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Why Structured Logging is Fundamental to Observability

Ayooluwa Isaiah
Updated on June 18, 2024

Logging is an age-old practice in software development that dates back to the early days of computing. It is the process of recording events, errors, and other noteworthy occurrences within a software system.

Traditionally, these records have been unstructured blobs of text primarily intended for human consumption. But as software systems grew in complexity and scale, the limitations of using unstructured text data for automated analysis became increasingly apparent.

If you aim to achieve observability with unstructured logs, you're in for a rough ride. But such logs can be immensely valuable when redesigned as machine-parsable structured data.

The rest of this article will help you learn how to effectively transition your logging strategy to structured logs, paving the way to meeting your observability targets.

A brief history of logging

Logging originated as a basic debugging tool, with programmers embedding print statements within their code to track program execution and identify errors. As operating systems matured, built-in logging mechanisms like Syslog emerged to establish a standard for system message logging.

With the rise of personal computers and complex software, application logging frameworks emerged as languages like C and Java integrated standard logging facilities to ensure consistent and portable logging practices.

The advent of the internet and web services brought a new wave of challenges, necessitating advanced logging techniques that led to the emergence of popular frameworks like Log4j and the Python logging module in this era.

As server numbers grew, so did the volume of log data and the complexity of understanding system-wide events. Companies like Splunk and LogRhythm (both formed in 2003) pioneered solutions to manage and analyze this sprawling data, and their tooling was unmatched at the time.

The rise of cloud computing in the late 2000s to the present day intensified the data deluge, demanding even more robust logging tools. The industry is also shifting towards observability, a holistic approach that encompasses not just logs, but also metrics, distributed traces, and other signals to untangle complex service interactions.

Why traditional logs hinder observability


Traditional logs are often unstructured or semi-structured, consisting of plain text messages with limited consistency in format or content. This is because they were designed to be read by humans, not machines.

2024-06-17T08:55:00Z [INFO]  User 'user123' logged in from
2024-06-17T08:55:01Z [ERROR] Database connection failed: Connection refused

While this approach might have been adequate for simpler systems, where a handful of services logged to local files and manual inspection via SSH was feasible, it crumbles under the weight of modern, cloud-based architectures where log data volume is no longer human scale.

Searching and analyzing millions of unstructured logs typically requires manual effort or complex parsing scripts, which are time-consuming, error-prone, and not scalable. It's also a misuse of your analytical skills which could be better spent understanding system behavior through the logs.

Your first step toward achieving observability is making your logs easy to query, filter, and visualize, and the solution lies in generating structured log data that's designed for computers first rather than for humans.

Let's explore how this works next.

What is structured logging?

Structured logging involves recording log events in a well-defined, machine-readable format such as JSON. Instead of writing log messages as plain text, log data is organized into key-value pairs, making it easier to search, filter, and analyze.

From the preceding section, the structured versions might instead look like this:

  "timestamp": "2024-06-17T08:55:00Z",
  "level": "INFO",
  "message": "User 'user123' logged in",
  "user": "user123",
  "ip_address": ""
  "timestamp": "2024-06-17T08:55:01Z",
  "level": "ERROR",
  "message": "Database connection failed",
  "error": {
    "code": "DB_CONNECT_ERROR",
    "message": "Connection refused"

From the examples above, you can see some of the key characteristics of structured logs which include the following:

  1. A machine-readable format: Structured logs utilize standard data formats like JSON, which is easily parsed and interpreted by machines to facilitate automated processing and analysis.

  2. Key-value pairs: The log data is organized into key-value pairs, where each key represents a specific attribute (e.g., timestamp, level, message), and the value represents the corresponding data.

  3. Contextual information: Structured logs often include additional context about the event being captured or work being performed to help correlate logs across different services.

  4. Hierarchical structure: Nested key/value pairs can represent complex data structures or relationships, allowing for more detailed and informative logging.

Why structured logging is required for observability

Imagine wandering into a public library with millions of books with no discernible order to the shelves, no Dewey Decimal system, no alphabetization, and no helpful librarian. Finding a specific title would be an extremely time-consuming process that would be prohibitive for most people. Libraries have developed systems of organization precisely because chaos hinders discovery.

The same principle applies to log data. Modern software systems have grown to a complexity far beyond what the human mind can quickly grasp. With countless interacting components and a deluge of events happening every second, a massive volume of logs is being produced and streamed to centralized data stores.

While modern log management systems can easily aggregate millions of log entries from diverse sources, the challenge lies in extracting meaningful information from this unstructured mass of data.

Log parsing

Traditional approaches often involve complex parsing algorithms that attempt to split and categorize log data into meaningful chunks. However, the lack of standardization across different sources and the sheer variety of potential log formats make this a cumbersome and error-prone process.

Consider a scenario where your application is experiencing a sudden surge in failed login attempts. To understand the issue, you'd need to craft a query that isolates the relevant log records so that you can examine them more closely.

For instance, you might want to search for records where the error message contains "invalid username or password", and quickly group them by IP address to identify potential brute-force attacks, or by the username to see if a specific account is being targeted.

Structured logging allows you to construct such targeted queries easily since each log entry is consistently formatted with clearly defined fields. If your logs include fields like event, ip_address, username, and timestamp, you can quickly filter the data to identify patterns and correlations that would otherwise be difficult to uncover when relevant information is buried in an unorganized mass of text.

Linux Authentication Logs in Better Stack

Just as a well-organized library facilitates learning and discovery, structured logging unlocks the potential of log data by allowing you to dissect it from numerous angles to isolate relevant events, and ultimately uncover the root cause of issues with surgical precision.

How to structure your logs

Getting started with structured logging can seem daunting if you've never done it before, but breaking it down into clear steps makes the process more manageable.

In summary, here's what you need to do:

  1. Choose a machine-parsable log format.
  2. Adopt a structured logging framework.
  3. Configure your log sources.
  4. Transform unstructured logs into structured data.
  5. Define a log schema.
  6. Normalize your log data.

Let's dig deeper into some of the finer details of each step so that you'll be well-equipped to structure your logs effectively and unlock their full potential.

1. Choose a machine-parsable log format

The first step is to choose a standard machine-parsable format for your logs. We recommend JSON due to its widespread adoption and ease of use, but Logfmt is another viable alternative.

It may be necessary to adapt your logging strategy depending on the environment. During development, you can optimize for readability with colorful, human-friendly formatting, while switching to a structured output in production. Most logging frameworks offer configuration options to automate this transition.

2. Adopt a structured logging framework

The next step is to incorporate a logging framework that supports outputting application log data in your preferred structured format. Popular options include Log4j for Java, Serilog for .NET, Pino for Node.js, and Slog for Go.

Afterward, set up the framework to produce logs in the chosen structured format. Configure log levels, output destinations, and any additional settings required. If you have existing unstructured instrumentation, you'll need to transition to the new instrumentation over time.

It's often as simple as changing something like this:

log.Printf("Error processing request ID %s: %v\n", r.ID, err)

To this:

slog.Error("Error processing request", slog.String("request_id", r.ID),
    slog.Any("err_msg", err))

When converting unstructured entries into structured ones, ensure to include each contextual property in its own attribute.

3. Configure your log sources

Once you've instrumented your applications to emit structured logs, you'll need to configure the other components and services that generate logs in your infrastructure as well.

This can range from dependencies like Nginx or PostgreSQL to cloud services like AWS Lambda. Ensure to look for the instrumentation they provide, and configure them to output structured data if possible.

Configure JSON logging in AWS Lambda

4. Convert unstructured logs to structured data

When dealing with dependencies that do not offer a way to output structured data, you can utilize log parsing tools or write custom scripts to transform unstructured log entries into your chosen structured format.

This involves identifying relevant patterns and extracting key information from the unstructured text, such as timestamps, log levels, messages, and contextual data, then mapping them to the corresponding fields in your structured log schema.

This technique also helps with converting log records from other structured or semi-structured formats to your preferred one. For example, Vector provides a parse_logfmt() function that can transform Logfmt entries to JSON:

 "timestamp=2024-06-16T17:39:00+01:00 level=info log_type=application http_method=POST http_path=/api/orders duration=0.235 db_duration=0.120 db_num_queries=5 user=usr_456 status=201"
  "timestamp": "2024-06-16T17:39:00+01:00",
  "level": "info",
  "log_type": "application",
  "http_method": "POST",
  "http_path": "/api/orders",
  "duration": 0.235,
  "db_duration": 0.120,
  "db_num_queries": 5,
  "user": "usr_456",
  "status": 201

While this step requires some initial effort, it allows you to leverage the benefits of structured logging even when dealing with legacy systems or components that lack native support.

5. Establish an attribute schema

Imagine a scenario where two services generate structured logs with varied attribute names. Service A might log timestamps as time in UNIX format, while Service B uses timestamp in ISO-8601 format. Similarly, Service A might log error codes as error_code while Service B uses a nested attribute like error.code.

When troubleshooting an issue spanning both services, you'd have to write queries that account for these discrepancies, potentially leading to missed data or incorrect correlations. For instance, searching for errors might require a query like:

(service_name = "Service A" AND error_code = "TimeoutError") OR (service_name = "Service B" AND error.code = "TimeoutError")

By establishing a unified schema, you could standardize attribute names and values across all your log sources so that the timestamps are always recorded as ISO-8601 in the timestamp field and error codes are placed in the error_code field. This harmonization of data attributes facilitates seamless correlation and cross-analysis of log data, regardless of its origin.

Now, a single query like this would suffice to find all errors of a given type:

error_code = TimeoutError

It's important not to get bogged down in perfecting your schema from the start. Focus on converting a few services to structured logging, then refine your schema based on practical experience.

6. Normalize your log data

Log data normalization is standardizing log messages from different sources into a consistent format. It involves mapping various field names and structures into a unified schema to ensure that similar data points are uniformly represented across all logs.

It is a crucial step when processing log data from sources you do not control so that inconsistencies in their attribute representations are consolidated into a single data model according to your defined schema.

This is usually done by employing log normalization tools or middleware that map fields and values from different log sources to a unified schema before they are sent to the centralized data store. Examples of such tools include Logstash, Vector, and Fluentd.

Best practices for structured logging

Structured logging is about making everyone's life easier when things go wrong (and let's face it, they sometimes do). We've already discussed the benefits, so let's dive into some concrete recommendations to guide your instrumentation efforts next:

  1. Ensure to tag each incoming request with a unique ID and propagate it across all log records generated from that request. This makes it easy to isolate all the logs pertaining to each request made to your services.

  2. Enrich each log event with sufficient contextual attributes to facilitate analysis and correlation. Remember that observability requires high cardinality data so each additional attribute you include provides a different way to slice and dice your data during analysis.

  3. Ensure you enforce a standard log schema for all your log sources as soon as possible. OpenTelemetry's semantic conventions is some notable work in this area.

  4. Specify units directly within attribute names (e.g., response_time_ms, memory_usage_kb) to prevent ambiguity.

  5. Include descriptive log messages in each log record so that it is easily interpreted by humans who are perusing the logs.

  6. When logging error details, structure the included stack trace if possible.

     "msg": "Cannot divide one by zero!",
     "level": "error",
     "timestamp": "2023-07-31T07:00:31.526266Z",
     "exception": [
         "exc_type": "ZeroDivisionError",
         "exc_value": "division by zero",
         "syntax_error": null,
         "is_cause": false,
         "frames": [
             "filename": "/home/betterstack/structlog_demo/",
             "lineno": 16,
             "name": "<module>",
             "line": "",
             "locals": {
               "__name__": "__main__",
               "__doc__": "None",
               "__package__": "None",
               "__loader__": "<_frozen_importlib_external.SourceFileLoader object at 0xffffaa2f3410>",
               "__spec__": "None",
               "__annotations__": "{}",
               "__builtins__": "<module 'builtins' (built-in)>",
               "__file__": "/home/betterstack/structlog_demo/",
               "__cached__": "None",
               "structlog": "\"<module 'structlog' from '/home/betterstack/structlog_demo/venv/lib/python3.11/site-\"+32",
               "logger": "'<BoundLoggerLazyProxy(logger=None, wrapper_class=None, processors=None, context_'+55"

Learn more: Logging Best Practices: 12 Dos and Don'ts

You've structured your logs. Now do something useful with them

Once you're generating a steady stream of structured log data, you must not let them gather dust in a log file but unlock their full potential by feeding them into a log management tool that allows you to query, correlate, and visualize your data across all dimensions.

In particular, use a tool like Better Stack that is equipped with columnar storage technology to effortlessly handle the high-cardinality queries required for achieving observability.

Better Stack Dashboard

Final thoughts

To achieve true observability, you need the ability to analyze your data across various dimensions, allowing you to address any questions that arise during the debugging process.

Unstructured logs are inadequate as a foundation for observability. However, when transformed into structured data with high cardinality and dimensionality, they become immensely valuable for understanding the different (and often novel) states your application can reach.

I hope this article has demonstrated the importance of structured logging and provided a guide on implementing it. For more information on logging and observability, refer to our linked guides.

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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