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How to manage logs in Linux

Managing log files on Linux systems can be incredibly easy or painful. It all depends on what you mean by log management.

If all you mean is how you can go about ensuring that your log files don’t eat up all the disk space on your Linux server, the issue is generally quite straightforward. Log files on Linux systems will automatically roll over, and the system will only maintain a fixed number of the rolled-over logs. Even so, glancing over what can easily be a group of 100 files can be overwhelming. In this post, we’ll take a look at how the log rotation works and some of the most relevant log files.

Automatic log rotation

Log files rotate frequently. What is the current log acquires a slightly different file name and a new log file is established. Take the syslog file as an example. This file is something of a catch-all for a lot of normal system messages. If you cd over to /var/log and take a look, you’ll probably see a series of syslog files like this:

$ ls -l syslog*
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm 28996 Jul 30 07:40 syslog
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm 71212 Jul 30 00:00 syslog.1
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm  5449 Jul 29 00:00 syslog.2.gz
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm  6152 Jul 28 00:00 syslog.3.gz
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm  7031 Jul 27 00:00 syslog.4.gz
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm  5602 Jul 26 00:00 syslog.5.gz
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm  5995 Jul 25 00:00 syslog.6.gz
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm 32924 Jul 24 00:00 syslog.7.gz

Rolled over at midnight each night, the older syslog files are kept for a week and then the oldest is deleted. The syslog.7.gz file will be tossed off the system and syslog.6.gz will be renamed syslog.7.gz. The remainder of the log files will follow suit until syslog becomes syslog.1 and a new syslog file is created. Some syslog files will be larger than others, but in general, none will likely ever get very large and you’ll never see more than eight of them. This gives you just over a week to review any data they collect.

The number of files maintained for any particular log file depends on the log file itself. For some, you may have as many as 13. Notice how the older files – both for syslog and dpkg – are gzipped to save space. The thinking here is likely that you’ll be most interested in the recent logs. Older logs can be unzipped with gunzip as needed.

# ls -t dpkg*
dpkg.log       dpkg.log.3.gz  dpkg.log.6.gz  dpkg.log.9.gz   dpkg.log.12.gz
dpkg.log.1     dpkg.log.4.gz  dpkg.log.7.gz  dpkg.log.10.gz
dpkg.log.2.gz  dpkg.log.5.gz  dpkg.log.8.gz  dpkg.log.11.gz

Log files can be rotated based on age, as well as by size. Keep this in mind as you examine your log files.

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