"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

Big Brother Network Monitoring System

A Web-based Unix Network Monitoring
and Notification System

By Paul M. Sittler, p-sittler@tamu.edu

Big Brother is Watching. . .

I wasn't bored: I don't have time to be bored. Texas Agricultural Extension Service operates a fairly large enterprise-wide network that stretches across hell's half acre, otherwise known as Texas. We have around 3,000 users in 249 counties and 12 district offices who expect to get their e-mail and files across our Wide Area Network. Some users actually expect the network to work most of the time. We use ethernet networking with Novell servers at some 35 locations, 15 or so whose routers are connected via a mixture of 56Kb circuits, fractional T1, Frame-Relay, and radio links. We are not currently using barbed wire fences for our network, regardless of what you may have heard. . .

I am privileged to be part of the team that set up that network and tries to keep it going. We do not live in a perfect network world. Things happen. Scarcely a day goes by when we do not have one or more WAN link outages, usually of short duration. We sometimes have our hands full trying to keep all the pieces connected. Did I mention that the users expect the mail and other software to actually work?

Cruising the USENET newsgroups, I read a posting about "Big Brother, a solution to the problem of Unix Systems Monitoring" written by Sean MacGuire of Montreal, Canada. I was intrigued to notice that Big Brother was a collection of shell scripts and simple c programs designed to monitor a bunch of Unix machines on a network. So what if most of our mission critical servers were Novell-based? Who cares if some of our web servers run on Macintosh, OS/2, Win'95 or NT? We use both Linux and various flavours of Unix in a surprisingly large number of places.

We had cooked up a number of homemade monitoring systems. Pinging and tracerouting to all the servers can be very informative. We looked at a bunch of proprietary (and expensive) network monitoring systems. It is amazing how much money these things can cost. System adminstrators often reported difficult installations and software incompatibilities with the monitoring software. Thus, frustrated users often gave us our first hint that all was not well.

According to the blurb on Big Brother:

"Big Brother is a loosely-coupled distributed set of tools for monitoring and displaying the current status of an entire Unix network and notifying the admin should need be. It came about as the result of automating the day to day tasks encountered while actively administering Unix systems."

The USENET news article provided a URL ("http://www.iti.qc.ca/iti/users/sean/bb-dnld/") to the home site of Big Brother. I pointed my browser to it and was rewarded with a purple-sided screen background and a blue image of a sinister face peering out under the caption "big brother is watching." After my initial shock, I learned that Big Brother featured:

f e a t u r e s

* Web-based status display
* Configurable warning and panic levels
* Notification via Pager or email
* Free and includes Source Code

I was fascinated. Especially by the last item, that said it was free with source code. (I often tell people that Linux isn't free, but priceless. . .) So what could a priceless package do for me? What on earth did Big Brother check?

m o n i t o r s

* connectivity via ping
* http servers up and running
* disk space usage
* uptime and cpu usage
* essential processes are still running
* system-generated messages and warnings

Overall, very sensible. Looking for some "gotchas," I found that I would need a Unix-based machine, and:

y o u ' l l
n e e d

* A Functioning Web server & Browser - for the display
* C compiler
* Kermit and a modem line - for the pager

A web server was no problem, as we run many. A c compiler came with Linux, and we use kermit on many machines with modems. So far, so good.

The web site provided links to a few demonstration sites, and a link to download it as well. I connected to a demonstration site and was greeted with an amazing display:


green System OK
yellow Attention
red Trouble
blue No report

@ 22:52









iti-s01 green green green green yellow green
router-000 green - - - - -
inet-gw-0 green - - - - -

Big Brother is watching! As I endured the scrutiny of the Orwellian face peering out at me, I examined the rest of the display. The display was coded like a traffic signal (green/yellow/red), and the update time was clearly displayed beneath it. To the right of "Big Brother" were four buttons, marked clearly "Help," "Info," "Page" and "View." Beneath the header area was a table with six column headings and three rows, each neatly labelled with a computer hostname. The boxes formed by the intersection of the rows and columns contained attractive green and yellow balls. The overall effect was like a decorated tree. The left side of the screen had a yellow tint, gradually becoming black at the center.

I selected the "Help" button and was rewarded with a brief explanation of what Big Brother was all about. Choosing the "Info" Button provided a much longer and more detailed explanation of the system, including a graphic that really was worth a thousand words. I tried the "Page" button to discover that this was a way to send a signal to a radio-linked pager. Not at all what I had expected! Finally, the "View" selection provided a briefer but perhaps more useful view of the information, isolating only the systems with problems.

In this case, only the "iti-s01" system was displayed. My browser cursor indicated a link as it passed over each colored dot, so I clicked on the blinking yellow dot and received a message that read:

"yellow Tue Feb 18 22:50:53 EST 1997 Feb 16 12:22:33 iti-s01 kernel: WARNING: / was not properly dismounted"

This puzzled me at first. How on earth could it know that? It seems that BB (Big Brother) checks the system /var/log/messages file periodically and alerts on any line that says either "WARNING" or "NOTICE." As I am certain that Sean MacGuire is very conscientious, I suspect that he adds that line to his message file so that something will appear to be wrong.

Suddenly, my screen spontaneously updated! The update time had changed by five minutes, and a blinking yellow dot appeared under the column labelled "procs." I clicked on the blinking yellow dot and was informed that the sendmail process was not running. This got me really interested! Apparently, Big Brother could monitor whether selected processes were running!

I was also a little puzzled about the screen being updated on its own. I used my browser to view the document source and discovered some html commands that were new to me:

    <META HTTP-EQUIV="EXPIRES" CONTENT="Tue Feb 18 23:22:07 CST 1997">

The first line instructs browsers to get an update every 120 seconds. The second line tells the browser that it should get a new copy after the expiration time and date. Very clever!

I returned to the graphics window and discovered that the yellow area on the left had changed to red! A new hostname row appeared with a blinking red dot under the column labelled "conn." I clicked on the blinking red dot and read a message that said:

"red Tue Feb 18 22:59:11 CST 1997 bb-network.sh: Can't connect to router-000... (paging)"

The connection to the machine called router-000 had been interrupted and the administrator had been paged. Amazingly, while in Texas, I had become aware of a network outage in Montreal, Canada. This really had possibilities. Perhaps I might someday be able to take a vacation!

Big Brother Installation

I was so impressed with Big Brother that I decided to try to use it. Sean has thoughtfully made its acquisition easy, but requests that you fill out an on-line registration form with your name and e-mail address. He would also like to know where you heard about Big Brother. I filled these out in early November 1996, and received an e-mail survey form in late December.

d o w n l o a d

Click the link at left to download Big Brother and to get technical information about how the system works, and how to install and configure the package.

When I clicked on the link to download Big Brother, I ended up with a file called "bb-src.tgz." I impetuously gunzipped this to get "bb-src.tar." I then thought better of the impending error of my ways and decided to download and print the installation instructions.

i n s t a l l

Click the link at left to look at the install procedure for Big Brother. More information about how to set the system up lives here.

Just in case, I also grabbed and printed the debugging information so thoughtfully provided (as it turned out, I did not need it):

d e b u g

The link at left provides debugging information for different problems that may be experienced during the Big Brother installation process.

I had no real problems following the installation instructions. I decided to make the $BBHOME directory "/usr/src/bb"; use whatever makes sense to you. The automatic configuration routines are said to work for AIX, FreeBSD, HPUX 10, Irix, Linux, NetBSD, OSF, RedHat Linux, SCO, SCO 3/5, Solaris, SunOS4.1, and UnixWare. I can vouch for Linux, RedHat Linux, Solaris, and SunOS 4.1.

The c programs compiled without incident, and the installation went smoothly. As always, your mileage may vary. In less than an hour, I was looking at Big Brother's display of coloured lights!

At this point, you may wish to re-examine the documentation and information files. Personalize your installation as desired. Above all, have fun!


I admit it. I am a closet hacker. I saw many things about the stock BB distribution that I wanted to improve. Big Brother's modular and elegantly simple construction makes it a joy to modify as desired. The shell scripts are portable, simple, well documented, and easy to understand. The use of the modified hosts file to determine which hosts to monitor was gratifyingly familiar. The "bbclient" script made it extremely easy to move the required components to another similar Unix host. Sean has done a remarkable job in making this package easy to install!

I got obsessive-compulsive about hacking BB and modified it slightly, working from Sean MacGuire's v1.03 distribution as a base. I forwarded my changes to him for possible inclusion in a later distribution.

Features that I added to BB proper include (code added is bold):

# traceroute.cgi ===========================================


echo Content-type: text/html

if [ -x $TRACEROUTE ]; then
        if [ $# = 0 ]; then
                cat << EOM
<TITLE>TraceRoute Gateway</TITLE>
<H1>TraceRoute Gateway</H1>


This is a gateway to "traceroute."  Type the desired hostname
(like hostname.domain.name, eg. net.tamu.edu) in your
browser's search dialog, and enter a return.<P>

                echo \<PRE\>
                $TRACEROUTE $*
        echo Cannot find traceroute on this system.
# traceroute.cgi ===========================================

# ping.cgi ===========================================


echo Content-type: text/html

if [ -x $PING ]; then
        if [ $# = 0 ]; then
                cat << EOM
<TITLE>TraceRoute Gateway</TITLE>
<H1>TraceRoute Gateway</H1>


This is a gateway to "ping." Type the desired hostname
(like hostname.domain.name, eg. "net.tamu.edu") in your
browser's search dialog, and enter a return.<P>

                echo \<PRE\>
                $PING -c5 $*
        echo Cannot find ping on this system.

# ping.cgi ===========================================

Future Enhancements of Big Brother

Sean MacGuire is the primary author of Big Brother. In the finest InterNet tradition of decentralized shared software development, Sean solicits improvements, suggestions, and enhancements from all. He then skillfully incorporates them as appropriate into the Big Brother distribution. Thus, like Linux, Big Brother is in a dynamic state of positive evolution with contributions from a cast of thousands (at least dozens). This constrained anarchy can produce interesting results with an international flavour.

Jacob Lundqvist of Sweden is actively improving the paging interface. He has done a superb job of enhancing the paging portion, adding support for alphanumeric and SMS pagers. Darren Henderson (Maine, US) added AIX support. David Brandon (Texas, US) added proper IRIX support, and Jeff Matson (Minnesota, US) made some IRIX fixes. Richard Dansereau (Canada) ported Big Brother to SCO3 and provided support for other df's. Doug White (Oregon, US) made some paging script bug fixes. Ron Nelson (Minnesota, US) adapted BB to RedHat Linux. Jac Kersing (Netherlands) made some security enhancements to bbd.c. Alan Cox (Wales) suggested some shell script security modifications. Douwe Dijkstra (Netherlands) provided SCO 5 support. Erik Johannessen (Minnesota, US) survived SunOS 4.1.4 installation. Curtis Olson (Minnesota, US) survived IRIX, Linux, and SunOS installations. Gunnar Helliesen (Norway) ported Big Brother to Ultrix, OSF, and NetBSD. Josh Wilmes (Missouri, US) added Solaris changes for new ping stuff.

Many other unsung heros around the world are undoubtedly working to enhance BB at this very moment.

I am (ab)using Big Brother in ways not originally envisioned by its creator, Sean MacGuire. Texas Agricultural Extension's networks are wildly heterogeneous mixtures of different operating systems and protocols, rather than a homogeneous Unix-based network. I would like to see Big Brother learn about IPX/SPX protocols for Novell connectivity monitoring. I would also like to see Big Brother data collection modules for Macintosh, Novell, OS/2, Windows 3.1x, Windows'95, and Windows NT. Rewriting Big Brother into perl might better serve these disparate platforms. If I could only find the time!

Big Brother's Impact at Texas Agricultural Extension Service

We are now monitoring around 122 hosts. Only 20 are actually Unix-based hosts that run Big Brother's bb program internally. Some 28 are Novell servers, 39 are routers, and the rest are a mixture of Macintosh, OS/2, Windows 3.1x, Windows'95, and Windows NT machines running one or more types of servers (34 ftp or 26 http). We also find it useful to monitor our 31 popmail post offices and 43 mail hosts and gateways. We are checking connectivity on three DNS servers as well, as they are mission critical.

Big Brother (or, as I now affectionately refer to it, "Big Bother") is now alerting us to outages five or more times daily. Typically, the system administrator receives a page. BB's display is checked and the info file is used to traceroute and ping the offending machine to validate the outage. Many connection outages involve routers, DSU/CSUs and multiplexors as well as the actual host. BB's display allows us to quickly see a pattern that aids in diagnosis. The ability to dynamically traceroute and ping the host from the html info page also helps to rapidly determine the actual point of failure. If the administrator paged cannot correct the problem, he relays it to the responsible person or agency.

Before we installed Big Brother, we were frequently notified of these failures by frustrated users telephoning us. Now, we are often aware of what has failed before they call us. The users are also becoming aware that they may monitor the network through the WWW interface. In many instances, we are able to actually correct the problem before it perturbs our users. It is difficult to accurately measure the time saved, but we estimate that Big Brother has had a net positive effect.

We have a machine in a publicly visible area displaying the brief view of Big Brother. The green, yellow, red and blue screen splashes are clearly visible far down the hall. This helps our network team to be more aware of problems as they occur. The accessibility of the WWW page has made Big Brother useful even to people at the far ends of our network. So far, we are not inclined to shut Big Brother down. It has become a helpful member of our network team.

Maybe now I'll have time to be bored. . .

Texas Agricultural Extension WWW Server http://taex.tamu.edu/
Extension Information Technology / Texas Agricultural Extension Service
The Texas A&M University System / College Station, Texas 77843-2468
This page was last modified Thu Feb 20 15:47:14 1997 by PMS. (URL=http://taex001.tamu.edu/bb/articles/bbartlg.html)

Copyright © 1997, Paul M. Sittler
Published in Issue 15 of the Linux Gazette, March 1997