Categorically Solving Cronspam

For a little over a year at ZipRecruiter we have had some tooling that “fixes” a non-trivial amount of cronspam. Read on to see what I mean and how.

If you have administered a Unix system for much time at all you will likely know about cronspam. Basically, cron captures any output from a cronjob and emails it to the MAILTO address, or (I think) [email protected]. We always set the MAILTO environment variable so that teams who the job is relevant to get the email, instead of a central team getting all matter of random failures.

So the tough thing is, when you have tens or hundreds of servers, through the law of averages, you are bound to get some non-recurring errors. Further, sometimes someone will commit a bug that will cause a job to print a warning or even a non-warning status message. If this job runs more than daily you are likely to be annoyed when you get tens or hundreds of emails in your inbox that are not actionable.

🔗 zr-cron

So at some point I decided to write (the typically named) zr-cron. It is a fairly straightforward perl script that takes a -c argument and gets installed into every single crontab as the SHELL. Here’s an example prelude:

STARTERVIEW=/var/starterview
PATH=/var/starterview/bin:/usr/bin:/bin
SHELL=/bin/zr-cron
ZRC_CRON_FILE=/etc/cron.d/zr-email-bot

The first two are environment variables that basically all of our code needs; the SHELL is how cron knows to use zr-cron instead of bash. The final environment variable is how we communicate to zr-cron what it should be doing. Users add more environment variables to tweak zr-cron ’s behavior, discussed more in depth later.

After being invoked by cron(8), zr-cron creates a temporary directory and sets TMPDIR to the relevant path, to aid in cleaning up after cronjobs. (I had originally used a namespace, but that caused more trouble than it was worth.)

Then, zr-cron, runs the underlying program, capturing all of STDOUT and STDERR, merged into a single scalar. It then logs the output, along with all of the environment variables, the command that was run, the time the job started and stopped, and a few other miscellaneous details. If the ZRC_LOUD environment variable is set, it instead sends an email with the output to MAILTO immediately. Jobs with ZRC_LOUD set tend to be cron based monitoring that point to a pager, or a job that no one has figured out how to monitor in a better fashion (or both, I guess.)

That’s it for zr-cron. There is another tool that picks up where it leaves off, though.

🔗 zr-cron-report

Once a day a script called zr-cron-report runs. It uses Amazon Athena to gather up all the logged details about all of the cronjobs that have run across the whole fleet in the past day. (It used to run directly against our logging ElasticSearch cluster, but Athena is more powerful and reliable.) The amount of data that comes back from this query could easily cause an out-of-memory condition, so instead of reading the results into memory, we download all of the results, iterate over a single result at a time (using a filehandle as an ersatz cursor,) and insert them into a temporary (but not in-memory) SQLite database. Here is the entire schema for that database:

  CREATE TABLE _ (
    command,
    message,
    output,
    source_host,
    env_ZRC_CRON_FILE,
    env_MAILTO,
    timestamp,
    exit_code,
    signal
  )

Once the temporary, local database has been populated, generating the zr-cron report is fairly straightforward and pedestrian code.

We do a lot of work to group together cronjobs that errored in the same way. This way instead of getting 24 of the same email for a crashing hourly cronjob, we have a single section in the report that says a given error occurred 24 times, on the host called foo, invoked from such-and-such cronfile. Included are the exit code or signal causing termination.

Similarly, when we generate the report we group by the MAILTO, so that each team gets a custom report just for their own services. zr-cron-report also injects a synthetic [email protected] MAILTO entry so that for posterity we have a gigantic report of all of the cronjobs that failed in the entire company.

On top of that, to bound the size of the report, when grouping by output we only take ten unique sets of output per cronjob. This keeps the system useful even when an exception contains some nonce or something that causes it to be unique every time. (By the way, the report also munges all output in a fairly basic way before inserting the data into the SQLite database, to assist such grouping.)

When I first wrote the report I did all of the work in memory, iterating over the results from ElasticSearch and doing my best to keep the in-memory reports efficient and also trying to support the features I needed to. Recall that I am grouping at (at least) two levels here. Doing that manually with nested hashes is confusing and error prone. The SQL version is almost always a breeze to work with and is suprisingly efficient. The report for today took less than three minutes.


I hope that this post inspires you to consider how to systematically reduce operational overhead, especially thankless overhead like “reading email.” I regularly try to think strategically, with the goal being to figure out various ways that we can reduce a lot of this toil. In my opinion it almost always pays off.


I didn’t intend for this post to showcase SQL in two relatively unusual contexts: one being a MapReduce alike frontend and the other being a single file, transient database. SQL is really useful! Here are the books I learned with, many moons ago:

Database Design for Mere Mortals is an excellent book for getting started on good RDBMS design. I read an older edition (the 3rd edition wasn’t out at the time) but I cannot imagine it changed much, other than newer data types that are relevant these days.

If you need something more basic, check out SQL in 10 Minutes. I started with this book and it was a lot of fun for me at the time, though that was more than a decade ago at this point.

Posted Mon, Feb 26, 2018

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