Effective Logging



There are better ways to read log files than scrolling hundreds of lines in a terminal window.

Using standard tools in Linux, logging becomes effective and simple. In addition, the tools are versatile and worthwhile to master.

I considered structuring this post based on the tools, but a lot of good resources with that approach already exist. Instead, I have outlined the article based on three scenarios when reading logs: runtime parsing, post-parsing and post-processing of log files.

Runtime Parsing

If you want to look at the logs of a running application, use tail.

tail –F logfile

Here, tail together with the F option, “follows” the log file, printing any new data added to the file.

Parsing multiple log files at the same time
Newer versions of tail allows you to parse several files at the same time. Simply add more -F items to the command, for example:

tail -F logfile1 -F logfile2

I usually have several terminals open and use grep to capture different aspects of log files. Here are some examples:

  • Displaying all warning and error messages
    tail –F logfile | egrep "(WRN|ERR)"
  • Looking at the logs from a specific file (providing of course the log output provides this information)
    tail –F logfile | grep -i "main.cpp"
  • Looking for a specific context
    tail –F logfile | grep -A 10 -i "specific message"
I also keep a window open for on-demand searching and filtering with cat.

Depending on your needs, you can opt for egrep or fgrep instead of grep. The former uses extended regular expressions and the latter does textual matches only.

Some useful grep options
-i performs a case insensitive search
-A nn also prints the nn lines after the matched pattern. There are also options to print lines before, and around, the matched lines.
-v prints lines that do not match the pattern.


When looking at the logs after the application has run, grep is still very useful to filter the output. Instead of tail though, cat or a file viewer such as less is more appropriate.

Sometimes I filter the log with grep and then pipe it through less. This can be useful if the log file is really, really big and you don’t need certain severity levels or only output from certain components:

grep –v "VRB" | less -R

less is a great tool, and being familiar with some of the options and commands makes it really powerful for parsing logs.

Some useful less options
-R is useful when the log uses ANSI color codes.
-M long prompt containing line numbers etc.
-i makes searches case insensitive


Post-processing of logs can be useful, too. For example stripping logs to facilitate comparisons using diff, or to save subsets to include in bug reports.

Post-processing for these purposes can be done with cat, grep and sed. For example, to strip a log that includes the system time:

DBG: Writing object to DB: id=234 [234.273412]

can be stripped of the time information with this command:

sed -e "s/\[[0-9]*\.[0-9]*.*\]//" logfile > log.stripped.txt

The file log.stripped.txt will contain lines like this:

DBG: Writing object to DB: id=234

Two other examples where sed is used to extract subsets of a log file:

sed –n "100,200 p" logfile

sed –n "/\[500\.0/,/\[600\.0/ p" logfile

The first line above extracts lines 100 through 200. The second line extracts the lines between 500 and 600 seconds for a log containing timestamps like the example above.


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