The syslogd utility logs various kinds of system activity, such as debugging output from sendmail and warnings printed by the kernel. syslogd runs as a daemon and is usually started in one of the rc files at boot time.

The file /etc/syslog.conf is used to control where syslogd records information. Records in syslog.conf has the following structure:

*.info;*.notice   /var/log/messages mail.debug         /var/log/maillog

The first field of each line lists the kinds of messages that should be logged, and the second field lists the location where they should be logged. The first field is of the format:

 facility.level [; facility.level … ]

Where facility is the system application or facility generating the message, and level is the severity of the message. In the kernel there are 8 log levels defined and they are:

EMERG                       System is unusable

ALERT                        Immidiate action required

CRIT                            Critical conditions

ERR                             Error conditions

WARNING                  Warning conditions

NOTICE                       Significant notification but not fatal

INFO                            Informative

DEBUG                       Debug-level messages

In the structure above, facility can be mail (for the mail daemon), kern (for the kernel), user (for user programs), or auth (for authentication programs such as login or su). An asterisk in this field specifies all facilities. level can be (in increasing severity): debug, info, notice, warning, err, crit, alert, or emerg. In the previous /etc/syslog.conf, we see that all messages of severity info and notice are logged to /var/log/messages, all debug messages from the mail daemon are logged to /var/log/maillog, and all warn messages are logged to /var/log/syslog. Also, any emerg warnings from the kernel are sent to the console (which is the current virtual console, or an xterm started with the -C option). The messages logged by syslogd usually include the date, an indication of what process or facility delivered the message, and the message itself–all on one line. For example, a kernel error message indicating a problem with data on an ext2fs filesystem might appear in the log files as:

Dec 1 21:03:35 loomer kernel: EXT2-fs error (device 3/2):  ext2_check_blocks_bit map: Wrong free blocks count in super block,  stored = 27202, counted = 27853

Similarly, if a su to the root account succeeds, you might see a log message such as:

Dec 11 15:31:51 loomer su: mdw on /dev/ttyp3

Log files can be important in tracking down system problems. If a log file grows too large, you can delete it using rm; it will be recreated when syslogd starts up again.

Your system probably comes equipped with a running syslogd and an /etc/syslog.conf that does the right thing. However, it’s important to know where your log files are and what programs they represent. If you need to log many messages (say, debugging messages from the kernel, which can be very verbose) you can edit syslog.conf and tell syslogd to reread its configuration file with the command:

kill -HUP `cat /var/run/`

Note the use of backquotes to obtain the process ID of syslogd, contained in /var/run/

Other system logs might be available as well. These include:


This file contains binary data indicating the login times and duration for each user on the system; it is used by the last command to generate a listing of user logins. The output of last might look like:

mdw     tty3               Sun Dec 11 15:25   still logged inmdw     tty3               Sun Dec 11 15:24 – 15:25 (00:00)mdw     tty1               Sun Dec 11 11:46   still logged inreboot   ~                   Sun Dec 11 06:46

A record is also logged in /var/log/wtmp when the system is rebooted.


This is another binary file that contains information on users currently logged into the system. Commands, such as who, w, and finger, use this file to produce information on who is logged in. For example, the w command might print:

3:58pm up 4:12, 5 users, load average: 0.01, 0.02, 0.00User     tty       login@ idle   JCPU   PCPU whatmdw     ttyp3   11:46am   14               -mdw     ttyp2   11:46am           1         wmdw     ttyp4   11:46am                     kermitmdw     ttyp0   11:46am   14               bash

We see the login times for each user (in this case, one user logged in many times), as well as the command currently being used. The w manual page describes all of the fields displayed.


This file is similar to wtmp, but is used by different programs (such as finger, to determine when a user was last logged in.)

Note that the format of the wtmp and utmp files differs from system to system. Some programs may be compiled to expect one format and others another format. For this reason, commands that use the files may produce confusing or inaccurate information–especially if the files become corrupted by a program that writes information to them in the wrong format.

Logfiles can get quite large, and if you do not have the necessary hard disk space, you have to do something about your partitions being filled too fast. Of course, you can delete the log files from time to time, but you may not want to do this, since the log files also contain information that can be valuable in crisis situations.

One option is to copy the log files from time to time to another file and compress this file. The log file itself starts at 0 again. Here is a short shell script that does this for the log file /var/log/messages:

mv /var/log/messages /var/log/messages-backupcp /dev/null /var/log/messages CURDATE=`date +”%m%d%y”` mv /var/log/messages-backup /var/log/messages-$CURDATEgzip /var/log/messages-$CURDATE

First, we move the log file to a different name and then truncate the original file to 0 bytes by copying to it from /dev/null. We do this so that further logging can be done without problems while the next steps are done. Then, we compute a date string for the current date that is used as a suffix for the filename, rename the backup file, and finally compress it with gzip.

You might want to run this small script from cron, but as it is presented here, it should not be run more than once a day–otherwise the compressed backup copy will be overwritten, because the filename reflects the date but not the time of day. If you want to run this script more often, you must use additional numbers to distinguish between the various copies.

There are many more improvements that could be made here. For example, you might want to check the size of the log file first and only copy and compress it if this size exceeds a certain limit.

Even though this is already an improvement, your partition containing the log files will eventually get filled. You can solve this problem by keeping only a certain number of compressed log files (say, 10) around. When you have created as many log files as you want to have, you delete the oldest, and overwrite it with the next one to be copied. This principle is also called log rotation. Some distributions have scripts like savelog or logrotate that can do this automatically.


All authentication and privilege related messages go this file. These messages are typically from services like SSHD, XINETD. When some one logs into the server, say using ssh client, sshd would enter an entry into the secure log describing the status of the login attempt. In both cases of success and failure, sshd will record time, status, source, protocol etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.