Lessons Learned

Troubleshooting Wonky Zabbix Reports

I rely on Zabbix to keep tabs on all of my machines and to make sure all of The Storehouse is working perfectly.  It’s always troubling to wake up to 30+ emails from Zabbix and is pretty good cause for alarm.  Turns out, these things were fairly innocuous and the sign of a pretty simple issue and related to the backup of that VM.  I’ll try to outline the steps I used to diagnose and lessons I learned along the way.


Like I said, I would get a plethora of emails most mornings from Zabbix showing that things had “broken” during the night.  I noticed a trend in these emails:

All At The Same Time

All of these emails were timestamped withing 1 minute of each other.  Checking the times they came in vs the envelope time revealed no large difference there, a minute or two for mail processing and for it to land in my inbox.  These emails are both for problems and for resolutions, so usually about 16 problems and they are immediately resolved in 1 minute.

Consistently Repeatable

The first few times of waking up to this I went into full alarm mode and started to check everything afraid that things had really gone far south.  I noticed though, that these emails occurred about every night and at about the same time each night (about 1:30 am).  The issues were usually of a common thread: Zabbix agent on Host is unreachable.  This consistency pointed me close to the right direction, as it reeked of a bad cron job.

Widespread And Random

One of the more alarming things about these events were the sheer number of systems affected.  Usually about 10 or 15 machines would show some kind of fault, which works out to about 50% of my production environment.  Every time these events occurred, a seemingly random group of machines would be affected.  There were not too many common denominators, different physical hosts, different duties, etc.

Looking At Cron

I started by looking at Cron.  The predictability drew me to it right away, as I do have a number of large(r) backups that occur nightly, and I figured that perhaps one of these jobs had bitten off more than it could chew and clogged some things up for some time.  I looked around at my usual cron suspects, but I didn’t find any that ran exactly at that time.  The unpredictability of machines made it difficult to pinpoint one culprit, since cron runs a host of different things at different times on each host.

Looking at the syslog wasn’t too helpful either.  Although I have centralized monitoring, I do not have centralizing logging.  To check the logs meant to login to each machine and grep /var/log/syslog for the times in question and see if anything stuck out.  Usually the logs were perfect and showed no signs of either a failure on the node or a job that would be causing the issue.

The Bigger Picture

Eventually my search led me to look at things on a bit larger scale.  I started looking at datacenter tasks that ran at that time, specifically what my Proxmox nodes were attempting to do at that time.  Nothing appeared worrying, except one particular backup.  Not only do I run backups of specific directories and drives on some VM’s, I also backup the entire VM daily.

Looking at what times these ran wasn’t alarming right away, the latest one started at about 1 AM.  Isolating things down a bit further showed that the VM holding up the show was the Zabbix machine.  Bingo!  Looking over logs showed that that VM usually started backing up about 1:30, and it took anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to dump.  The fix was pretty simple, I just stopped backing up that VM.

Sidenote, when I say I stopped backing up the VM I really mean the complete VM image.  The database was already backed up daily, and since Zabbix is a pretty easy and non-critical (production isn’t down) package to install, it made sense to just keep the database backed up and to sacrifice the VM in the event of a failure.

Lessons Learned

That is why we’re here after all.  Here’s what worked and what didn’t:

I Need Centralized Logging

Why I’m not running this is a very good question, but having this would have saved me the headache of trying to pinpoint everything my servers were trying to at that time.  As it turns out, the issue was visible in the syslog of the Proxmox node, but that’s one of the later places I looked.

Common Sense Rules

Zabbix is really cool and can do cool things, but it can become a crutch to try and replace good system administration.  In my case, Zabbix was symptom and not the test.  Had I assumed Zabbix was correct, I would have never found the underlying issue.

Logs and Notifications Work

I have a dedicated account just for keeping email logs of backups and cron jobs.  99.9% of the time these emails get marked as read by Thunderbird’s mail filter and filed away for 90 or so days then deleted, never to be viewed by human eyes.  That 0.1% of the time is crucial and made the seemingly endless barrage of daily emails worth it.  The emails were a fantastic tool for checking completion times of jobs and getting some basic output of each job to make sure it was running OK.

Be Judicious About Backups

I once heard that everything dealing with computers is compromising.  This was no exception.  It sounds really great on paper to backup entire VM’s, including their large database, every day but practically this turns out to be quite a challenge.  In my case, I was already backing up the database itself, so backing it up again with the node didn’t make too much sense.


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