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Java Logging Best Practices

10 Best Practices for Logging in Java

Author's avatar
Eric Hu
Updated on April 28, 2023

Logging is an integral and indispensable aspect of the software development process. It empowers developers to effectively monitor and troubleshoot applications by gathering and analyzing pertinent data. By identifying potential issues and bugs, logging plays a pivotal role in enhancing code quality and optimizing performance.

In this comprehensive tutorial, we will delve into the realm of best practices for creating a robust logging system specifically tailored for Java applications. By implementing these practices, you will be able to craft logs that are consistent, informative, and immensely valuable for critical tasks such as debugging, maintenance, and other essential purposes.

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Prerequisites

Before proceeding to the rest of this article, make sure you have JDK 20 installed on your computer, and we assume you are using Apache Maven as the build system. You should also understand the basics of logging in Java, including log levels, log rotation, and so on.

1. Choose a logging framework

Like many other programming languages, Java has built-in logging functionality provided by the java.util.logging package. However, even though it is effortless to set up and use, it only offers basic logging features, making it unsuitable for production-ready applications.

If you are building a large-scale application, you'll likely need a more robust logging solution, which should have the following features:

  • The framework should be able to log events in a structured format such as JSON, logfmt, and so on.
  • It should allow you to include contextual information that describes the logged event.
  • It should have a centralized configuration system that allows you to configure the logging system in one place without altering the application code.
  • Other features such as filtering, asynchronous logging, detailed documentation, good community support, and so on.

You get all of these features out of the box by using a third-party logging framework. And in the Java community, the two most popular options are Log4j and Logback.

log4j

Log4j is a powerful and flexible logging framework for Java applications. It provides a wide range of features, including log levels, various logging appenders, advanced logging configurations, and support for asynchronous logging. The framework has a modular architecture that allows developers to easily extend and customize its functionality, and it provides an intuitive API that makes it easy to integrate with other tools and frameworks.

Logback

Logback is a project created based on the old Log4j 1, as a result, they offer similar functionality. On top of that, Logback offers many improvements. It is known for its simplicity and ease of use, with a consistent API and configuration process that make it easy to integrate with other tools and frameworks. Additionally, Logback is highly performant, with a focus on efficiency and minimal resource usage. The framework is actively maintained and has a large user community, making it a reliable choice for logging in Java applications.

Overall, If you are looking for something simple and easy to use, you should go with Logback, and you if need a more feature-rich and extensible framework, then you should consider Log4j instead. In this tutorial, we are going to use Log4j as an example, as it is the more popular option.

2. Mask the logging framework with SLF4J

Many other tutorials refer to SLF4J as a logging framework, but that is not an accurate definition. It is not like Log4j or Logback, instead, it provides an interface that work on top of other logging frameworks, allowing developers to switch the underlying logging frameworks without having to change any code.

For example, you could set up Log4j to work with SLF4J. First, make sure you have the following dependencies in your pom.xml:

pom.xml
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<project xmlns="http://maven.apache.org/POM/4.0.0"
         xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance"
         xsi:schemaLocation="http://maven.apache.org/POM/4.0.0 http://maven.apache.org/xsd/maven-4.0.0.xsd">
    <modelVersion>4.0.0</modelVersion>

    <groupId>org.example</groupId>
    <artifactId>java-logging-slf4j-log4j</artifactId>
    <version>1.0-SNAPSHOT</version>

    <properties>
        <maven.compiler.source>20</maven.compiler.source>
        <maven.compiler.target>20</maven.compiler.target>
        <project.build.sourceEncoding>UTF-8</project.build.sourceEncoding>
    </properties>

<dependencies>
<dependency>
<groupId>org.apache.logging.log4j</groupId>
<artifactId>log4j-api</artifactId>
<version>2.20.0</version>
</dependency>
<dependency>
<groupId>org.apache.logging.log4j</groupId>
<artifactId>log4j-core</artifactId>
<version>2.20.0</version>
</dependency>
<dependency>
<groupId>org.apache.logging.log4j</groupId>
<artifactId>log4j-slf4j2-impl</artifactId>
<version>2.20.0</version>
</dependency>
</dependencies>
</project>

log4j-api and log4j-core are the main components of Log4j, and log4j-slf4j2-impl is Log4j's SLF4J binding, which allows SLF4J's API to use Log4j as its backend.

And then you could configure this logging system as you would with a standard Log4j setup.

log4j2.xml
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<Configuration status="WARN" monitorInterval="30">
    <Properties>
        <Property name="LOG_PATTERN">%d{yyyy-MM-dd HH:mm:ss} %-5p %c{1} - %m%n</Property>
    </Properties>

    <Appenders>
        <Console name="console" target="SYSTEM_OUT" follow="true">
            <PatternLayout pattern="${LOG_PATTERN}"/>
        </Console>
    </Appenders>

    <Loggers>
        <Root level="info">
            <AppenderRef ref="console"/>
        </Root>
    </Loggers>
</Configuration>

Lastly, use SLF4J's API to make a logging call instead of Log4j.

Main.java
package org.example;

import org.slf4j.Logger;
import org.slf4j.LoggerFactory;

public class Main {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        Logger logger = LoggerFactory.getLogger(Main.class);

        logger.info("Hello world!");

    }
}
Output
2023-04-13 16:46:09 INFO  Main - Hello world!

3. Use the most appropriate log level

The log level is a fundamental concept in logging, no matter which logging framework you use. It allows you to tag log records according to their severity or importance. SLF4J offers the following log levels by default:

  • TRACE: typically used to provide detailed diagnostic information that can be used for troubleshooting and debugging. Compare to DEBUG messages, TRACE messages are more fine-grained and verbose.
  • DEBUG: used to provide information that can be used to diagnose issues especially those related to program state.
  • INFO: used to record events that indicate that program is functioning normally.
  • WARN: used to record potential issues in your application. They may not be critical but should be investigated.
  • ERROR: records unexpected errors that occur during the operation of your application. In most cases, the error should be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further problems or outages.

You should always ensure you log the each messages with the appropriate log level. For example:

 
logger.trace("Entering method doSomething with parameters (param1=5, param2=10)");
logger.debug("Processing request for user ID 12345");
logger.info("user with ID '1234' just signed in");
logger.warn("Potential security vulnerability detected in user input: '...'");
logger.error("Failed to connect to database: java.sql.SQLException: Connection refused");
Output
2023-04-17 14:51:16 TRACE Main - Entering method doSomething with parameters (param1=5, param2=10)
2023-04-17 14:51:16 DEBUG Main - Processing request for user ID 12345
2023-04-17 14:51:16 INFO  Main - user with ID '1234' just signed in
2023-04-17 14:51:16 WARN  Main - Potential security vulnerability detected in user input: '...'
2023-04-17 14:51:16 ERROR Main - Failed to connect to database: java.sql.SQLException: Connection refused

You need to specify the most appropriate a minimum log level for the logger, so that you can limit the number of logs recorded in a particular environment. For example, you can default to INFO in production and DEBUG in development. To specify log levels in Log4j, open the configuration file (log4j2.xml) and configure it as shown below:

log4j2.xml
. . .
<Loggers>
    <Logger name="org.apache.test" level="trace" additivity="false">
        <AppenderRef ref="Out"/>
    </Logger>
<Root level="error">
<AppenderRef ref="Out"/> </Root> </Loggers>

This configuration defines two different loggers, org.apache.test and the default logger (Root), both using the Out appender. The logger org.apache.test has minimum log level trace, which means it will log all messages higher than or equal to trace. The Root logger has minimum log level error, meaning it will exclude messages with levels trace, debug, and info.

4. Log in a structured format

Plain text log message are easy for humans to read but not so much for machines . However, when running an application with a considerable number of logs, you'll definitely need to rely on machines to process them to allow for more efficient log processing and analysis workflows. Logging in a structured format, such as JSON, makes it easier for machines to process and analyze the log records.

Log4j offers a convenient feature that allows you to log in different formats, called layouts. It enables you to format the log records into CSV, JSON, XML, YAML, etc. The most commonly used format is JSON.

To log in JSON format using Log4j, make sure you include the jackson-databind dependency in your pom.xml file, and then create a new JsonLayout in the configuration:

log4j2.xml
. . .
<Appenders>
    <Console name="console" target="SYSTEM_OUT">
<JsonLayout></JsonLayout>
</Console> </Appenders> <Loggers> <Root level="TRACE"> <AppenderRef ref="console" /> </Root> </Loggers>

Now your log messages will be transformed into JSON format:

Output
{
    "instant" : {
        "epochSecond" : 1680549415,
        "nanoOfSecond" : 978810000
    },
    "thread" : "main",
    "level" : "INFO",
    "loggerName" : "org.example.Main",
    "message" : "A user just signed in.",
    "endOfBatch" : false,
    "loggerFqcn" : "org.apache.logging.log4j.spi.AbstractLogger",
    "threadId" : 1,
    "threadPriority" : 5
}

You can also use the JsonTemplateLayout instead, which allows you to specify a template that the JSON output should follow. Ensure you have the log4j-layout-template-json dependency in your pom.xml, then edit the configuration file:

log4j2.xml
. . .
<Appenders>
    <Console name="console" target="SYSTEM_OUT">
        <JsonTemplateLayout eventTemplateUri="classpath:EcsLayout.json"/>
    </Console>
</Appenders>

This example uses the Elastic Common Schema (ECS) specification, defined by the EcsLayout.json file:

EcsLayout.json
{
  "@timestamp": {
    "$resolver": "timestamp",
    "pattern": {
      "format": "yyyy-MM-dd'T'HH:mm:ss.SSS'Z'",
      "timeZone": "UTC"
    }
  },
  "ecs.version": "1.2.0",
  "log.level": {
    "$resolver": "level",
    "field": "name"
  },
  "message": {
    "$resolver": "message",
    "stringified": true
  },
  "process.thread.name": {
    "$resolver": "thread",
    "field": "name"
  },
  "log.logger": {
    "$resolver": "logger",
    "field": "name"
  },
  "labels": {
    "$resolver": "mdc",
    "flatten": true,
    "stringified": true
  },
  "tags": {
    "$resolver": "ndc"
  },
  "error.type": {
    "$resolver": "exception",
    "field": "className"
  },
  "error.message": {
    "$resolver": "exception",
    "field": "message"
  },
  "error.stack_trace": {
    "$resolver": "exception",
    "field": "stackTrace",
    "stackTrace": {
      "stringified": true
    }
  }
}

And it should give you the following output:

Output
{"@timestamp":"2023-04-03T21:55:37.102Z","ecs.version":"1.2.0","log.level":"INFO","message":"A user just signed in.","process.thread.name":"main","log.logger":"org.example.Main"}

5. Be descriptive and include contextual information

Another issue with our previous examples is that the message only contains simple text such as A user just signed in, which does not provide enough information about the user who signed in. In practice, you should always provide more contextual information to describe the event logged.

For example, with SLF4J, you could include the username using MDC (Mapped Diagnostic Context):

Main.java
package org.example;

import org.slf4j.Logger;
import org.slf4j.LoggerFactory;
import org.slf4j.MDC;
public class Main { public static void main(String[] args) { Logger logger = LoggerFactory.getLogger(Main.class);
MDC.put("username", "jack");
logger.info("A user just signed in.");
} }
Output
{"@timestamp":"2023-04-14T16:49:01.041Z","ecs.version":"1.2.0","log.level":"INFO","message":"A user just signed in.","process.thread.name":"main","log.logger":"org.example.Main","username":"jack"}

Notice that the username has been added to the end of the log entry. Note that the same context is added to all the logging calls in the current scope:

Main.java
package org.example;

import org.slf4j.Logger;
import org.slf4j.LoggerFactory;
import org.slf4j.MDC;

public class Main {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        Logger logger = LoggerFactory.getLogger(Main.class);

MDC.put("username1", "jack");
logger.info("A user just signed in."); logger.info("User created new document"); } }
Output
{"@timestamp":"2023-04-14T16:54:56.483Z","ecs.version":"1.2.0","log.level":"INFO","message":"A user just signed in.","process.thread.name":"main","log.logger":"org.example.Main","username":"jack"}
{"@timestamp":"2023-04-14T16:54:56.484Z","ecs.version":"1.2.0","log.level":"INFO","message":"User created new document","process.thread.name":"main","log.logger":"org.example.Main","username":"jack"}

If you want to clear the context, you must use the MDC.clear() method before the call to a logging method.

6. Forward the logs to the standard output

You may have noticed something called appender in both Log4j. Appenders allow you to push the logs to different destinations, such as the console, local files, databases, and so on. You can set up a logger with multiple appenders to forward the logs to different destinations. Here is an example:

log4j2.xml
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<Configuration status="WARN">
    <Appenders>
        <Console name="console" target="SYSTEM_OUT">
            <JsonTemplateLayout eventTemplateUri="classpath:EcsLayout.json"/>
        </Console>
        <File name="file" fileName="logs/app.log">
            . . .
        </File>
        <NoSql name="database">
            . . .
        </NoSql>
    </Appenders>
    <Loggers>
<Root level="TRACE">
<AppenderRef ref="console" />
<AppenderRef ref="file" />
<AppenderRef ref="database" />
</Root>
</Loggers> </Configuration>

You may configure this system however you wish, but in most cases, you should configure the loggers to log to the standard output.

log4j2.xml
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<Configuration status="WARN">
    <Appenders>
<Console name="console" target="SYSTEM_OUT">
<JsonTemplateLayout eventTemplateUri="classpath:EcsLayout.json"/>
</Console>
</Appenders> <Loggers> <Root level="TRACE">
<AppenderRef ref="console" />
[!highlight]
</Root>
</Loggers>
</Configuration>

There are many benefits to forwarding the logs to the standard output. It is usually the most straightforward method of setting up your logging system. The standard output is also the most accessible option, as you can use the terminal to check the logs in real-time.

And most importantly, logging to the console is the standard behavior for most logging tools and frameworks. For example, you can use the log routers such as Vector, LogStash, or Fluentd to collect the logs from the standard output, and then deliver them to other destinations for long-term storage or analysis.

7. Log as much as possible but avoid sensitive data

In a real-world scenario, different teams in your organization could use the logs for various purposes. For instance, the development team could use the logs to identify potential issues in the application, the operations team could use the logs to track the key performance indicators and monitor the health of your services, and the customer services team could use the logs to gain insights into user behavior and understand how users are interacting with the application.

As a result, you should always log as many events as possible when logging in your Java application and always log for more than debugging and troubleshooting purposes. Some examples include:

  • Administrative activities include user sign in, sign out, registration, and deletion.
  • A user has granted (or denied) access to a resource.
  • Resource creation, modification, or deletion.
  • Performance metrics such as response time, resource utilization, etc.
  • High-risk activities such as failed login attempts, unauthorized data access, changes to security policies, and so on.

However, even though you should be as thorough as possible when logging, that doesn't mean you should log everything. Some sensitive information could lead to security issues, such as passwords, the user's real name, address, credit card numbers, and so on.

Using Log4j, you can programmatically mask sensitive information in your log messages with the following steps:

  • Define a custom field in your JSON layout file (EcsLayout.json in our example):
EcsLayout.json
  {
    . . .
    "password": "${json:MaskingJsonMessage@mdc:password}"
  }

This example will find the password field in your MDC, and then mask it with the MaskingJsonMessage class.

  • Define your MaskingJsonMessage class like this:
MaskingJsonMessage.java
  import org.apache.logging.log4j.core.LogEvent;
  import org.apache.logging.log4j.core.config.plugins.Plugin;
  import org.apache.logging.log4j.core.layout.JsonLayout;

  @Plugin(name = "MaskingJsonMessage", category = "Core", elementType = "message", printObject = true)
  public class MaskingJsonMessage extends JsonLayout {

      private static final String PASSWORD_FIELD_NAME = "password";

      @Override
      public String getFormattedMessage(LogEvent event) {
          String json = super.getFormattedMessage(event);
          return maskPassword(json);
      }

      private String maskPassword(String json) {
          // Mask password field with placeholder
          return json.replaceAll("\"" + PASSWORD_FIELD_NAME + "\":\".*?\"", "\"" + PASSWORD_FIELD_NAME + "\":\"********\"");
      }
  }

This class overwrites the default getFormattedMessage() method, and masks the password field by replacing its value with ********.

  • Make sure you are using the right layout file in your log4j2.xml.
log4j2.xml
  . . .
  <Console name="Console" target="SYSTEM_OUT">
      <JsonTemplateLayout eventTemplateUri="classpath:EcsLayout.json"/>
  </Console>
  • Finally start logging in your application, and the password will be masked this time:
Main.java
  package org.example;

  import org.slf4j.Logger;
  import org.slf4j.LoggerFactory;
  import org.slf4j.MDC;

  public class Main {
      public static void main(String[] args) {

          Logger logger = LoggerFactory.getLogger(Main.class);

          MDC.put("username", "jack");
          MDC.put("password", "12345");
          logger.info("New user created.");

      }
  }

8. Configure the logging framework to avoid performance issues

Logging as many activities as possible may also have a negative impact on the performance of your application and services. For example, it could slow down the application's response time and, as a result, affect the user experience. But luckily, there are ways to remedy that.

For instance, you could up asynchronous logging for your application, which allows frameworks to execute I/O operations in a separate thread so that the logging call will not affect the application's response time.

With synchronous logging, the application thread will generate the log message, and then wait to push the message to its destination before it can continue executing. This can slow down the application, particularly if the logging operation takes a long time to complete.

Asynchronous logging, on the other hand, will utilize a separate thread to push the log message, so that the application thread could continue executing without waiting. This can help reducing the impact of logging on the performance of your application, particularly in high-traffic environments where a large number of log messages are generated.

But of course, nothing is perfect. Asynchronous logging does have several downsides, such as increased memory usage, as the log messages will need to stay in memory before the second thread picks them up. Async logging could also lead to wrong log message ordering, which could make it more difficult to debug issues that span multiple log messages. And there is also the risk of data loss, if the system crashed before log messages are pushed to its destination for long-term storage, the messages that are still in memory could be lost.

To set up asynchronous logging with Log4j, you can convert all existing loggers to asynchronous loggers by setting either one of the following system properties:

 
log4j2.contextSelector=org.apache.logging.log4j.core.async.AsyncLoggerContextSelector
 
log4j2.contextSelector=org.apache.logging.log4j.core.async.BasicAsyncLoggerContextSelector

Or if you only want selected loggers to be asynchronous, use the <asyncRoot> or <asyncLogger> configuration elements:

log4j2.xml
. . .
<Loggers>
    <AsyncLogger name="com.foo.Bar" level="trace" includeLocation="true">
        <AppenderRef ref="Console"/>
    </AsyncLogger>
    <Root level="info" includeLocation="true">
        <AppenderRef ref="Console"/>
    </Root>
</Loggers>

Besides asynchronous logging, Log4j also comes with a feature called Garbage-free logging. Most logging frameworks allocate temporary objects during logging, which puts pressure on the garbage collector. By enabling the garbage-free mode, Log4j will reuse the objects and buffers and allocate as few temporary objects as possible.

The garbage-free logging can be enabled by setting the following system properties:

First, make sure objects are created in ThreadLocal and reused.

 
log4j2.enableThreadlocals=true

Ensure log events are converted to texts and then to bytes without creating objects.

 
log4j2.enableDirectEncoders=true

Enable garbage-free mode for the ThreadContext map.

 
log4j2.garbagefreeThreadContextMap=true

9. Utilize the exception-handling mechanism

Exception handling is perhaps the most common use case for logging. When logging exceptions, you should always log the full stack trace, so that the log entry includes enough information to let you know where the exception happened. Here is an example of how to log exceptions using Log4j:

Main.java
package org.example;

import org.slf4j.Logger;
import org.slf4j.LoggerFactory;
import org.slf4j.MDC;

public class Main {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        Logger logger = LoggerFactory.getLogger(Main.class);

        try
        {
            // do something here that might throw an exception
            int[] myNumbers = {1, 2, 3};
            System.out.println(myNumbers[10]);
        }
        catch (Exception e)
        {
            logger.error("An exception has been caught.", e);
        }
    }
}
Output
{"@timestamp":"2023-04-19T19:22:45.516Z","ecs.version":"1.2.0","log.level":"ERROR","message":"An exception has been caught.","process.thread.name":"main","log.logger":"org.example.Main","error.type":"java.lang.ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException","error.message":"Index 10 out of bounds for length 3","error.stack_trace":"java.lang.ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException: Index 10 out of bounds for length 3\n\tat org.example.Main.main(Main.java:19)\n"}

This example contains detailed information regarding the error, such as the type of the error, the error message, as well as the location of the error in your code.

10. Centralize your logs in one place

When you are managing a relatively smaller application consisting of one or two servers, you can log on to each of them to check the logs. However, when your application starts to scale, checking the logs for each server will become tedious. The most common way to fix this problem is by aggregating and centralizing your logs and managing them using a log management service.

Logtail is a cloud-based log management tool that enables users to collect, monitor, and analyze log data from various sources in real time. It offers a centralized platform for managing log data and provides powerful search, filtering, and alerting capabilities.

Logtail

🔭 Want to centralize and monitor your Java logs?

Head over to Logtail and start ingesting your logs in 5 minutes.

With Logtail, you can easily collect and analyze log data from various sources, including servers, applications, containers, and cloud platforms. In addition, it offers integrations with popular services like AWS, Google Cloud, Docker, Kubernetes, and many others.

Centralizing your logs using a log management service such as Logtail can help you streamline your log management processes, improve troubleshooting and monitoring capabilities, and enhance your overall application performance and security.

To get started with Logtail, simply register an account, create a new source, and follow the instructions to connect Logtail to your Java project. You can, of course, use an appender to push the logs directly to Logtail, but the more standard approach is to continue sending the log entries to the standard output, and then use Vector to collect and redirect them to Logtail. Once the logs start streaming, you should see them on the Live tail page.

One major benefit of using a log management solution such as Logtail is that you can easily set up a monitoring and alerting system. To set up alerting with Logtail, go to the Live tail page, and create a new view.

New view

Give the new view a name and click Save view.

Save view

Next, go to Alerts, and create a new alert based on the view you just saved.

New alert

Logtail allows you to set up alerts based on the number of logs received in the specified time frame. In this example, Logtail will push an alert to the selected team members if more than 10 lines of logs are received in one minute.

logtail alert

Final thoughts

In this tutorial, we covered some best practice guidelines that you should follow to help you create a comprehensive and effective logging system for your Java application. We hope this article can help you create more robust and reliable applications.

To dig deeper into the subject of logging, please take a look at our articles on how to choose the right framework for your application, what is log aggregation, as well as a detailed tutorial on how to start logging with Log4j.

Thanks for reading, and happy logging!

Author's avatar
Article by
Eric Hu
Eric is a technical writer with a passion for writing and coding, mainly in Python and PHP. He loves transforming complex technical concepts into accessible content, solidifying understanding while sharing his own perspective. He wishes his content can be of assistance to as many people as possible.
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