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A Complete Guide to Managing Log Files with Logrotate

Ayooluwa Isaiah
Updated on May 4, 2023

Controlling the sizes of log files on a Linux server is crucial due to their continuous growth. As log files accumulate, they can consume valuable storage space, strain server resources, and cause performance and memory issues. To address this problem, log rotation is commonly employed. It involves renaming or compressing log files before they become too large, while also removing or archiving old logs to free up storage space. On most Linux distributions, the preferred tool for log rotation is the logrotate  program, which we will be focusing on in this tutorial.

By reading through this article, you will learn how to:

  • Examine and modify the Logrotate configuration, including both general and application-specific settings.
  • Create Logrotate configurations for a custom application or service.
  • Choose the right log rotation strategy for your application.
  • Debug common log rotation problems.


Before proceeding with the rest of this tutorial, please ensure that you have:

  • A basic knowledge of working with the Linux command line.
  • A Linux server that includes the non-root user with sudo access. We'll be using Ubuntu 22.04 throughout in this guide but everything should work even if you're on some other distribution.
  • Prior knowledge of how to work with system log files on Linux.

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Why file-based logging matters

Sending your application logs to a file is the first step towards persisting them and making them available for historical analysis, auditing, and troubleshooting, although you'll likely want to aggregate them in the cloud to unlock the full potential of your log data.

Even when you've adopted a log management service like Logtail, we generally don't recommend sending the logs to the service directly from the application code for a few reasons:

  1. If a network connection or logging endpoint becomes temporarily unavailable, the application has to attempt resource-intensive retry logic to resume log streaming, which could impact overall performance.

  2. If there's a persistent outage, the logs could be dropped and lost forever which could impact the troubleshooting process, ability to comply with regulations, or even conduct security investigations.

Therefore, we recommend persisting your logs to a local file to provide some redundancy, then use a log forwarder like Vector  to transmit them to their final destination. This approach has a few notable advantages:

  1. It decouples the log generation process from the log transmission process. This separation of concerns allows the application to focus on its core functionality without being concerned about the intricacies of log transmission. It also simplifies application development and maintenance, as you can rely on the log forwarder to handle the complexities of log delivery.

  2. Log forwarders can typically aggregate logs from multiple sources, such as different applications or servers, into a centralized location and this flexibility allows you to adapt your log management infrastructure as your needs evolve, without requiring changes to individual applications.

  3. Log forwarders can handle network disruptions, retries, and buffering of log data so that the log data is delivered reliably even in the event of an extended outage.

  4. They can support different log formats and protocols, making it easier to send logs to multiple destinations or perform transformations on the log data.

The necessity of log rotation

Once you've started persisting your logs to local files, you'll need to implement a process for keeping individual files from becoming too large, and also a way to remove or archive older logs that are no longer needed to free up disk space.

When log files get too large, they become tedious to work with and searching for the records relevant to your current tasks can take a long time due to the large volume of records.

Therefore, implementing log rotation to spread the log data over several files and to remove older items is a must. It involves renaming log files on a predefined schedule or when the file reaches a predefined size. Once the specified condition is met, the log file is renamed to preserve its contents and make way for a new file.

Typically an auto incrementing number or timestamp is appended to the filename to indicate its time of rotation which is often helpful in narrowing down your search when investigating an issue that occurred on a specific date.

After the file is renamed, a new log file with the same name is created to capture the latest entries from the application or service. A cleanup process is also initiated to prevent an accumulation of rotated log files as older logs beyond a specified retention period are removed. This process repeats indefinitely as long as the log rotation mechanism is working.

Getting started with Logrotate

The logrotate daemon is pre-installed and active by default in Ubuntu and most mainstream Linux distributions. If Logrotate is not installed on your machine, ensure to install it first through your distribution's package manager.

logrotate --version
logrotate 3.19.0

    Default mail command:       /usr/bin/mail
    Default compress command:   /bin/gzip
    Default uncompress command: /bin/gunzip
    Default compress extension: .gz
    Default state file path:    /var/lib/logrotate/status
    ACL support:                yes
    SELinux support:            yes

The Logrotate daemon uses configuration files to specify all the log rotation details for an application. The default setup consists of the following aspects:

  • /etc/logrotate.conf: this is the main configuration file for the Logrotate utility. It defines the global settings and defaults for log rotation that are applied to all log files unless overridden by individual Logrotate configuration files in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory.
  • /etc/logrotate.d: this directory includes files that configure log rotation policies specific to the log files produced by a individual applications or services.

We will examine both configuration possibilities below.

The main Logrotate configuration

First off, let's view the main Logrotate configuration file at /etc/logrotate.conf. Go ahead and print its contents with the cat utility:

cat /etc/logrotate.conf

The command above prints the entire contents of this file:

# see "man logrotate" for details

# global options do not affect preceding include directives

# rotate log files weekly

# use the adm group by default, since this is the owning group
# of /var/log/syslog.
su root adm

# keep 4 weeks worth of backlogs
rotate 4

# create new (empty) log files after rotating old ones

# use date as a suffix of the rotated file

# uncomment this if you want your log files compressed

# packages drop log rotation information into this directory
include /etc/logrotate.d

# system-specific logs may also be configured here.

Here's a description of what each of the above configuration directives mean (lines that begin with # indicate a comment):

  • weekly: represents the frequency of log rotation. Alternatively, you can specify another time interval (hourly, daily, monthly, or yearly). Since the logrotate utility is typical run once per day, you may need to change this configuration if a if a shorter rotation frequency than daily is desired (see below).
  • su root adm: log rotation is performed with the root user and admin group. By using this directive, you can ensure that the rotated log files are owned by a specific user and group, which can be useful for access control and permissions management. This is particularly relevant when the log files need to be accessed or managed by a specific user or group with appropriate privileges.
  • rotate 4: log files are rotated four times before old ones are removed. If rotate is set to zero, then the old versions are removed immediately and not rotated. If it is set to -1, the older logs will not be remove at all except if affected by maxage.
  • create: immediately after rotation, create a new log file with the same name as the one just rotated.
  • dateext: if this option is enabled, rotated log files will be renamed by appending a date to their filenames, allowing for better organization and differentiation of log files based on the date of rotation (especially when the frequency of rotation is daily or greater). The default scheme for rotated files is logname.1, logname.2, and so on, but enabling this option changes it to logname.YYYYMMDD. You can change the date format through the dateformat and dateyesterday directives.
  • compress: this rule determines whether old log files should be compressed (using gzip by default) or not. Log compression is turned off by default but you can enable it to save on disk space.
  • include: this directive is used to include additional configuration files or snippets. It allows you to modularize and organize your Logrotate configuration by splitting it into multiple files. In this case, the files in the /etc/logrotate.d directory have been included in the configuration.

As noted earlier, the /etc/logrotate.conf file serves as a global configuration file for Logrotate, providing default settings and options for log rotation across the system. It sets the stage for log rotation but can be extended or overridden by the configuration files in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory which typically configure the rotation policy for specific application logs.

Application-specific configuration

Next, let's view the contents of the /etc/logrotate.d directory. It typically contains additional Logrotate configuration files for various applications or services installed on your machine:

ls /etc/logrotate.d/
alternatives  apt      btmp  rsyslog                 ufw                  wtmp
apport        bootlog  dpkg  ubuntu-advantage-tools  unattended-upgrades

You will observe that quite a few programs have their log rotation configuration in this directory. Each configuration file within /etc/logrotate.d/ focuses on a particular application or log file set, specifying the log file path, rotation frequency, compression settings, and any additional directives necessary for managing the logs of that specific application or service.

Having separate configuration files in this directory allows for easy customization and maintenance of log rotation settings for individual applications or services without affecting other log files. For example, let's take a look at the config file for the Rsyslog utility through the cat command:

cat /etc/logrotate.d/rsyslog

You'll see the program's output appear on the screen:

        rotate 4

The above configuration specifies the rotation rules for several log files located in the /var/log/ directory. It also includes the following directives in addition to the ones we examined in the previous section:

  • missingok: continue log rotation without reporting any error if any of the specified log files are missing.
  • notifempty: ensures that log files are not rotated if they are empty. If a log file is empty, it won't trigger rotation.
  • delaycompress: delays compression of the rotated log files until the next rotation cycle. This allows for the previous log file to be available for analysis before compression.
  • sharedscripts: ensures that the commands or scripts specified in the prerotate or postrotate directive are executed only once, regardless of the number of log files being rotated. By default, logrotate executes the commands/scripts separately for each log file being rotated.
  • postrotate and endscript: encloses the commands or scripts to be executed after log rotation. In this case, the /usr/lib/rsyslog/rsyslog-rotate script is executed after a successful rotation. It sends the SIGHUP signal to the Rsyslog service so that it can close and reopen the log file for writing.

Overall, this configuration ensures that the specified log files are rotated weekly, compressed, and limited to a maximum of 4 rotated log files. It also includes additional directives for handling missing or empty log files and executes a post-rotation script specific to Rsyslog.

Other useful directives to note include:

  • size: specifies the maximum size in bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, or gigabytes that a log file can reach before rotation is initiated. This causes the default schedule to be ignored if as long as size is specified after the time directive (hourly, daily, etc).
/var/log/myapp.log {
size 10M
. . . }

In this example, Logrotate will trigger rotation when myapp.log reaches 10 megabytes in size. Once the size threshold is crossed, rotation will be initiated regardless of the time schedule (daily in this case).

  • minsize: the log files are rotated according to the specified time schedule, but not before the specified size is reached. Therefore, when minsize is used, both file size and timestamp are considered to determine if the file should be rotated.
/var/log/myapp.log {
minsize 10M
. . . }

When using minsize, rotation will not occur until the file reaches a minimum of 10 megabytes even if the daily schedule is met.

  • maxsize: specifies that the log files are rotated once they exceed the stated file size, even when the time interval has not yet been reached.
/var/log/myapp.log {
maxsize 10M
. . . }

In this snippet, rotation will occur when a size of 10 megabytes is reached. Otherwise, it will rotate weekly.

Choosing the appropriate log rotation strategy

Logrotate offers two directives that specify how the log rotation should be handled: create and copytruncate. The former is the default, and its works by renaming a log file (say myapp.log) to myapp.log.1, before creating a new myapp.log file will be created to continue logging.


/var/log/myapp.log {
    rotate 7
. . . }

In copytruncate mode, the myapp.log file is copied to a new myapp.log.1 file, then the original file is emptied (truncated), allowing the application to continue writing to it as if it were a new file. This mode is useful if your application or process does not handle log file rotation gracefully by automatically switching to the new log file after rotation.


/var/log/myapp.log {
    rotate 7
. . . }

It's worth noting that while copytruncate avoids interrupting the logging process, it may cause a brief period of log loss during the rotation process since the original file is truncated. However, this is usually acceptable for applications that don't rely on continuous log analysis and can tolerate occasional gaps in the logs.

Configuring log rotation for a custom application

So far, we've seen how Logrotate can be used to manage the log files for system services and pre-installed utilities on your Linux server. Now, let's look at how to do the same thing for custom applications or services that you've deployed to the server.

To simulate an application that writes logs continuously to a file, create the following bash script somewhere on your filesystem. It writes fictional but realistic-looking log records to a file every second:


# Function to generate a random log record
generate_log_record() {
    local loglevel=("INFO" "WARNING" "ERROR")
    local services=("web" "database" "app" "network")
    local timestamps=$(date +"%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S")
    local random_level=${loglevel[$RANDOM % ${#loglevel[@]}]}
    local random_service=${services[$RANDOM % ${#services[@]}]}
    local message="This is a sample log record for ${random_service} service."

    echo "${timestamps} [${random_level}] ${message}"

# Main loop to write log records every second
while true; do
    echo "${log_record}" >> "${logfile}"
    sleep 1

Save the file, then make it executable:

chmod +x

Afterward, create the /var/log/logify directory using elevated privileges, then change the ownership of the directory to your user so that the script can write files to the directory:

sudo mkdir /var/log/logify
sudo chown -R $USER:$USER /var/log/logify/

You can now execute the script and it should begin to write the logs to the file every second:

cat /var/log/logify/log_records.log
2023-04-29 08:07:25 [WARNING] This is a sample log record for database service.
2023-04-29 08:07:26 [ERROR] This is a sample log record for app service.
2023-04-29 08:07:27 [INFO] This is a sample log record for app service.
2023-04-29 08:07:28 [ERROR] This is a sample log record for app service.
2023-04-29 08:07:29 [INFO] This is a sample log record for database service.
2023-04-29 08:07:31 [ERROR] This is a sample log record for web service.
2023-04-29 08:07:32 [INFO] This is a sample log record for network service.
2023-04-29 08:07:33 [INFO] This is a sample log record for network service.
. . .

At this stage, you must set up a log rotation policy to prevent the log_records.log file from growing too large and taking up valuable disk space on the server. There are two main options for doing this:

  1. Create a new Logrotate configuration file and place it in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory to perform log rotation according to the system's default schedule (it runs once per day by default but you can change it.

  2. Create the configuration file that is independent of the system's Logrotate schedule and execute Logrotate at your preferred pace using through a cronjob.

Creating a standard Logrotate configuration

In this section, you will create a standard configuration file for your application logs and place it in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory. Go ahead and create a new logify file in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory with your text editor:

sudo nano /etc/logrotate.d/logify

Add the following text to the file:

    rotate 7

The configuration above applies to all the files ending with .log in the /var/log/logify/ directory. We've already discussed what each directive here does earlier, so we won't go over that again here.

Save the file and test the new configuration by executing the command below. The --debug option instructs logrotate to operate in test mode where only debug messages are printed.

sudo logrotate /etc/logrotate.conf --debug

You should spot an entry for the logify configuration that looks similar to what is displayed below:

. . .

rotating pattern: /var/log/logify/*.log
 after 1 days (7 rotations)
empty log files are not rotated, old logs are removed
considering log /var/log/logify/log_records.log
Creating new state
  Now: 2023-04-29 10:35
  Last rotated at 2023-04-29 10:00
  log does not need rotating (log has already been rotated)

. . .

The above output indicates that the configuration file at /etc/logrotate.d/logify has been found by the logrotate program. Therefore, the log files specified therein will now be rotated according to the defined policy along with the other system and application logs.

If you want to test that the log rotation works without without waiting for the specified schedule, you can use the -f/--force option like this:

sudo logrotate -f /etc/logrotate.d/logify

You will observe that the old log file was renamed and compressed and a new one was created:

ls /var/log/logify/
log_records.log  log_records.log.1.gz

Another way to verify if a particular log file is rotating or not, and to check the last date and time of its rotation, examine the /var/lib/logrotate/status file (or /var/lib/logrotate/logrotate.status on Red Hat systems) like this:

sudo cat /var/lib/logrotate/status | grep 'logify'
"/var/log/logify/log_records.log" 2023-4-29-10:39:50

Creating a system-independent Logrotate configuration

As mentioned earlier, a system-independent Logrotate configuration is one that is not run on the default system schedule. Such a configuration will not be included in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory. Instead, you place the file in some other directory and create a cron job that will execute Logrotate with the configuration file at custom time interval.

Change into your home directory, and create a logify directory therein:

cd ~
mkdir logify

Next, edit your script and change the logfile variable to the following:


Afterward, rerun the script so that the logs are now written to the ~/logify directory:


To create a system-independent Logrotate configuration for these logs, you must create your configuration file outside of /etc/logrotate.d/. Therefore, go ahead and create a logrotate.conf file within the ~/logify directory:

nano ~/logify/logrotate.conf

Populate the file with the following contents:

    rotate 7

This configuration is the same as in the previous section, except that daily has been changed to hourly so that the log files are rotated every hour instead of once per day.

You also need to create a Logrotate state file which stores information such as the last rotation date and time, the number of rotations performed, and other relevant details. This allows Logrotate to accurately perform rotations and prevent unnecessary rotations when they are not required.

In the default Logrotate setup, the state file is located in the /var/lib/logrotate/ directory. However, we will create a custom one through the command below:

logrotate ~/logify/logrotate.conf --state ~/logify/logrotate.state

The --state option tells logrotate to use an alternative state file located at ~/logify/logrotate.state. The logrotate command will create this file if it doesn't already exist, and you can view its content with cat:

cat /home/<user>/logify/logrotate.state

You'll see the program's output appear on the screen:

logrotate state -- version 2
"/home/<user>/logify/log_records.log" 2023-4-29-20:0:0

The output indicates that Logrotate identified the relevant log file and when it last considered them for rotation. The next step here is to set up a cron job to execute the logrotate file at your desired frequency (hourly in this case).

Go ahead and open the cron jobs configuration file by executing crontab -e in your terminal:

crontab -e

The -e option is used to edit the current user's cron jobs using the editor specified by the $VISUAL or $EDITOR environmental variables. The above command should open a configuration file in your preferred text editor specified by one of these variables.

At the bottom of the file, add the following line:

0 * * * * /usr/sbin/logrotate /home/<user>/logify/logrotate.conf --state /home/<user>/logify/logrotate.state

This new line specifies that the cron job will be executed every hour (at minute 0), and the logrotate command will run with your custom configuration and state file. The full path of the logrotate binary is used here just to be safe.

Save and close the modified file. You will observe the following output:

crontab: installing new crontab

Now that your log rotation policy is all set up, you can view the ~/logify directory after an hour to confirm that the log file therein are rotated according to the defined policy. For more details about cron jobs see the following tutorial or type man cron in your terminal.

Changing the system Logrotate schedule

As mentioned earlier, when using the default system configuration, Logrotate only runs once per day which means using the hourly option in a configuration will be ineffective. However, you can modify this behaviour by changing the location of the script that runs Logrotate. On Ubuntu, its located at /etc/cron.daily/logrotate which indicates that the script is run once per day by the system's daily cronjob. If you want to change the schedule to hourly, move the script to the /etc/cron.hourly/ directory using the command below:c

sudo mv /etc/cron.daily/logrotate /etc/cron.hourly

Afterward, the script should be executed by the system's hourly cronjob so that the hourly option works normally henceforth.

Running commands or scripts before or after log rotation

Logrotate provides the ability to run arbitrary commands or scripts before and after log rotation through the prerotate and postrotate directives. As their names implies, the former executes commands or scripts before log rotation while the latter does the same thing after log rotation. Both directives are closed using the endscript directive.

You can use prerotate to perform any necessary preparations or actions required prior to the rotation, while postrotate should be used to perform tasks such as restarting services, notifying stakeholders, or further processing of the rotated log files.

For example, you can monitor your log rotation configuration by pinging a monitoring service like Better Uptime  so that if the rotation does not execute as scheduled, you'll get an alert to investigate the problem further.

Screenshot from 2023-04-29 21-30-43.png

    rotate 7

In this example, postrotate is used to report that the log rotation was successful according to the defined schedule. If this report is not received within the expected period, an incident will be created and you will receive notifications at the configured channels (such as Email, Slack, SMS, etc). Its always a good idea to set up such monitoring so that if there's an issue with the rotation, you catch and fix it quickly before it causes more severe problems.

Note that postrotate commands or scripts are only executed when at least one file that matches the specified pattern was rotated. The sharedscripts directive above is used to specify that the commands in prerotate and postrotate blocks should be run only once no matter how many log files were rotated. Normally, the commands are run once per rotated log file which is not ideal in this scenario.

Screenshot from 2023-04-29 21-45-25.png

If prerotate or postrotate commands or scripts are not executing as expected, ensure that they have the correct permissions and are executable. You can use the chmod +x command to make the scripts or binaries executable where applicable. Additionally, double-check that the paths to the scripts are accurate and that any dependencies required by the scripts are installed.

Modifying Logrotate access permissions

As seen earlier in /etc/logrotate.conf, Logrotate performs its duties with the privileges of the root user and the adm group. This allows the tool to perform the log rotation operation with elevated permissions, typically required to access and manage system logs.

This also means that newly created log files by the tool will be owned by the root user and group, but this may sometimes prevent the application or service producing the logs from being able to access the file. In such situations, you need to modify your settings to ensure that the right access permissions are set on the file.

Hence, the create directive provides a few additional options:

create 644 <user> <group>

In this example, when Logrotate creates a new log file (myapp.log) after rotation, it will set the file permissions to 644 (read-write for the owner, and read-only for the group and others). The file will be owned by myuser and assigned to mygroup.

Debugging Logrotate problems

You need to ensure that the Logrotate utility is running correctly at all times so that your scheduled log rotation tasks are executed as expected. If log files are not rotating as expected, it could be due to incorrect configuration or permissions issues.

To fix such problems, first check the Logrotate status file at /var/lib/logrotate/status to ensure that the log file is indeed included in the rotation schedule and to confirm when it was last rotated.

sudo cat /var/lib/logrotate/status

If a pattern that matches the log file is not included here, you may need to verify if a corresponding configuration file for the application or service is present in the /etc/logrotate.d/ directory.

The logrotate command also provides a helpful -d/--debug option to test and debug configuration issues by simulating log rotation without actually rotating the logs. For example, if you notice that the rotated logs are not being compressed and you run logrotate in debug mode, you may observe the following output indicating that the compress directive was misspelled:

sudo logrotate /etc/logrotate.d/logify --debug
. . .
reading config file /etc/logrotate.d/logify
error: /etc/logrotate.d/logify:7 unknown option 'compresss' -- ignoring line
. . .

Another useful option is -v/--verbose which provides detailed output and information about the log rotation process. When enabled, Logrotate displays additional messages, including the files being rotated, the actions taken, and any errors or warnings encountered during the rotation.

If you're running logrotate through a cronjob, you can specify the --verbose option and redirect its standard output and standard error to a file using the syntax below:

0 * * * * /usr/sbin/logrotate -v /home/<user>/logify/logrotate.conf --state /home/<user>/logify/logrotate.state >> </path/to/logrotate.log> 2>&1

For the system cronjob, you must edit the logrotate script that's located in /etc/cron.daily/ by default. Note that when enabling verbose mode here, it'll include information about all logs being rotated on the system which can be pretty huge and mostly irrelevant. We recommend using the cron method shown above if you only care about the logs for a specific service or application.


# skip in favour of systemd timer
if [ -d /run/systemd/system ]; then
    exit 0

# this cronjob persists removals (but not purges)
if [ ! -x /usr/sbin/logrotate ]; then
    exit 0

/usr/sbin/logrotate -v /etc/logrotate.conf >> </path/to/logrotate.log> 2>&1
EXITVALUE=$? if [ $EXITVALUE != 0 ]; then /usr/bin/logger -t logrotate "ALERT exited abnormally with [$EXITVALUE]" fi exit $EXITVALUE ~

The next time Logrotate executes, the logrotate.log file will be created in the specified directory and you'll find all the details of the log rotation. Here's some example output from a successful rotation attempt:

reading config file /home/betterstack/logify/logrotate.conf
acquired lock on state file /home/betterstack/logify/logrotate.stateReading state from file: /home/betterstack/logify/logrotate.state
Allocating hash table for state file, size 64 entries
Creating new state
Creating new state
Creating new state
Creating new state

Handling 1 logs

rotating pattern: /home/betterstack/logify/*.log
 forced from command line (7 rotations)
empty log files are not rotated, old logs are removed
considering log /home/betterstack/logify/log_records.log
  Now: 2023-04-30 09:19
  Last rotated at 2023-04-30 09:19
  log needs rotating
considering log /home/betterstack/logify/logrotate.log
  Now: 2023-04-30 09:19
  Last rotated at 2023-04-30 09:00
  log does not need rotating (log is empty)
rotating log /home/betterstack/logify/log_records.log, log->rotateCount is 7
dateext suffix '-2023043009'

. . .

Screenshot from 2023-04-30 10-06-12.png

Once you're collecting Logrotate logs as above, you can forward them to Logtail so that you can easily search for key events and receive alerts when an error is encountered.

Screenshot from 2023-04-30 10-08-25.png

Final thoughts

In this tutorial, we explored log rotation in Linux and its implementation using the Logrotate program. We began by examining the configuration files and discussing key directives commonly encountered. We then created a standard Logrotate configuration for a custom application and then transitioned to a system-independent configuration, before discussing some common problems with Logrotate and how to troubleshoot them effectively.

To further expand your knowledge of Logrotate and explore its full capabilities, I encourage you to consult its manual page. Simply run man logrotate in your terminal to access the comprehensive documentation.

Thanks for reading, and happy logging!

Author's avatar
Article by
Ayooluwa Isaiah
Ayo is the Head of Content at Better Stack. His passion is simplifying and communicating complex technical ideas effectively. His work was featured on several esteemed publications including, Digital Ocean, and CSS-Tricks. When he’s not writing or coding, he loves to travel, bike, and play tennis.
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