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7 Ways to Optimize Your Elastic (ELK) Stack in Production

Ayooluwa Isaiah
Updated on December 6, 2023

The Elastic or ELK Stack, encompassing Elasticsearch, Logstash, Kibana, and Beats is one of the most popular log management platform, with millions of downloads per month. Its scalable nature and infrastructure agnosticism make it an ideal choice for diverse organizational needs.

However, deploying and maintaining the stack in a production environment presents its own set of challenges. From scalability hurdles to performance bottlenecks, various issues can arise, potentially impacting the effectiveness of your ELK setup.

To ensure your ELK Stack deployments operates at peak efficiency and solve the problems they're set up to, it's crucial to not only be aware of these common challenges but also to understand how to effectively address them.

In this article, we'll explore seven key strategies to help you navigate the complexities of Elastic Stack management management, ensuring a robust, high-performing, and reliable data processing environment for your organization.

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1. Buffer your logs

In a typical Elastic Stack logging setup, Filebeat agents collect log data at the source, which is then shipped to Logstash for processing before being stored in Elasticsearch. While effective, this direct flow poses a risk of log data loss if issues arise in Logstash or Elasticsearch, as both are susceptible to heavy loads.

Consider scenarios like a surge in traffic during events like Black Friday, leading to an unusually high volume of data being logged. This can overwhelm the logging infrastructure, potentially causing Logstash or Elasticsearch to falter.

To mitigate this, introducing a buffer between Filebeat and Logstash is advisable. This buffer acts as a holding area for incoming data, ensuring continuity in log processing even if Logstash or Elasticsearch temporarily goes offline.

Apache Kafka is a commonly used buffer in such setups. It receives logs from Filebeat and holds them, feeding the data to Logstash and Elasticsearch at a manageable rate. This buffering helps maintain predictable performance during data surges. Should Logstash or Elasticsearch experience downtime, Kafka can store the log data and process the backlog once the system is restored, preventing data loss.

However, integrating a buffer like Kafka also introduces additional considerations as it requires also monitoring and scaling to meet demands. An alternative approach, depending on specific requirements, is to use log files as a temporary buffer. This method ensures that excess logs are stored in files if they exceed what Logstash or Elasticsearch can handle at the moment.

While this approach ensures data persistence, it requires sufficient disk storage and log rotation management, and it means you won't get real-time data updates.

Implementing a buffering solution, whether Kafka or filesystem-based, adds a layer of resilience to your log aggregation pipeline, safeguarding against data loss if one of the Elastic Stack component fails.

2. Split out your Elastic Stack components

For effective scaling of the Elastic Stack, it's crucial to strategically distribute its core components: Logstash, Elasticsearch, and Kibana. Bundling these components on a single cluster can limit scalability and flexibility as each one has unique requirements and resource demands.

For example, Logstash, which processes and transforms data, requires more CPU and memory, whereas Elasticsearch needs significant storage capacity for handling large data volumes. In contrast, Kibana, mainly a frontend interface, typically demands fewer resources.

Separating these components allows for scaling tailored to each component's specific needs, enhancing overall system efficiency and reliability. It also prevents issues in one from adversely affecting the others, reducing interdependency risks. This strategic separation ensures optimal operation of each component, leading to a more robust and efficient Elastic Stack environment.

3. Use dedicated master nodes

Implementing dedicated master nodes in Elastic Stack architecture significantly enhances system stability and efficiency. These nodes, distinct from data nodes, are focused on managing the cluster's state and coordinating tasks across the distributed system.

Master nodes handle key tasks like adding or removing nodes, monitoring node health, and allocating shards, which are the individual data units of an index. Given their vital role in cluster operations, you should allocate a dedicated server with ample CPU, memory, and storage.

Every cluster should have a minimum of one master node, with the option to include more master-eligible nodes for added redundancy. We recommend a setup with least three dedicated master nodes to forms a redundancy system that's essential for the cluster's high availability and resilience.

In the event of maintenance, upgrades, or unforeseen failures, the presence of multiple master nodes ensures that the cluster remains operational, thus preventing downtimes and increasing reliability.

4. Secure your Elastic Stack pipeline

Logs often contain sensitive data so it is necessary to protect your data from unauthorized access whether in transit or at rest. The urgency of this responsibility is highlighted by high-profile data breaches, like those experienced by Decathlon, Microsoft, and others, where unprotected Elasticsearch servers led to massive data leaks.

To avoid similar security incidents, you must take some precautions starting with keeping Elastic Stack components up to date to ensure access to the latest security features and warding off potential threats that try to exploit known vulnerabilities.

Implementing user authentication and access control also helps with restricting user access to specific data based on their roles. Elastic Stack supports various authentication methods like basic authentication, token-based authentication, and single sign-on (SSO) with SAML or OpenID Connect. You can even develop custom authentication mechanisms and plug them into the Elastic Stack if needed.

Another aspect of securing communication between Elastic Stack components is encryption in transit and at rest. This ensures that even if an attacker gains physical access to the cluster, they won't be able to read or use it. Encryption should be done using robust methods, such as dm-crypt, with strong, regularly rotated keys (at least 256-bit) which are also stored securely.

Enabling and regularly reviewing audit logs also helps you track user activities and system events to identify and mitigate potential security threats. Additionally, securing Elasticsearch by hardening its configuration, such as disabling unnecessary features and configuring it to listen only on private interfaces, further strengthens security.

Securing your Elastic Stack setup also involves protecting Logstash pipelines by filtering or masking sensitive data and configuring Kibana to run behind a reverse proxy with additional security features like session timeouts and secure cookies for security.

Learn more: Elasticsearch security principles

5. Implement appropriate Index Lifecycle Management (ILM) policies

Managing indices in Elasticsearch is a critical and often challenging aspect of operation, as it dictates how the your data is stored and managed throughout its life cycle.

While default deployments come with hot tier nodes for storing frequently accessed data, you can further tailor your setup with warm, cold, and frozen data tiers, aligned with your specific access and retention policies. This customization also includes the automated deletion of outdated data.

Implementing Index Lifecycle Management (ILM) policies in Elasticsearch is key to managing data efficiently as it enables automated transitioning of indices across these tiers and defines policies for each phase.

In a hot-warm-cold-frozen architecture, data moves through nodes based on age and usage:

  • Hot nodes: Handle new data ingestion and are optimized for high performance, using fast storage like SSDs for active write and update operations.

  • Warm nodes: Transition less frequently accessed data to these nodes with more cost-effective storage, optimized for less frequent operations.

  • Cold nodes: Store data that is no longer updated but occasionally queried, using even more economical storage options.

  • Frozen nodes: Archive rarely accessed data for historical or regulatory purposes, using Searchable Snapshots for long-term retention at reduced speeds and costs.

6. Embrace Infrastructure as Code for Elastic Stack management

For efficient Elastic Stack management, it's crucial to automate the deployment, configuration, and upgrading of all components using tools like Ansible or Terraform (OpenTofu). This approach significantly reduces manual intervention, thereby boosting operational efficiency and consistency.

The configuration elements of the Elastic Stack, including ECS schemas, YAML files, Logstash rules, and various use cases, should be approached with a code-centric mindset. Managing these configurations through a version control system like Git is essential. This allows changes to be tracked and maintains a clear audit trail for every modification and update.

Furthermore, integrating Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) processes for all Elastic Stack configuration and infrastructure is vital. This ensures that any changes undergo thorough automatic testing before being deployed to production.

7. Monitor your Elastic Stack

Managing the Elastic Stack presents various challenges, including the potential for data loss and performance issues that can hinder troubleshooting in business-critical applications.

Consequently, it's essential to monitor the stack's components for performance and reliability concerns. This involves gathering its metrics and logs which requires a separate monitoring solution since relying on the same ELK Stack for monitoring can lead to data unavailability in the event of a crash.

This added layer of monitoring introduces more data to collect, additional components to upgrade, and extra infrastructure to manage, thereby increasing the overall complexity of the system. Therefore, the setup should be designed to minimize complexity while providing comprehensive insights into the health and performance of the Elastic Stack.

Better Stack provides a log management service that can automatically collect your Elasticsearch logs and parse them for key information, so you can analyze cluster activity and correlate it with other sources of monitoring data.

Once you're collecting all your Elasticsearch metrics and logs in one place, you can set up custom dashboards to provide complete visibility into your clusters' health and performance, and quickly investigate potential issues.

Better Stack also allows you to establish smarter, targeted alerts to continuously monitor your Elasticsearch metrics and promptly inform relevant team members when issues are detected, ensuring timely and effective response to any emerging concerns.

Final thoughts

In summary, the path to optimizing your Elastic Stack in a production setting is one marked by ongoing learning and adaptability. By applying the strategies outlined in this article, you stand to substantially improve both the performance and dependability of your setup.

To deepen your understanding and expand your skills, consider delving into the wealth of learning resources and documentation provided by Elastic. Don't forget to also set up Elastic Stack monitoring so that you can closely monitor the results of your optimizations on your clusters' key metrics.

Thanks for reading!

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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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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