Conditionally running Ingest Pipelines with Filebeat, Docker and Elastic
May 4, 2023
Emma Russell
6 minute read

TL;DR - if you want to apply an Ingest Pipeline conditionally in Elastic, consider defining it as a processor in another pipeline and setting its if property.


We use Filebeat to ship application logs to Elastic from our Docker containers. Since we dockerise anything that moves, we have many types of docker container, including containers for Kotlin and JavaScript web applications, for APIs written in R, and for NGINX web proxies. Each type of container logs messages in a different format. Some of our applications ship JSON logs with the fields nicely separated out, however many of our logs have raw message fields in various formats.

Filebeat is also running in a Docker container, and is configured via filebeat.docker.yml, with autodiscover switched on - so we ship logs from all other docker containers using this common configuration.

The requirement: process NGINX logs

For our MINT application, we wanted to produce some fairly basic analytics reports on usage of the app, segmented by url route and by user country. All the raw information we needed to construct these reports (client IP address and request url) are available in the standard NGINX logs, so it seemed like we should just harvest the data from these rather than needing to do any custom logging in the application containers.

Without any further processing, a raw logged message from nginx looks something like this: - - [18/Jan/2023:12:11:36 +0000] "GET /favicon.ico HTTP/1.1" 404 757 "-" "Mozilla / 5.0(Windows NT 10.0; &) Gecko / 20100101 Firefox / 62.0" "-"

We needed to deconstruct this format into useful values which can be used in reports or visualisations.

The problem: a single pipeline configuration option

Luckily, an nginx Ingest Pipeline is already defined out of the box on Elastic server, which can do all the processing we need. Furthermore, we can specify an Ingest Pipeline in filebeat.docker.yml which will be applied when logs are ingested:

  username: elastic
  password: ${ELASTIC_PASSWORD}
  pipeline: "nginx"

However, we wanted the pipeline to be applied only to logs from our NGINX proxy containers, and not to any others. But once it is defined in the yml, there is no way to conditionally apply this pipeline - it’s all or nothing,

An apparent solution: define a conditional dissect processor in Filebeats config

This issue apparently ruled out using an Ingest Pipeline - but there was another straw to clutch at. Instead of specifying a global pipeline, we can also define an array of processors in the yml, and these can be applied conditionally. As mentioned above, some of our containers log in JSON format, and we are already conditionally using the decode_json_fields processor when a document is being logged by a container with a given name:

    - type: docker
      hints.enabled: true
  - if:
      equals: "hint_hint"
    - decode_json_fields:
        fields: ["message"]
        process_array: false
        max_depth: 1
        target: ""
        overwrite_keys: false
        add_error_key: true

So it seemed that it should be possible to do something similar to process the NGINX logs. We tried this approach, using the dissect processor to pull apart the NGINX log messages and direct the individual parts into new fields prefixed nginx. e.g. nginx.clientip, nginx.status:

    equals: reside/proxy-nginx:master
    - dissect:
        tokenizer: "%{IPORHOST:source.ip} %{} %{} \\[%{HTTPDATE:@timestamp}\\] \"%{WORD:http.request.method} %{DATA:url.original} HTTP/%{NUMBER:http.version}\" %{NUMBER:http.response.status_code:int} (?:-|%{NUMBER:http.response.body.bytes:int}) %{QS:http.request.referrer} %{QS:user_agent}"
        field: "message"
        target_prefix: "nginx"

The problem #2: not enough processing!

In fact this worked pretty nicely - the dissect processor did what it was supposed to, and we ended up with the new nginx fields appearing in the ingested logs.

The problem was that the IP addresses ingested in this way stayed as monolithic strings and could not be used in this form to create a nice report segmented by country since the facilities for building reports and visualisations in elastic really require all fields to be fully processed in advance.

We can define multiple processors in the yml file, but these cannot be chained in the manner of a pipeline. So we could not include e.g. a GeoIP processor after the dissect processor to use the nginx.clientip field generated by the dissect processor to generate geographical information - each processor defined in processors in the yml file can only work on the fields present in the unprocessed logs.

Another dead end: Index patterns

Index patterns allow post-ingestion processing of data to generate new fields which could be used in further reporting. So it is possible that we could have done further processing of the nginx.clientip IP addresses in an index pattern. We wanted to use the GeoIP processor to map IP addresses to geographical data, which should have been possible using the “Painless” (!) scripting language’s ability to invoke processors (described here), again combined with conditional application.

However, using index patterns is expensive at query time, and Elastic limits what fields can be used in index patterns. Furthermore, we really didn’t want to have to recreate the existing nginx pipeline with some combination of configured and scripted processors - we just wanted to use the pipeline for some documents and not others.

A better solution: use nginx pipeline conditionally from a second pipeline

Ingest pipelines consist of a chain of processors e.g. the nginx pipeline includes a Grok processor to break apart the message field, and the GeoIP processor already described. However, pipelines can also be used as processors in other pipelines. And this Pipeline processor type has an if field, allowing us to specify the condition on which we want the pipeline to run (where the condition is expressed as a Painless script).

In our case we wanted to run the pipeline when the unprocessed log’s field matched our nginx proxy docker image’s name, “reside/proxy-nginx:master”. We are able to access the original document fields on the ctx object, so here we set the if condition to: ctx?.container?.image?.name == 'reside/proxy-nginx:master'.

This allows us to achieve our goal of generating useful information from nginx logs on ingestion, including IP country, without attempting to apply processing to logs for which it will be irrelevant.

We created a new pipeline called nginx-conditional with a single Pipeline processor as described above. Here’s the full definition of the Processors for that pipeline:

    "pipeline": {
      "name": "nginx",
      "if": "ctx?.container?.image?.name == 'reside/proxy-nginx:master'",
      "ignore_failure": true

We also updated filebeat.docker.yml to specify the new pipeline:

  username: elastic
  password: ${ELASTIC_PASSWORD}
  pipeline: "nginx-conditional"

The configured pipeline does not interfere with any configured processors in the yml file, whose output continues to appear in the ingested logs.

This approach could also be generalised. We could potentially make a similar pipeline which could be a general processing entry point if we find that we want to process more types of logs using further processing pipelines. For example, to process Apache logs and SQL logs too, we could have apache and sql processing pipelines as well as nginx, rename nginx-conditional to something like process-all, and define a Pipeline processor for each processing pipeline, each of which applies that pipeline in its if field based on, or some other relevant field value.

This whole journey was a path that would not have been trodden by someone with a deeper knowledge of Elastic than I have. It’s an extensive and powerful ecosystem, with many potential ways to approach most requirements, and the best choice is not always obvious to the occasional user. But from my limited experience, it seems that Pipeline processors with if conditions are a very useful thing to know about!

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