Native Journal Protocol

systemd-journald.service accepts log data via various protocols:

The latter is what this document is about: if you are developing a program and want to pass structured log data to journald, it’s the Journal’s native protocol what you want to use. The systemd project provides the sd_journal_print(3) API that implements the client side of this protocol. This document explains what this interface does behind the scenes, in case you’d like to implement a client for it yourself, without linking to libsystemd — for example because you work in a programming language other than C or otherwise want to avoid the dependency.

Basics

The native protocol of journald is spoken on the /run/systemd/journal/socket AF_UNIX/SOCK_DGRAM socket on which systemd-journald.service listens. Each datagram sent to this socket encapsulates one journal entry that shall be written. Since datagrams are subject to a size limit and we want to allow large journal entries, datagrams sent over this socket may come in one of two formats:

Other combinations are not permitted, i.e. datagrams with both payload and file descriptors, or datagrams with neither, or more than one file descriptor. Such datagrams are ignored. The memfd file descriptor should be fully sealed. The binary format in the datagram payload and in the memfd memory is identical. Typically a client would attempt to first send the data as datagram payload, but if this fails with an EMSGSIZE error it would immediately retry via the memfd logic.

A client probably should bump up the SO_SNDBUF socket option of its AF_UNIX socket towards journald in order to delay blocking I/O as much as possible.

Data Format

Each datagram should consist of a number of environment-like key/value assignments. Unlike environment variable assignments the value may contain NUL bytes however, as well as any other binary data. Keys may not include the = or newline characters (or any other control characters or non-ASCII characters) and may not be empty.

Serialization into the datagram payload or memfd is straight-forward: each key/value pair is serialized via one of two methods:

If the value of a key/value pair contains a newline character (\n), it must be serialized using the second method. If it does not, either method is permitted. However, it is generally recommended to use the first method if possible for all key/value pairs where applicable since the generated datagrams are easily recognized and understood by the human eye this way, without any manual binary decoding — which improves the debugging experience a lot, in particular with tools such as strace that can show datagram content as text dump. After all, log messages are highly relevant for debugging programs, hence optimizing log traffic for readability without special tools is generally desirable.

Note that keys that begin with _ have special semantics in journald: they are trusted and implicitly appended by journald on the receiving side. Clients should not send them — if they do anyway, they will be ignored.

The most important key/value pair to send is MESSAGE=, as that contains the actual log message text. Other relevant keys a client should send in most cases are PRIORITY=, CODE_FILE=, CODE_LINE=, CODE_FUNC=, ERRNO=. It’s recommended to generate these fields implicitly on the client side. For further information see the relevant documentation of these fields.

The order in which the fields are serialized within one datagram is undefined and may be freely chosen by the client. The server side might or might not retain or reorder it when writing it to the Journal.

Some programs might generate multi-line log messages (e.g. a stack unwinder generating log output about a stack trace, with one line for each stack frame). It’s highly recommended to send these as a single datagram, using a single MESSAGE= field with embedded newline characters between the lines (the second serialization method described above must hence be used for this field). If possible do not split up individual events into multiple Journal events that might then be processed and written into the Journal as separate entries. The Journal toolchain is capable of handling multi-line log entries just fine, and it’s generally preferred to have a single set of metadata fields associated with each multi-line message.

Note that the same keys may be used multiple times within the same datagram, with different values. The Journal supports this and will write such entries to disk without complaining. This is useful for associating a single log entry with multiple suitable objects of the same type at once. This should only be used for specific Journal fields however, where this is expected. Do not use this for Journal fields where this is not expected and where code reasonably assumes per-event uniqueness of the keys. In most cases code that consumes and displays log entries is likely to ignore such non-unique fields or only consider the first of the specified values. Specifically, if a Journal entry contains multiple MESSAGE= fields, likely only the first one is displayed. Note that a well-written logging client library thus will not use a plain dictionary for accepting structured log metadata, but rather a data structure that allows non-unique keys, for example an array, or a dictionary that optionally maps to a set of values instead of a single value.

Example Datagram

Here’s an encoded message, with various common fields, all encoded according to the first serialization method, with the exception of one, where the value contains a newline character, and thus the second method is needed to be used.

PRIORITY=3\n
SYSLOG_FACILITY=3\n
CODE_FILE=src/foobar.c\n
CODE_LINE=77\n
BINARY_BLOB\n
\004\000\000\000\000\000\000\000xx\nx\n
CODE_FUNC=some_func\n
SYSLOG_IDENTIFIER=footool\n
MESSAGE=Something happened.\n

(Lines are broken here after each \n to make things more readable. C-style backslash escaping is used.)

Automatic Protocol Upgrading

It might be wise to automatically upgrade to logging via the Journal’s native protocol in clients that previously used the BSD syslog protocol. Behaviour in this case should be pretty obvious: try connecting a socket to /run/systemd/journal/socket first (on success use the native Journal protocol), and if that fails fall back to /dev/log (and use the BSD syslog protocol).

Programs normally logging to STDERR might also choose to upgrade to native Journal logging in case they are invoked via systemd’s service logic, where STDOUT and STDERR are going to the Journal anyway. By preferring the native protocol over STDERR-based logging, structured metadata can be passed along, including priority information and more — which is not available on STDERR based logging. If a program wants to detect automatically whether its STDERR is connected to the Journal’s stream transport, look for the $JOURNAL_STREAM environment variable. The systemd service logic sets this variable to a colon-separated pair of device and inode number (formatted in decimal ASCII) of the STDERR file descriptor. If the .st_dev and .st_ino fields of the struct stat data returned by fstat(STDERR_FILENO, …) match these values a program can be sure its STDERR is connected to the Journal, and may then opt to upgrade to the native Journal protocol via an AF_UNIX socket of its own, and cease to use STDERR.

Why bother with this environment variable check? A service program invoked by systemd might employ shell-style I/O redirection on invoked subprograms, and those should likely not upgrade to the native Journal protocol, but instead continue to use the redirected file descriptors passed to them. Thus, by comparing the device and inode number of the actual STDERR file descriptor with the one the service manager passed, one can make sure that no I/O redirection took place for the current program.

Alternative Implementations

If you are looking for alternative implementations of this protocol (besides systemd’s own in sd_journal_print()), consider GLib’s or dbus-broker’s.

And that’s already all there is to it.