4x AX41-NVMe servers (Ryzen 3600, 6 cores)
  • Web servers: 3x AX41-NVMe servers (Ryzen 3600, 6 cores)
  • PostgreSQL servers: 2x AX101 servers (Ryzen 5950X, 16 cores)

All servers are located in the Falkenstein data center park, scattered across the FSN-DCx data centers so they are not all behind the same core switch. The monthly Hetzner bill is €484.

Software

  • Ubuntu 20.04 on all machines.
  • Systemd manages services that need to run continuously (haproxy, nginx, postgresql, etc.)
  • Wireguard for private networking between the servers. Tiered topology: HAProxy servers cannot talk to PostgreSQL servers.
  • Netdata agent for monitoring the machines and the services running on them. Connected to Netdata Cloud for easy overview of all servers.
  • HAProxy 2.2 for terminating TLS connections, and load balancing between app servers. Enables easy rolling updates of application servers.
  • PostgreSQL 13, streaming replication from primary to standby. No automatic failover: I can trigger failover with a single command, but the decision is manual.

On app servers:

  • uWSGI runs the Healthchecks Python application (web frontend, management API).
  • hchk, a small application written in Go, handles ping API (hc-ping.com) and inbound email.
  • NGINX handles rate limiting, static file serving, and reverse proxying to uWSGI and hchk.

SaaS Tools

  • AWS S3 for storing encrypted database backups.
  • Braintree for accepting payments and managing subscriptions.
  • Cloudflare for hosting DNS records.
  • Elastic Email for sending transactional email.
  • Fastmail for sending and receiving support email.
  • GitHub for version control and tracking issues, and GitHub Actions for running tests on every commit.
  • Hardypress for blog.healthchecks.io (static WordPress blog as-a-service).
  • HetrixTools for uptime monitoring.
  • IcoMoon for authoring icon fonts.
  • pgDash for monitoring PostgreSQL servers. Here’s a blog post about setting it up.
  • PingPong for powering status.healthchecks.io (service status, incidents, planned downtimes, performance metrics).
  • SSLMate for provisioning certificates from command-line.
  • Syften for getting notifications when Healthchecks is mentioned on HN, Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere.
  • Twilio for sending SMS, WhatsApp and phone call notifications.

Cron Jobs

Healthchecks.io, the cron job monitoring service, uses cron jobs itself for the following periodic tasks:

  • Once a day, make a full database backup, encrypt it with gpg, and upload it to AWS S3.
  • Once a day, send “Your account is inactive and is about to be deleted” notifications to inactive users.
  • Once a day, send “Your subscription will renew on …” for annual subscriptions that are due in 1 month.

Bonus – Development and Deployment Setup

  • My main dev machine is a desktop PC with a single 27″ 1440p display.
  • Ubuntu 20.04, GNOME Shell.
  • Sublime Text for editing source code. A combination of meld, Sublime Merge and command-line git for working with git.
  • Yubikeys for signing git commits and logging into servers.
  • Fabric scripts for deploying code and running maintenance tasks on servers.
  • sops for storing secrets.
  • A dedicated laptop inside a dedicated backpack, for dealing with emergencies while away from the main PC.

Comments, questions, ideas? Let me know via email or on Twitter!

How to Send Email From Cron Jobs

Let’s say you are writing a shell script for a systems housekeeping task. Perhaps the script is uploading backups to a remote server, or it is cleaning up old data, or it is making a measurement and submitting it to a somebody else’s HTTP API. What is the least cumbersome way for the script to contact you in case of problems? Let’s say you want to be contacted via email – how to make it work?

Cron and MAILTO

If you run the script from cron, you can look into using cron’s MAILTO= option. You put a MAILTO=you@example.org line in your crontab, and, when a job fails, cron will send a notification to the specified address using system’s MTA. OK, then, what MTA to use?

sSMTP

sSMTP is a send-only MTA which hands off messages to an external SMTP server that you configure in /etc/ssmtp/ssmtp.conf. For example, you can create a dedicated Gmail address for sending notifications, and use it in ssmtp.conf like so:

Root=username@gmail.com
Mailhub=smtp.gmail.com:465
AuthUser=username@gmail.com
AuthPass=google-app-password-here
UseTLS=YES

Gmail-specific note: for the Gmail SMTP service to accept your credentials, you will need to set up and use an app password. To use app passwords in your Google account, you will also need to set up 2-step-verification. The app password must be guarded with the same care as your account’s main password, so putting it in ssmtp.conf is not ideal. This is why I would strongly recommend to use a separate Gmail account, not your main account, for this.

With sSMTP installed and configured, sSMTP will pass messages on to Gmail, and Gmail will deliver them to your inbox. This will make cron’s MAILTO option just work, and you can then also send messages from shell scripts using the mailx program:

echo "Hello world" | mailx -s "Subject goes here" you@example.org

Similar sSMTP alternatives are nullmailer and msmtp.

I used Gmail as example, but if you use a different email provider, it likely provides an SMTP interface as well. Transactional email services also typically provide an SMTP interface. For example, I’ve used sSMTP with Mailgun, and it works great. In short, sSMTP needs working SMTP credentials – it does not matter if they are from Fastmail, Zoho, AWS SES, Sendgrid, Mailjet or something else.

HTTP API

The transacional email services usually provide a HTTP API. Depending on the provider, the API can be so simple you can use it with a simple curl call. Here’s an example with the already mentioned Mailgun:

curl --user "api:your-api-key-here" \
     https://api.mailgun.net/v3/yourdomain.com/messages \
     -F from='sender@yourdomain.com' \
     -F to='you@example.org' \
     -F subject='Subject goes here' \
     -F text='Message body goes here'

The upside of this approach is you don’t need to install and configure anything on your server beforehand (assuming curl is preinstalled). One downside is you cannot use this method with cron’s MAILTO, as curl is not a MTA. But you can use this method just fine from scripts.

HTTP API is also easy to use from a Python script:

import os
import requests

def email(subject, text):
    url = "https://api.mailgun.net/v3/yourdomain.com/messages"
    auth = ("api", os.getenv("MAILGUN_KEY"))
    data = {
        "from": "sender@yourdomain.com",
        "to": "you@example.org",
        "subject": subject,
        "text": text,
    }

    requests.post(url, auth=auth, data=data)

Hosted Log Management Systems

Here, I’m thinking of systems like LogDNA and Papertrail. You configure your system’s syslog to ship system logs to your chosen log management system. In that system, you set up alerting rules like “alert me if this specific keyword appears in logs this many times in this long time window”. And that is all!

Logging to syslog from scripts is easy using the logger command:

logger Hello World!

As an example, here’s a notification I received from Papertrail a few days ago. It runs a saved search once per hour and sends a notification if the search produces any results:

Cron Monitoring Services

And here I am of course thinking of Healthchecks.io, but there are good alternatives too. The monitoring service provides an unique URL that the housekeeping script must request regularly. When an HTTP request from the script does not arrive on time, Healthchecks.io detects that and alerts you. This takes care of scenarios, where, for example, the server has been shut down, and so is unable to contact you by itself. Healthchecks.io offers a lot more features, but this is the basic idea.

Here’s an example notification I received from Healthchecks.io. My home router is pinging Healthchecks.io. When home connection goes down, I get an alert:

In summary:

  • sSMTP is a good choice for use in combination with cron’s MAILTO option
  • HTTP APIs are handy for sending emails from scripts, without needing to install or configure any additional software
  • Log management systems and cron job monitoring systems can send email notifications, but they specialize in specific tasks. Log management systems can notify you about patterns in log files, cron job monitoring systems can detect irregularities in the heartbeat signals sent by your background tasks.