Franck Cuny @franckcuny

Software and Operation engineer.

Let's talk about Graphite

As I've already mentionned in a previous post, at $work we are currently deploying Graphite and the usual suspects.

Finding articles on how to install all these tools is easy, there's plenty of them. But what's really hard to find, are stories on how to use them: what's collected, how, why, how do you organize your metrics, do you rewrite them, etc.

What I want with this post is to start a discussion about usages, patterns, and good practices. I'm going to share how we, at SAY, are using them, and maybe this could be the start of a conversation.


We're using statsd, collectd Graphite (and soon Riemann for alerting).


Our default retention policy is: 10s:1h, 1m:7d, 15m:30d, 1h:2y. We don't believe that Graphite should be used for alerting: it's a tool for looking at history and trends.

360 points for the last hour is enough to refer to a graph when an incident occurs. Most of the teams are releasing at least once a week, so 1 minute definition for a week is enough to compare trends between two releases. Then we go to a month (2 sprints) and they 2 years. We thought at first to keep only 15 months (1year + 1 quarter to compare), but since we have enough disk space, we decided to keep two years, however we might decide to change that in the future.


We don't do anything fancy here. collectd is running on each host, and then write to a central collectd server.


For shared services (Memcached, Varnish, Apache, etc), we talk to statsd. We have a Perl script named sigmoid, with the following usage:

Usage: ./sigmoid [<options>] <metricname> <value>
 Exactly one of:
 --counter (value defaults to 1)

 Other options:
 --disable-multiplex (for statsd only)
 --hostname (to log on behalf of another machine)

This script is used by other scripts who monitor logs, status of apps, etc. This way it's very easy for a Perl, Python, Shell script to just call sigmoid via system, and then send the metric and the value to statsd.

For some other services we might need something more specific. Let's take a look at Apache. We have another Perl script for the CustomLog settings (CustomLog "|/usr/local/bin/apache-statsd"). The script is doing the following things:

  • compute the size of the HTTP request in bytes
  • compute how long it took to return the response

Then, it will send the following lines to statsd (with $base being the vhost in our case):

  • $base.all.requests:1|c increases the total of HTTP requests we're receiving
  • $base.all.bytes:$bytes|ms send the size, in bytes, of that request
  • $base.all.time:$msec|ms the time spend to get the response

Now we will send the same line two more times, with a different prefix: $base.method.$request_method and $base.status.$status.


Here, developers decide what they want to collect, and send the metric to statsd.


And finally we have events. Every time we push an application or a configuration, we create a new event.

Proxying statsd

We want metrics to be well organized, in a clear hierarchy. Jason Dixon wrote in a blog post that Misaligned paths are ok. I disagree. We're collecting more than 100k metrics so far. If things are not well organized, it will become quickly very difficult to find what you're looking for.

So, here's how we organize our metrics. The first level is the environment (PROD, CI, DEV, ...). Then we have apps and hosts. For the host section, we group by cluster type (Hadoop cluster, Web servers for TypePad, etc), and then you have the actual host, with all the metrics collected. For apps, we have four main categories: aggregate, counters, events and gauges (I'll come back on that later).

Earlier I said that apps where sending metrics to statsd, but that's not exactly true. We (mostly) never write directly to statsd or Graphite.

On each host, we have a Perl script listening. This proxy will rewrite all the incoming metrics by appending to the name the environment, the cluster and so on. This way when someone want to send a key, he doesn't have to care convention or using the correct prefix.

Also, it will also multiplex the metric: we want the same key to end-up under host and under app. Let's take an example here. If you're writing a web service, you may want to send a metric for the total time taken by an endpoint (this will be an aggregate). Our key will be something like: <application-name>.<endpoint-name>.<http-method>.<total-time>. The proxy, based on the network address, will determine that it's environment is CI, and that it's an application. But it also knows the name of the server, and the cluster. So two keys will be created:

  • <CI>.<apps>.<aggregate>.<application-name>.<endpoint-name>.<http-method>.
  • <CI>.<hosts>.<cluster-name>.<host-name>.<aggregate>.<application-name>.<endpoint-name>.<http-method>.<total-time>

This way we can find the metric aggregated by application, or if we think there's a problem in one machine, we can compare per host the same metric.

Other problems with statsd and Graphite

I don't know if it's a problem with vocabulary, or our maths (I admit that my maths are not good, but I trust Abe and Hachi's maths), but you can't imagine how much time we spend debating around the words gauges, counters and aggregates. What they mean, how they work, when to use them. So here's my questions: are we missing something obvious? do we over think it? or is it also confusing, and people are misusing them?

Let's take gauge as an example. If you read the documentation for gauges, it seems very simple: you send a value, and it will be recorded. Well, the thing is it will record only the last value send during the 10 seconds interval. This work well when you have a cron job that will look at something every minute and report a metric to statsd, not if you're sending that 10 times a second (and yes, we will provide a patch for documentation soon).

Another one where we lost a good amount of time: if you're smallest retention is different from the interval used by statsd to flush the data, they will be graphed incorrectly (see this comment).

The best "documentation" for statsd, so far, are the discussions in the issues.

We have some other complains about Graphite. Even after reading the rationals for Whisper, I'm not convinced it was a good idea to replace RRD with it. We also discovered some issues with Graphite's functions.


We've a huge basement at work that can be used to host meetup. There's already a few meetup in the San Francisco about "devops" stuff (Metrics Meetup, SF DevOps, etc), but maybe there's room for another one with a different format.

What I would like, is a kind of forum, where a topic is picked, and people share their experiences (the bad, the good and the ugly), not how to configure or deploy something. And there's a lot of topics where I've questions: deployment (this will be the topic of my next entry I think), monitoring, alerting, post-mortem, etc. If you're interested, send me an email, or drop a comment on this post.