» How to Monitor Java Applications on EC2 with Cacti #

Paul R. Brown @ 2009-05-18

As part of a scale-out effort for a customer moving from a single node hosted on Slicehost to a multi-node environment hosted in the US and EU on Amazon EC2, I wanted a way to introduce a combination of application and host-level monitoring for the nodes. I settled on the combination RRDTool graphs served by Cacti and an alive check provided by a third party (Monitis), but there was no immediately obvious way to bridge the gap between the Java services and the Cacti convenience wrapper around RRDTool.

This was before the recent announcement by Amazon of monitoring functionality for EC2 nodes, but that service wouldn't meet the primary use case of application versus host monitoring. A tool like JConsole didn't make sense because I was interested in getting a single portal view across the fleet and in having retrospective data to make visual day-to-day or week-to-week comparisons.

This post describes how to bring the pieces together, and the technique is equally applicable to non-Java systems — any system that can serve HTTP requests can be instrumented. In the end, about a day's worth of experimentation and work was enough to get me the level of instrumentation I was after.

Host Configuration Requirements

Each of the nodes in the fleet runs on a slightly modified CentOS 5.2 AMI (based on one (ami-1363877a) provided by Rightscale), and getting basic host information exposed over SNMP is straightforward:

$ yum install net-snmp
[... lots of output ...]
$ mv /etc/snmp/snmpd.conf /etc/snmp/snmpd.conf-old
$ echo 'rocommunity public' > /etc/snmp/snmpd.conf
$ /etc/init.d/snmpd restart

The underlying assumption, of course, is that the instance was launched under a security group that exposes UDP ports 161 and 162 to the host that will be running Cacti. This can all be made to work without assigning elastic IP numbers to the nodes and to the Cacti host, but it's easier.

For the Cacti host, more or less any modern Linux distribution (e.g., Ubuntu or CentOS) will do, and I'd recommend following Eric Hammond's very nice tutorial about setting up MySQL on an EBS volume before doing the Cacti install. For the same reason it makes sense to have MySQL on the attached EBS volume (survive instance termination, support backups, etc.), it makes sense to store RRDTool's backing data there as well.

Instrumentation and Collection

The Java application in question (SmartFox) has no explicit support for exporting metrics and no MBeans exposed for access via JMX, but it does provide some API-level support for basic information and an embedded servlet container (Jetty, of course). (SmartFox does bundle a Flash-based administrative tool, but like JConsole it's single-node and does not provide much beyond in the way of retrospective data.)

After some poking around (i.e., reading PHP source code) in Cacti, I found that Cacti's standard "Script/Command" data input method consumes data as space-separated name/value pairs on a single line:

name1:value1 name2:value2 ...

So I put together a simple servlet to grab the server singleton object from the SmartFox API and print metrics out on a text/plain response. This could just as easily be done with an MBean instance looked up via the JVM's default JMX infrastructure or a metric facade injected into the servlet as part of the overall web application — the point is that the single line of name/value pairs is the required interface to Cacti.

The data is then accessed via a curl invocation templated for variables:

curl http://<host>:<port>/<webapp>/sfs-status?zone=<zone>

The fields in angle brackets are input fields that will be filled-in by other objects in Cacti, and the output fields for the data input method should be named to match the names in the name/value pairs from above.

The downside of this approach is that there is quite a bit of configuration that goes on top of this one-liner (graphs instantiate graph templates and pull from data sources that reference data templates that in turn reference data input methods, or something like that), but it more or less just works. (Even at that, it is less painful and more forgiving than some other tools I've worked with, e.g., ZenOSS.) A couple of hours of experimentation should be enough to get a decent set of basic graphs customized for the application at hand.

[an RRD graph]

As mentioned above, it goes without saying that the EC2 security groups for the instances need to be set up so that this data is not generally accessible but can still be seen by the Cacti host.

Tips and Tricks

The only real issues that I encountered in the process were some disconnects between what Cacti allows you to enter and what RRDTool accepts as input. Once you're done with the necessary setup or some tweaks, if your graphs either don't appear or disappear, there's a good chance that RRDTool doesn't like what Cacti is asking it to do. In that case, turn on the "graph debug" option to see what Cacti is sending to RRDTool and adjust your configuraiton accordingly.


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