How to calculate HTTP content-length metrics on cli
A simple guide to crunch numbers for understanding overall HTTP content length metrics.
How to calculate HTTP content-length metrics on cli

A simple guide to crunch numbers for understanding overall HTTP content length metrics.

Nginx is commonly used as an ingress proxy — your public load balancer receives a request and passes it on to Nginx, which in turn checks it against pre-set routing rules and passes it on to the right application. In my setup, the traffic pattern consisted of HTTP requests but I had to enable my public endpoint temporarily to receive Prometheus remote write metric traffic. As soon as I did that, I saw a flurry of these warning log lines in Nginx:

[warn] 97#97: *605464656 a client request body is buffered to a temporary file /var/cache/nginx/client_temp/0014975406, client:, server:, request: "POST /endpointN/prometheus/write HTTP/1.1", host: ""

/endpointN corresponds to an internal metric source where N=1, 2, 3, etc.

A quick google search showed that this is because the content size of the POST request was greater than the in-memory buffer size set by Nginx. This means the file was being cached to /tmp.

This warning was also accompanied by a more serious error

413 Request Entity Too Large

This is a known problem of POST body size > permissible limit and the solution is to increase client_max_body_size. How much should this size be — 32 MB, 64 MB? Setting it to 64 MB might have been good enough. I did that and the error went away.

However, rather than blindly setting it to 64 MB, I also wanted to know numbers like min, max, avg, P50 to understand typical values of content length during peak traffic hours.

Why? Because till we have a permanent solution for capturing these metrics, it helps to have a rough calculation handy to know what is the current normal.

There are multiple ways to do this, in increasing order of complexity and cost:

  1. Drink from the firehose of live traffic and dump Content-Length HTTP headers locally.
  • Pros: quick, no extra setup, works directly with HTTP requests so no dependency on log format.
  • Cons: Gives rough numbers, not a permanent solution, your number crunching script/cli is running on a prod system (avoid doing this — use a load test env if possible).

2. Ship Nginx logs to S3 via a log shipper like Fluentd for offline analysis.

  • Pros: Long term offline storage, Minimal $, can query historical data.
  • Cons: Log shipper installation.

3. Ship Nginx logs to a log analytics tool like ELK, Splunk, etc for realtime analysis.

  • Pros: Log based alerting, faster adhoc search.
  • Cons: Log shipper installation, more $$ and the headache of managing a managed service.

Each option has its place depending on how fast / permanent you want your results to be. In my case, I just wanted to know rough numbers till I implemented option-2 — so we will go with the option-1 — analyze live traffic locally.

An easy way to accomplish this is to take a tcpdump of the traffic during peak hours and do simple math on it.

tcpdump -A -vvv -nli any '(port 8080) and (length > 74)' -s 0 -w - 2>/dev/null | strings | grep -A10 HTTP  | grep Content-Length > /tmp/content-lengths.txt

This dumps lines in the following format:

Content-Length: 222Content-Length: 124..

Find max content length

cat /tmp/content-lengths.txt | cut -f2 -d':' | tr -d ' ' | sort -nr | head -1

Find min content length

cat /tmp/content-lengths.txt | cut -f2 -d':' | tr -d ' ' | sort -n | head -1

Find average content length

total_size=$(cat /tmp/content-lengths.txt | cut -f2 -d':' | tr -d ' ' | paste -sd+  | bc)
total_lines=$(wc -l /tmp/content-lengths.txt | awk '{ print $1 }')
echo "scale=2; $total_size / $total_lines" | bc

Find P50

cat /tmp/content-lengths.txt | cut -f2 -d':' | tr -d ' ' | sort -n > /tmp/content-distribution.txt
total_lines=$(wc -l /tmp/content-lengths.txt | awk '{ print $1 }')
target_line=$(echo "$target_percentile * $total_lines / 100" | bc)
sed -n ${target_line}p /tmp/content-distribution.txt

The above calculation assumes that number of lines captured > 100.

For getting P99 — replace target_percentile with the right number.

If this isn’t enough and you still crave for fancy graphs showing a list of percentiles, use /tmp/content-length-distribution.txt and power it up with termgraph and a simple shell script - saurabh-hirani/bin/ which takes an input list of percentiles, calculates their values and feeds it to termgraph.

cat /tmp/content-length-distribution.txt | ./ $(seq 1 10 | while read p; do echo "$p * 10" | bc; done) | termgraph

You can also increase the granularity of percentiles by increasing the list of inputs to

cat /tmp/content-length-distribution.txt | ./ $(seq 1 20 | while read p; do echo "$p * 5" | bc; done) | termgraph

If you want to try out the above commands by generating sample data, follow these steps:

  1. Start a python server in terminal-1
python -m http.server 8080

2. Send POST traffic of varying content lengths to it in terminal-2 with max content lenght capped at 1 KB:

while : ; do curl --location --request POST 'http://localhost:8080' --data-raw "$(cat /dev/urandom | tr -dc 'a-z0-9' | fold -w $(shuf -i 100-1024 -n 1) | head -1)"; sleep 0.1; done

3. Analyze the traffic in terminal-3 (to be run as root)

tcpdump -A -vvv -nli any '(port 8080) and (length > 74)' -s 0 -w - 2>/dev/null | strings | grep -A10 HTTP | tee /tmp/content-lengths.txt

4. Run for a minute or so to capture the data and run the above calculations.

Another interesting part is that we can use the same filters with a minor tweak to get per endpoint stats i.e.

tcpdump -A -vvv -nli any '(port 8080) and (length > 74)' -s 0 -w - 2>/dev/null | strings | grep -A10 HTTP

output is

POST /endpoint1/prometheus/write HTTP/1.1Host: localhost:8080User-Agent: curl/7.68.0Accept: */*Content-Length: 718...

Because POST /endpoint1/prometheus/write and Content-Length have 3 lines between them, I could do the following to filter the right endpoint headers:

tcpdump -A -vvv -nli any '(port 8080) and (length > 74)' -s 0 -w - 2>/dev/null | strings | grep -A10 HTTP | grep -A3 "POST /endpoint2"

It’s worth mentioning that along with sed, grep, awk, we have friends like fold, shuf to help us out in times of need.

A key takeway from this exercise is that having the tooling handy to get back-of-the-napkin calculations gives good insights before instrumenting logs and metrics.

Got questions, doubts, suggestions? You can reach out to me on Twitter/Linkedin.
Oh, before i forget — Please check out Last9. We’re reimagining Site Reliability Engineering. 🟢

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