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Logging With NGINX – How to Configure It and What to Watch Out For


Fully Functional for 14 Days

Last updated: December 18, 2023

As web applications become more complex, a need for monitoring and observation emerges. Configuring NGINX logs can be challenging; misconfigured logs can lead to missed critical data or excessive use of storage. In addition, incorrect configuration may expose your server to vulnerabilities. 

This post is a comprehensive guide on logging with NGINX. We’ll look at the configuration of NGINX logs and potential aspects to watch out for, ensuring you can leverage the full potential of NGINX logs while keeping your web server secure. 

What Is NGINX? 

NGINX (pronounced “engine-x”) is a high-performance and reliable web server, reverse proxy server, and load balancer capable of handling vast amounts of traffic for the internet’s busiest websites. NGINX is performant, scalable, and versatile. One of the critical features of NGINX is logging, which involves systematically recording events and data like HTTP requests, responses, or errors. NGINX provides flexible logging features to capture valuable details and help you understand the behavior of your web server, especially when troubleshooting. 

Where Can I Find the NGINX Logs? 

You’ll find NGINX logs in the directory specified in your NGINX configuration. This is the default path /var/log/nginx/ but may vary depending on your configuration. NGINX offers two different files for logging valuable web server data. Those two files are error_log and access_log. The access_log stores information about web client requests, and error_log stores other unexpected or informative messages. 

Configuring access_log 

The access_log file collects all client requests immediately after they’re processed. It provides a great way to log which pages users are requesting from your web server. You can choose where to write the acess_log data using the following configuration file syntax: 

access_log path [format [buffer=size] [gzip[=level]] [flush=time] [if=condition]];
access_log off;

Specifying format allows you to use a custom format in your logs using variables such as the number of bytes sent to the client ($bytes_sent) or the request length ($request_length). 

Normally, NGINX will log every transaction it processes in access_log. The if=condition parameter provides a powerful way to perform conditional logging, so it only stores log access log messages if some condition is true. For example, if you only want to record requests returning a HTTP 404 status code, you can use the following snippet: 

map $status $should_log {
	404 1;
	default 0;

access_log logs/access.log combined if=$should_log;

With this change, any requests completed successfully (2xx), redirected to another page (3xx), or encountered a server error (5xx) will not be logged in logs/access.log—only 404 errors will be logged. 

If you have more than one virtual host or multiple http, server, or location directives then sometimes it’s handy to be able to disable logging at the current directive level, and the special off value was created for this purpose. The following configuration line shows how you can prevent NGINX from writing access information to any access_log target at the current level: 

access_log off;

For a fuller explanation of the configuration options, check out the NGINX access_log documentation

NGINX Log Severity Levels

NGINX supports a wide range of severity levels, making it easy to log the information you care about. We can use each level with the error_log directive to set the minimum level at which we log messages. Here are the supported levels in lowest to highest order, along with a guide on how they’re used: 

  • Debug – Debugging messages that are not useful most of the time. 
  • Info – Informational messages that might be good to know. 
  • Notice – Something normal but significant happened, and it should be noted. 
  • Warn – Something unexpected happened, however it’s not a cause for concern. 
  • Error – Something failed. 
  • Crit – A critical condition occurred. 
  • Alert – Immediate action is required. 
  • Emerg – The system is unusable. 

Configuring error_log 

By default, the error_log file captures all log messages at the error severity level. Which means it’s primarily used for understanding fatal or critical messages to help with troubleshooting. The default location for error_log is logs/error.log. The way NGINX stores error messages is flexible and—along with allowing you to write messages to a file—it also supports sending error_log messages to stderr or the syslog daemon. If you’re running NGINX open source 1.5.2 or newer, you can also send error_log messages to more than one place at a time by specifying multiple error_log directives on the same configuration level. 

If you want to log all messages at or above the warn log severity make the following configuration change: 

error_log logs/error.log warn;

Logging to Syslog With NGINX

The access_log and error_log directives support sending messages to a syslog daemon using the syslog: string in your configuration. The following snippet shows the syntax for using either of the directives with a syslog daemon: 

http {
error_log syslog:server[,facility=][,tag=][,severity=];

For example, to direct all error_log messages with warn or higher severity to the syslog daemon, use: 

error_log syslog:server= severity=warn;

You can customize the syslog configuration to suit your environment using the syslog parameter described in the NGINX syslog documentation

Things to Watch Out For

The flexibility NGINX logging provides comes at a cost, and there are some things to watch out for when writing your configuration file. We’ve already covered NGINX’s ability to override logging configurations at the directive level, and this feature is extremely useful for logging extra information whenever users access specific paths, e.g., logging extra traffic information for any users accessing the /private URI. However, using nested access logs can quickly become complex and you should be careful not to use this feature too much. 

Writing access_log entries to a file on disk can degrade server performance and increase the response latency for user requests. For web servers needing to maintain high performance, NGINX provides a way to write log messages to a cyclic buffer in memory, completely bypassing the disk. Extracting these logs involves more than reading a file, so you should only use this if performance is critical for your workload. 

To use this feature, configure your version of NGINX using the—with-debug option. You can check if this is the case by doing this: 

$ nginx -V 2>&1 | grep—‘—with-debug’
configure arguments: --with-debug

Inside the configuration file you can enable writing log entries to memory with the following snippet:

error_log memory:32m debug;
http {

This will write all log messages at the debug level. Extracting the log messages from memory involves using gdb to connect to the NGINX process and copy and paste the following script at the prompt:

set $log = ngx_cycle->log
while $log->writer != ngx_log_memory_writer
set $log = $log->next
set $buf = (ngx_log_memory_buf_t *) $log->wdata
dump binary memory debug_log.txt $buf->start $buf->end

Then quit GDB using Ctrl-D. The above script will write the contents of memory to the debug_log.txt file where you can read it like normal.


NGINX allows you to collect logs for routine accesses and unexpected errors into separate files for later analysis and troubleshooting. You can customize the format of the access_log file to include detailed information about requests. The information may include the number of bytes sent to the client or the request length. Conversely, the error_log directive allows you to control the minimum severity level required to log messages. The access_log and error_log directives can transmit log entries to a syslog daemon, which can be extremely handy for developers working with multiple web servers. 

And if all of those features aren’t enough for you, you can even write error_log entries to a memory buffer. By doing that, you avoid writing to disk and reduce the performance impact for busy servers. Trying to analyze NGINX logs can get overwhelming. As a result, you need NGINX log analyzer like SolarWinds® Papertrail™ that’ll help you centralize, search through your logs with ease, and aggregate and analyze them effectively, thus improving yourmonitoring and troubleshooting venture. Request your demo today to analyze your NGINX logs like a pro. 

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