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Learn how to instrument nginx with OpenTelemetry

Apache and nginx are the most popular web servers. It’s most likely that you are using one of them in your application. In a previous blog post, you learned how to use the OpenTelemetry Apache Module to add observability to Apache. In this blog post, you will learn how you can get observability for nginx!

Install the nginx module

In the following, you are going to use docker to run a nginx server with the ngx_http_opentelemetry_module.so enabled and configured. Of course, you can use the same set of commands used in the Dockerfile below to configure a nginx server on a bare-metal machine.

Start from an empty directory. Create a file called Dockerfile and copy the following content into it:

FROM nginx:1.18
RUN apt-get update ; apt-get install unzip
ADD https://github.com/open-telemetry/opentelemetry-cpp-contrib/releases/download/webserver%2Fv1.0.0/opentelemetry-webserver-sdk-x64-linux.tgz.zip /opt
RUN cd /opt ; unzip opentelemetry-webserver-sdk-x64-linux.tgz.zip; tar xvfz opentelemetry-webserver-sdk-x64-linux.tgz
RUN cd /opt/opentelemetry-webserver-sdk; ./install.sh
ENV LD_LIBRARY_PATH=$LD_LIBRARY_PATH:/opt/opentelemetry-webserver-sdk/sdk_lib/lib
RUN echo "load_module /opt/opentelemetry-webserver-sdk/WebServerModule/Nginx/ngx_http_opentelemetry_module.so;\n$(cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf)" > /etc/nginx/nginx.conf
COPY opentelemetry_module.conf /etc/nginx/conf.d

What this Dockerfile does:

  • Pull a base image with nginx 1.18 pre-installed
  • Install unzip
  • Download the opentelemetry-webserver-sdk-x64-linux package
  • Unpack the package, put it into /opt & run ./install.sh
  • Add the dependencies at /opt/opentelemetry-webserver-sdk/sdk_lib/lib to the library path (LD_LIBRARY_PATH)
  • Tell nginx to load the ngx_http_opentelemetry_module.so
  • Add the configuration of the modules to nginx.

Next, create another file called opentelemetry_module.conf and copy the following content into it:

NginxModuleEnabled ON;
NginxModuleOtelSpanExporter otlp;
NginxModuleOtelExporterEndpoint localhost:4317;
NginxModuleServiceName DemoService;
NginxModuleServiceNamespace DemoServiceNamespace;
NginxModuleServiceInstanceId DemoInstanceId;
NginxModuleResolveBackends ON;
NginxModuleTraceAsError ON;

This will enable the OpenTelemetry and apply the following configuration:

  • Send spans via OTLP to localhost:4317
  • Set the attributes service.name to DemoService, service.namespace to DemoServiceNamespace and the service.instance_id to DemoInstanceId
  • Report traces as errors, so you will see them in the nginx log

To learn all the settings available, see the full list of directives.

With the Dockerfile and nginx config in place, build your docker image and run the container:

$ docker build -t nginx-otel --platform linux/amd64 .
$ docker run --platform linux/amd64 --rm -p 8080:80 nginx-otel
...
2022/08/12 09:26:42 [error] 69#69: mod_opentelemetry: ngx_http_opentelemetry_init_worker: Initializing Nginx Worker for process with PID: 69

With the container up and running, send requests to nginx using, for example, curl localhost:8080.

Since the configuration above has NginxModuleTraceAsError set to ON and you will see your traces dump to the error log of nginx:

2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: startMonitoringRequest: Starting Request Monitoring for: / HTTP/1.1
Host, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: startMonitoringRequest: WebServer Context: DemoServiceNamespaceDemoServiceDemoInstanceId, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: startMonitoringRequest: Request Monitoring begins successfully , client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_startInteraction: Starting a new module interaction for: ngx_http_realip_module, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_payload_decorator: Key : tracestate, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_payload_decorator: Value : , client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_payload_decorator: Key : baggage, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_payload_decorator: Value : , client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_payload_decorator: Key : traceparent, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_payload_decorator: Value : 00-987932d28550c0a1c0a82db380a075a8-fc0bf2248e93dc42-01, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_startInteraction: Interaction begin successful, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"
2022/08/12 09:31:12 [error] 70#70: *3 mod_opentelemetry: otel_stopInteraction: Stopping the Interaction for: ngx_http_realip_module, client: 172.17.0.1, server: localhost, request: "GET / HTTP/1.1", host: "localhost:8080"

Viewing spans in Jaeger

At this point the telemetry data generated by nginx is not send to an OpenTelemetry collector or any other observability backend. You can easily change that by creating a docker-compose file, that starts the nginx server, the collector and Jaeger:

Create a file called docker-compose.yml and add the following content:

version: "2"
services:
  jaeger:
    image: jaegertracing/all-in-one:latest
    ports:
      - "16686:16686"
  collector:
    image: otel/opentelemetry-collector:latest
    command: ["--config=/etc/otel-collector-config.yaml"]
    volumes:
      - ./otel-collector-config.yaml:/etc/otel-collector-config.yaml
  nginx:
    image: nginx-otel
    volumes:
      - ./opentelemetry_module.conf:/etc/nginx/conf.d/opentelemetry_module.conf
    ports:
      - 8080:80

Create a file called otel-collect-rconfig.yaml containing the following:

receivers:
  otlp:
    protocols:
      grpc:
      http:
exporters:
  jaeger:
    endpoint: jaeger:14250
    tls:
      insecure: true
service:
  pipelines:
    traces:
      receivers: [otlp]
      exporters: [jaeger]

Before spinning up the containers, update line 3 in opentelemetry_module.conf to have the right exporter endpoint:

NginxModuleEnabled ON; NginxModuleOtelSpanExporter otlp;
NginxModuleOtelExporterEndpoint collector:4317;

You don’t need to rebuild your docker image, because the docker-compose.yaml above loads the opentelemetry_module.conf as a file volume on container startup.

Get everything up and running:

$ docker-compose up

In another shell, create some traffic:

$ curl localhost:8080

In your browser open localhost:16686 and search for traces from DemoService and drill into one of them.

A screenshot of the Jaeger trace view, showing a waterfall of spans representing the time consumed by different nginx modules.

You will see one span for each nginx module being executed during the request. With that you can easily spot issues with certain modules, for example, a rewrite going mad.

Put nginx between two services

Of course, nginx is rarely used as a standalone solution! Most of the time it is used as a reverse proxy or load balancer in front of another service. And, there might be a service calling nginx to reach that down stream service.

Add two more services to the running example:

  • A Node.js service called frontend that sits at the front and calls the nginx
  • A java service called backend that sits behind the nginx

Update the docker-compose file to contain those 2 services and to overwrite the default.conf in nginx:

version: "2"
services:
  jaeger:
    image: jaegertracing/all-in-one:latest
    ports:
      - "16686:16686"
  collector:
    image: otel/opentelemetry-collector:latest
    command: ["--config=/etc/otel-collector-config.yaml"]
    volumes:
      - ./otel-collector-config.yaml:/etc/otel-collector-config.yaml
  nginx:
    image: nginx-otel
    volumes:
      - ./opentelemetry_module.conf:/etc/nginx/conf.d/opentelemetry_module.conf
      - ./default.conf:/etc/nginx/conf.d/default.conf
  backend:
    build: ./backend
    image: backend-with-otel
    environment:
      - OTEL_TRACES_EXPORTER=otlp
      - OTEL_METRICS_EXPORTER=none
      - OTEL_EXPORTER_OTLP_ENDPOINT=http://collector:4318/
      - OTEL_EXPORTER_OTLP_PROTOCOL=http/protobuf
      - OTEL_SERVICE_NAME=backend
  frontend:
    build: ./frontend
    image: frontend-with-otel
    ports:
      - "8000:8000"
    environment:
      - OTEL_EXPORTER_OTLP_ENDPOINT=http://collector:4318/
      - OTEL_EXPORTER_OTLP_PROTOCOL=http/protobuf
      - OTEL_SERVICE_NAME=frontend

Create the default.conf that will pass requests to nginx down to the backend service:

server {
    listen       80;
    location / {
        proxy_pass http://backend:8080;
    }
}

Create two empty folders backend and frontend.

In the frontend folder, create a simple Node.js app:

const opentelemetry = require("@opentelemetry/sdk-node");
const {
  getNodeAutoInstrumentations,
} = require("@opentelemetry/auto-instrumentations-node");
const {
  OTLPTraceExporter,
} = require("@opentelemetry/exporter-trace-otlp-http");

const sdk = new opentelemetry.NodeSDK({
  traceExporter: new OTLPTraceExporter(),
  instrumentations: [getNodeAutoInstrumentations()],
});

sdk.start().then(() => {
  const express = require("express");
  const http = require("http");
  const app = express();
  app.get("/", (_, response) => {
    const options = {
      hostname: "nginx",
      port: 80,
      path: "/",
      method: "GET",
    };
    const req = http.request(options, (res) => {
      console.log(`statusCode: ${res.statusCode}`);
      res.on("data", (d) => {
        response.send("Hello World");
      });
    });
    req.end();
  });
  app.listen(parseInt(8000, 10), () => {
    console.log("Listening for requests");
  });
});

To finalize the frontend service, create an empty Dockerfile with the following content:

FROM node:16
WORKDIR /app
RUN npm install @opentelemetry/api @opentelemetry/auto-instrumentations-node @opentelemetry/exporter-trace-otlp-http @opentelemetry/sdk-node express
COPY app.js .
EXPOSE 8000
CMD [ "node", "app.js" ]

For the backend service, you are going to use Tomcat with the OpenTelemetry Java agent installed. For this, create a Dockerfile like the following in the backend folder

FROM tomcat
ADD https://github.com/open-telemetry/opentelemetry-java-instrumentation/releases/latest/download/opentelemetry-javaagent.jar javaagent.jar
ENV JAVA_OPTS="-javaagent:javaagent.jar"
CMD ["catalina.sh", "run"]

As you can see, the Dockerfile downloads and adds the OpenTelemetry Java agent for you automatically.

You should now have the following files in your top level directory:

  • ./default.conf
  • ./docker-compose.yml
  • ./Dockerfile
  • ./opentelemetry_module.conf
  • ./otel-collector-config.yaml
  • ./backend/Dockerfile
  • ./frontend/Dockerfile
  • ./frontend/app.js

With everything in place, you can now start the demo environment:

$ docker-compose up

Within a few moments you should have five docker containers up and running:

  • Jaeger
  • OTel Collector
  • Nginx
  • Frontend
  • Backend

Send a few requests to the frontend with curl localhost:8000 and then check the Jaeger UI in your browser at localhost:16686. You should see traces going from frontend to nginx to backend.

The frontend trace should indicate an error, since nginx is forwarding the Page Not Found from Tomcat.

A screenshot of the jaeger trace view, showing a waterfall of spans going from the frontend to nginx down to the backend.

What’s next?

You should now be able to apply what you have learned from this blog post to your own installation of nginx. We would love to hear about your experience! If you run into any problems, create an issue.