Basics about logrotate

Ever lost a host because one of the services on that host used all available disk space with its logs? logrotate is a common tool which truncates your logs to make sure this won’t happen anymore. This post is a short how-to.

Change history:
Date Change description
2017-09-29 The first release

Use Case

Like described in the abstract before, almost every software supports a way to log its internal actions to log files. Mostly with different types of severities like critical, error, warning, info and debug. The most verbose one, debug, can sometimes create so many log entries in the designated log file, that this file uses all of the available disk space of the host. We had this recently with the software Zuul, a project gating system developed for the OpenStack Project [1]. In general, log rotation is recommended practice by the OpenSCAP Security Guide [2] and good background information is available at Rackspace [3].


This post explains a manual setup on:

  • Ubuntu 16.04 Xenial release
  • on IBM Z s390x platform (it’s the same for x86, though)

An automatized way is available with the Ansible role openstack/ansible-role-logrotate [4], but that won’t be discussed further here.

Let’s check the available packages:

root@zuul:~# apt-cache policy logrotate
  Installed: (none)
  Candidate: 3.8.7-2ubuntu2.16.04.1
  Version table:
     3.8.7-2ubuntu2.16.04.1 500
        500 xenial-updates/main s390x Packages
     3.8.7-2ubuntu2 500
        500 xenial/main s390x Packages

We install the package:

root@zuul:~# apt install -y logrotate

And lastly double-check the version of logrotate:

root@zuul:~# logrotate --version
logrotate 3.8.7


We want the configuration to achieve these goals:

  1. keep the last 4 rotated logs before purging the oldest logs
  2. rotate the logs every week
  3. compress the old, rotated log files to save disk space
  4. if there is no log file, be cool and keep calm
  5. if the log file is empty, do nothing

This policy should be applied to all files in a specific directory. As we mentioned the Zuul software before, we configure it for this service which logs everything into /var/log/zuul.

Create the logrotate config file zuul-logs in the directory /etc/logrotate.d/:

root@zuul:~# cat /etc/logrotate.d/zuul-logs
/var/log/zuul/*.log {
    rotate 4

The name of the file is arbitrarily chosen, you can choose whatever you like. You’ll notice that the five goals are reflected in the configuration. More possibilities are described at [5]. You also see that we can use wildcards * in the path, which is handy when a service creates multiple log files, like Zuul does.


After we configured logrotate, we can do a dry-run, to see what would or wouldn’t change, if logrotate would run normally. Your output might look similar to this:

 root@zuul:~# logrotate -d /etc/logrotate.conf
 reading config file /etc/logrotate.conf
 including /etc/logrotate.d
 reading config file apt
 reading config file dpkg
 reading config file rsyslog
 reading config file zuul-logs

 Handling 9 logs


 rotating pattern: /var/log/zuul/*.log  weekly (4 rotations)
 empty log files are not rotated, old logs are removed
 switching euid to 0 and egid to 112
 considering log /var/log/zuul/gearman-debug.log
   log needs rotating
 considering log /var/log/zuul/gearman.log
   log does not need rotating
 considering log /var/log/zuul/merger-debug.log
   log needs rotating
 considering log /var/log/zuul/server-debug.log
   log needs rotating
 considering log /var/log/zuul/server.log
   log needs rotating


Unnecessary clutter in the output got stripped away with [...] and the interesting lines are highlighted. If you see errors in your output, see the section Known issues below.

Rotate manually

We don’t want to wait for a week until the first logrotate gets done automatically. Therefore we do an (optional) manual logrotate to see how it would look like every week. Let’s check the log files before logrotate got enforced for a first run:

 root@zuul:~# ls -lh /var/log/zuul
 total 4.1G
 -rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 463M Aug  4 13:02 gearman-debug.log
 -rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul    0 Jul 13 12:49 gearman.log
 -rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 4.9M Aug  4 12:55 merger-debug.log
 -rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 1.5K Aug  2 04:24 merger.log
 -rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 3.5G Aug  4 13:02 server-debug.log
 -rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 100M Aug  4 13:02 server.log

Zuul produced multiple log files, the most interesting one in this example is the server-debug.log which uses 3.5G of disk space.

The overall system disk space before we do the logrotate:

 root@zuul:~# df -h
 Filesystem      Size  Used Avail Use% Mounted on
 udev            4.0G     0  4.0G   0% /dev
 tmpfs           806M   87M  719M  11% /run
 /dev/vda1        29G  6.4G   21G  24% /
 tmpfs           4.0G     0  4.0G   0% /dev/shm
 tmpfs           5.0M     0  5.0M   0% /run/lock
 tmpfs           4.0G     0  4.0G   0% /sys/fs/cgroup

Start one manual logrotation to see that things work out:

root@zuul:~# # this can take a minute
root@zuul:~# logrotate -f /etc/logrotate.d/zuul-logs

The -f parameter forces a logrotation although the criteria are not met. You have to specify the configuration file you want to apply here.

Let’s look at the log files after logrotate got enforced for a first run:

root@zuul:~# ls -lh /var/log/zuul
total 322M
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul  28K Aug  4 13:14 gearman-debug.log
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul  16M Aug  4 13:12 gearman-debug.log.1.gz
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul    0 Jul 13 12:49 gearman.log
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 544K Aug  4 12:55 merger-debug.log.1.gz
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul  411 Aug  2 04:24 merger.log.1.gz
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 445K Aug  4 13:14 server-debug.log
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 300M Aug  4 13:12 server-debug.log.1.gz
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 3.7K Aug  4 13:14 server.log
-rw-r--r-- 1 zuul zuul 5.4M Aug  4 13:12 server.log.1.gz

You see the compressed files which end with *.gz. The number gets incremented with each logrotation. That means:

  • the higher the number the older the compressed logs
  • the lower the number the younger the compressed logs

As an example, server.log.2.gz is older than server.log.1.gz. Please note that these compressed archives get renamed when a new logrotation happens.

The compression reduced the file server-debug.log from 3.5G to 300M. This is also reflected in the overall system disk space:

 root@zuul:~# df -h
 Filesystem      Size  Used Avail Use% Mounted on
 udev            4.0G     0  4.0G   0% /dev
 tmpfs           806M   87M  719M  11% /run
 /dev/vda1        29G  2.8G   25G  11% /
 tmpfs           4.0G     0  4.0G   0% /dev/shm
 tmpfs           5.0M     0  5.0M   0% /run/lock
 tmpfs           4.0G     0  4.0G   0% /sys/fs/cgroup

Rotate continuously

The manual rotation we did before was only to demo the result. We can rely on the cronjob for logrotate which gets set up at during package install and runs daily:

 root@zuul:~# cat /etc/cron.daily/logrotate

 # Clean non existent log file entries from status file
 cd /var/lib/logrotate
 test -e status || touch status
 head -1 status > status.clean
 sed 's/"//g' status | while read logfile date
     [ -e "$logfile" ] && echo "\"$logfile\" $date"
 done >> status.clean
 mv status.clean status

 test -x /usr/sbin/logrotate || exit 0
 /usr/sbin/logrotate /etc/logrotate.conf

The /etc/logrotate.conf reads all configuration files in /etc/logrotate.d/*. That’s the place where we put our config file from the beginning.

Logrotate also saves its status in a file:

root@zuul:~# cat /var/lib/logrotate/status
logrotate state -- version 2
"/var/log/zuul/server.log" 2017-8-4-13:12:8
"/var/log/zuul/gearman-debug.log" 2017-8-4-13:12:8
"/var/log/zuul/server-debug.log" 2017-8-4-13:12:8
"/var/log/zuul/gearman.log" 2017-8-4-13:0:0
"/var/log/zuul/merger-debug.log" 2017-8-4-13:12:8

Known issues

The logrotate -d dry-run might show this:

root@zuul:~# logrotate -d /etc/logrotate.conf
reading config file /etc/logrotate.conf
error: /etc/logrotate.conf:7 unknown group 'syslog'
removing last 0 log configs

Apparently there is an issue with the (non-)existence of the group syslog which is the default owning group in the logrotate config:

root@zuul:~# cat /etc/logrotate.conf | grep syslog
# use the syslog group by default, since this is the owning group
# of /var/log/syslog.
su root syslog

But that user/group doesn’t exist in plain Ubuntu 16.04, which is a confirmed Ubuntu upstream bug [6]. According to this bug report, the user/group gets created when rsyslog is installed. This is currently not the case:

root@zuul:~# ll /var/log/ | grep syslog

Let’s install rsyslog (which creates the syslog user/group which is expected by logrotate):

root@zuul:~# apt install rsyslog
root@zuul:~# ll /var/log/syslog
-rw-r----- 1 syslog adm 65999 Aug 15 07:45 /var/log/syslog

After that, the expected group is available and logrotate can do its work.


This post showed you how you can use logrotate to prevent log files from growing too big. Depending on your logging strategy you might also want to look into tools like elasticsearch, logstash, rsyslog and journalctl.