The Network Admin That Can Read Minds

Like all magic tricks, this one is simple, it is all about preparation, it is impressive to the uninitiated, and surpassingly boring to the ones in the know.  Want to know how to read your clients minds?  All you have to do is read your network and server log files!

This will impress people.  They will come walking into your office and say, “I’ve been having a problem opening this file on the server lately…” and before they even finish you will say “I noticed that a little bit ago and I think I’ve got it fixed for you…”.  Talk about an impressed client!

Seriously though, when was the last time that you checked you log files?  I know, I hate doing it too, but it is really a necessary task.  It can make you look like a mind reader and make your life a lot easier.  Something I never like hearing from clients is “It hasn’t been working for a month now but I really need it to work right away!”.  First off, if it wasn’t working a month ago maybe we could have reported the issue a month ago and it would be working by now. Second, now we are in firefighter mode running around in a panic to solve a “sudden” issue.  Logs are a immunization against this situation.

Most people think of log files as a post-mortum kind of thing.  That they are good for going back and figuring out what happen when something goes horribly wrong.  They do help with in that situation, but they are far better when used in a proactive way.

When checked regularly, log files:

  1. Cease to be so confusing.  You get familiar with the layout, where they are, what logs to what file/location, etc.
  2. You get a feel for when something is up.  There are more logs, there are lots of different logs, there are log entries you have never seen before, etc.
  3. They will reveal problems long before clients will notice them and/or report an issue.  It is so much nicer when a log files tells you about an issue rather then your company CEO!

Okay, so you now know you need to be checking log files proactively.  So you now need to start spending hours every day looking at them right!?  Of course not, even if you did it once a week you will start finding issues before clients do and both of you will be happier.

Here is what I recommend to get you started with the habit of checking log files.

  1. Pick a convenient time, where you will be able to look at the log files for 30 minutes. (Monday mornings, Friday Afternoons, whatever).  You can start with once a week.
  2. Schedule it in your calendar and have your computer/smart phone/whatever you use remind you to check the logs.
  3. Pick a system you haven’t looked at recently and start checking its log files.
  4. If you find a log entry:
    • Indicating a problem you can solve in 3 minutes or less then solve it right then.
    • Indicating a problem you know how to solve but it will take more then 3 minutes, then make a note and address the problem after your 30 minute checking window.
    • You have never seen before, start googling it.  It is okay to use the allotted time to help you research and learn the meaning of log files you are looking at.

That’s it!  This simple weekly check will start moving you away from running around putting out fires and will enable you to prevent fires in the first place.

In addition to checking log files weekly, I’ve implemented some more fun and interesting ways to monitor log files all the time.  Making the log files more visual and representing them in real time enables you to get a feel for the baseline for your log files, then it is really easy to know when something is up, even if you don’t know what exactly just yet.  One of my favorite log visualization tools is gltail.  It is a bit of a bear to set up though and is more useful if you have a syslog server in place.  These systems will all be topics of future posts, but for now, just start checking the log files!

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