Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why is there still PRI in a syslog message?

This is the first of a couple of blog posts I intend to do in response to Raffy's post on syslog-protocol. I am very late, but better now than never. Raffy raised some good points. To some I agree, to some not and for some others it is probably interesting to see why things are as they are.

The bottom line is that this standard - as probably every standard - is a compromise of what could be agreed on by a larger group of people and corporate interests. Reading the IETF mailing list archives will educate much about this process, but I will dig out those interesting entry points into the mass of posts for you.

I originally thought I reply with a single blog post to Raffy. However, this tends to be undoable - every time I intend to start, something bigger and more important comes into my way. So I am now resorting to more granualar answers - hopefully this work.

Enough said, on the the meat. Raffy said:
  • Syslog message facility: Why still keeping this? The only reason that I see people using the facility is to filter messages. There are better ways to do that. Some of the pre-assigned groups are fairly arbitrary and not even really implemented in most OSs. UUCP subsystem? Who is still using that? I guess the reason for keeping it is backwards compatibility? If possible, I would really like this to be gone.
  • Priority calculation: The whole priority field is funky. The priority does not really have any meaning. The order does not imply importance. Why having this at all?


And I couldn't agree more with this. In my personal view, keeping with the old-style facility is a large debt, but it was necessary to make the standard happen. Over time, I have to admit, I even tend to think it was a good idea to stick with this format, it actually eases transition.

Syslog-protocol has a long history. We thought several times we were done, and the first time this happened was in November, 2005. Everything was finalized and then there was a quite unfortunate (or fortunate, as you may say now ;)) IETF meeting. I couldn't attend (too much effort to travel around the world for a 30-minute meeting...) and many other WG participants also could not.

It took us by surprise that the meeting agreed the standard was far from ready for publishing (read the meeting minutes). The objection raised a very long (and productive, I need to admit) WG maling list discussion. To really understand the spirit of what happened later, it would be useful to read mailing list archives starting with November, 14th.

However, this is lots of stuff, so let me pick out some posts that I find important. The most important fact is that backward compatibility became the WG charter's top priority (one more post to prove the point). Among others, it was strongly suggested that both the PRI as well as the RFC 3164 timestamp be preserved. Thankfully, I was able to proof that there was no common understanding on the date part in different syslog server (actually, the research showed that nothing but PRI is common among syslogds...). So we went down and decided that PRI must be kept as is - to favor compatibility.

As I said, I did not like the decision at that time and I still do not like the very limited number of facilities that it provides to us (actually, I think facility is mostly useless). However, I have accepted that there is wisdom in trying to remain compatible with existing receivers - we will stick with them for a long time.

So I have to admit that I think it was a good decision to demand PRI begin compatible. With structured data and the other header fields, we do have ways of specifying different "facilities", that is originating processes. Take this approach: look at facility as a down-level filtering capability. If you have a new syslogd (or write one!) make sure you can filter on all the other rich properties and not just facility.

In essence, I think this is the story why, in 2009, we still have the old-style PRI inside syslog messages...

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