Simple log file analysis for your kubernetes pods on the command line

Recently at my current job there was a lot of complaining about how terribly slow our instance of Kibana was. We use that, as many teams do, to view and analyze the log files generated by the services that run on our Kubernetes cluster. The root cause was that the logs were simply too large, because we logged a lot of stuff that wasn’t necessary. During the conversation, I commented that I never noticed any problem with Kibana, because I never used it. To me the tool feels complicated, cumbersome and, even when it functions properly, way to slow. The natural followup question was what I used instead and the answer was: simple tools that work in the shell and have existed for ages.

This led to me writing a quick guide on these tools and how to use them. I figured more people might be interested, so I put up here too. With this background information, it is probably understandable that the tips below are focused on a specific, narrow use case. Reading further is most useful if you:

The information is broken down into the following sections (click on them to jump):

Note: later I discovered that the same techniques can be used for your webserver statistics too. Check this post to see how you can get Nginx to produce the same kind of structured logging as is discussed here.

General Principles


Probably every developer working at this level knows what ssh is and has set up proper key based authentication for it. That is, you can do the following and not get an error message:

$ ssh username@remote.server

If you do get an error, ask your local devops person how to fix it. If you are the local devops person, search the internet for “ssh key setup”.

What might be less known, is that with ssh, you can run commands on a remote server transparently from your laptop. Just type the command you would want to run on the remote machine after the ssh command and press enter. This command on your local machine:

$ ssh username@remote.server ls

will give you the contents of your home folder on the remote server. Together with a proper alias for the ssh part (see below), this gives lightning fast access for simple operations.


The main command for interacting with the Kubernetes cluster is kubectl. Of course, interacting with a cluster is a complex subject matter that requires careful study to become proficient with, but for our purposes we can make do with a few commands like kubectl get pods to get a list of pods running in an environment and kubectl logs XXX to get the logs of XXX.

Useful options for kubectl logs are:

$ kubectl logs -lapp=some-service --since=5m

will give you all logs from all instances of some-service service from the last five minutes.

See kubectl help logs for more.

Directing input and output

Shell commands are designed to work with lines of text. That means that the output of a command is often a bunch of text lines (separated with a newline), but also that it accepts a bunch of text lines (again, separated with newline characters) as input. This means that we can easily chain multiple commands without having to deal with the intermediate results. This chaining is done with the pipe symbol: |.

ls gives the contents of a folder and sort can sort lines in alphabetical order. So ls | sort also gives the contents of a folder, but sorted. (This is actually not very useful, because ls output is already sorted by default. To make it more interesting, try ls | sort -r. The -r option specifies reverse sorting.)

Sometimes you do want to save the intermediate results to a file. Get the information while it’s fresh, store it and do some analysis later. To save the output to a file, use command > filename. The file does not need to exist. If it does exist, this command will overwrite it without warning. Use >> instead of > to append the new output at the end of the file.

Use cat to read lines from a file. The following will give the same output as the ls | sort -r from above, but now this also stores the (intermediate) results in files:

$ ls > contents.txt
$ cat contents.txt | sort -r > sorted_contents.txt
$ cat sorted_content.txt

Limiting output

Log files by their nature are very long and having them scroll though your terminal window in their entirety is a sure way to get bored and confused at the same time. An easy way to test the output of your command without the risk of a data overload are head and tail. By default, these commands limit the output to the first (head) or last (tail) 10 lines. Both have a parameter -n that can be used for a different number of lines:

$ cat long_file.log | tail -n 5

tail also has the parameter -f for following. After the last x amount of lines are shown, the program does not exit, but waits until more lines come and then prints them. This can be helpful when doing some live debugging. Set up a pipe that only prints the lines you are interested in and close it with tail -f. Then you can watch the log as you perform different actions in the app without being distracted by log lines you’re not interested in flying by.

Splitting long commands over multiple lines

With all this chaining of commands it is possible that they become less readable, specially when the lines in your terminal start to wrap. There are two ways to spread your commands over multiple lines. The first one is with a \ at the end of the line:

$ my-command-with-lots-of-args \
> --arg1=a \
> --arg2=b \
> --arg3=c

The > is shown to indicate that more input is expected.

But if we use pipes, we don’t need to do that, as the pipe itself already signals bash that there is more to come:

$ command-1 | command-2 |
> command-3 |
> command-4

If your prompt wants more input after pressing enter, but you did not use any of the two mentioned symbols, then you probably forgot to close a quoted string somewhere.

Environment setup (not required)

As mentioned, this is not required, but using your .bashrc (or mac equivalent, I don’t know if it is called the same there) in combination with the alias command can be great time saver. alias lets you define abbreviations, .bashrc is a place for things you want to run each time after you open a terminal and login.

At the beginning of this document it was mentioned that ssh can be used to run command on a remote server. But typing in the ssh username@remote.server over and over again to run something on the other server can become tedious. If you add this line to your .bashrc on your laptop you can do it much quicker:

alias servername='ssh username@remote.server'

From now on, you only have to use servername to login to that server and

$ servername ls

gives you the contents of your home folder on that server. If you use this often, you could shorten it to s.

(Note that you have to open a new shell for this to work, because .bashrc is only read when the shell is started. If you don’t want to do that, you can do source ~/.bashrc to process the file right in the current shell without logging in again.)

This trick can be used on both your laptop and the remote server. Some suggestions for aliases are:

alias acc='command to switch to acceptance environment'
alias prod='command to switch to production environment'
alias k=kubectl
alias kn='kubectl -n "namespace"'
alias x=exit

Working with plain text: grep

If the logs are stored in JSON, processing them with pure text tools does not give the best results. See the next section on how to proper deal with JSON. But, often we don’t need to do advanced things and some text tools can be very helpful for some off-the-cuff filtering of log files.

Most people know that using grep is a simple way to filter lines that contain some text:

$ echo $'one\ntwo\nTHREE' | grep "two"

(echo sends out text, the $'...' notation converts \n to a newline.)

But it is good to also know some options:

Ignore case with -i:

$ echo $'one\ntwo\nTHREE' | grep -i "three"

Inverse the search with -v:

$ echo $'one\ntwo\nTHREE' | grep -v "two"

Only whole words with -w:

$ echo $'one\ntwo\ntwoandahalf' | grep "two"
$ echo $'one\ntwo\ntwoandahalf' | grep -w "two"

Count the results with -c:

$ echo $'one\ntwo\ntwoandahalf' | grep -c "two"

Use regular expressions with -E:

$ echo $'one\ntwo\nthree' | grep -E "^[a-z]{3}$"

There are a lot more tools available for manipulating and transforming lines of text, but they don’t work that well for lines of JSON, so we’ll skip them here.

Working with JSON: jq

For manipulating JSON on the command line there is only one tool you need, because it is like a Swiss army knife. It can do anything you might think of. Even just piping a piece of JSON through jq is useful, as it will pretty print it by default and makes it readable:

$ echo '{"some":"stuff"}' | jq .
  "some": "stuff"

As is to be expected, this short introduction covers only a fraction of the available functionality. Most examples and tutorials on the internet will discuss jq in the context of large JSON strings with deep nested structures. But in this case we are dealing with lots of lines of text with short pieces of JSON that are pretty flat. Most of the time, it is only a list of key-value pairs.

We probably want to feed the results into a next program, so what comes in on one line, must go out on one line. The -c option keeps jq from spreading the structure over multiple lines.

Selecting fields

jq uses a path-like syntax to select fields:

$ echo '{"one":1, "two":2, "three":[4, 5, 6]}' | jq -c .one
$ echo '{"one":1, "two":2, "three":[4, 5, 6]}' | jq -c .three
$ echo '{"one":1, "two":2, "three":[4, 5, 6]}' | jq -c .three[1]

Grouping fields

[..] and {..} can be used to group multiple results into an array or an object:

$ echo '{"one":1, "two":2, "three":[4, 5, 6]}' | jq -c '[ .three[1], .two ]'
$ echo '{"one":1, "two":2, "three":[4, 5, 6]}' | 
> jq -c '{ thing: .three[1], another: .two }'

Filtering values

We can also select lines based on the values of the fields:

$ echo $'{"thing":5, "another":2}\n{"thing":6,"another":1}' | 
> jq -c 'select(.another < 2)'

And at the risk of making things confusing, jq has its own piping mechanism that uses the same symbol as bash. For instance, we can combine the select with a grouping like this:

$ echo $'{"thing":5, "another":2}\n{"thing":6,"another":1}' | 
> jq -c '{field: .another} | select(.field < 2)'

Comparisons work on strings too. This makes it possible to filter on timestamps, as they are represented as strings with integers ranging from most to least significant:

$ echo $'{"time":"2021-01-01T00:00:00Z"}\n{"time":"2021-01-02T00:00:00Z"}\n{"time":"2021-01-03T00:00:00Z"}' | 
jq -c 'select(.time > "2021-01-01T00:00:00Z" and .time < "2021-01-03T00:00:00Z")' 

This is a bit sensitive to typos though. For instance, if you accidentally forget a - or replace the T in one string with a space, but not the other, the sorting still works and no error will be shown. But it will not do what you expect.

Sorting, counting and grouping

As mentioned, all these tools work on a line by line basis. But there are a few programs that operate on multiple lines too. Most notably: sort and uniq. They can, as is indicated by their names, sort things and filter unique values. The caveat for uniq is that it only compares the current with the previous line and thus only eliminates adjacent doubles. This is solved by sorting them first. The nice thing about uniq is that it can count how may occurrences of a line were present. To get a ranking, we can sort again:

$ echo $'A\nB\nA\nA\nC\nB' | sort | uniq -c | sort -rn
      3 A
      2 B
      1 C

-c adds the count on uniq, -rn means sort reverse on numbers for sort.

Combined with head you can make a top ten list.


Armed with all this knowledge, it is not hard to construct commands that answer the simple questions that come up a lot when dealing with logs:

Show me the latest errors for a product with this id on that service:

$ kubectl logs -lapp=THAT_SERVICE | 
> grep 'UUID' | 
> grep -v "err:null" |
> tail

How often did this message appear and for what users:

$ kubectl logs POD_NAME |
> grep "MESSAGE" |
> jq -c .userId |
> sort | uniq -c | sort -rn