Pondering per user accounting in Linux

I’ve been researching for the better part of the day on what the best method to account for bandwidth (and cpu/memory) used by a particular user is. This is useful if you run a hosting business and give out shell access. At first I was looking for a way to meter SSH. There seems to be an old patch for it, but as I continued reading, a old mailing from a mailing list pointed out that there are heaps of ways to generate traffic when you have a shell account (ie wget). In fact you don’t even need shell access – any scripting language that could download will consume bandwidth that may not be accounted for.

So this began my quest to find the best solution to per user accounting in linux. The basic concept is that since the bandwidth consumption is triggered by a process, and owned by a specific user, we should be able to trace traffic to a user and record as such. The advantage is even greater if you run peruser mpm apache or suexec’d php.

I began looking at netfilter/iptables, which had a match -m owner uid. This works only on the OUTPUT chain and will tell you who sent the packet, but unfortunately doesn’t tell you who a packet was destined for.

iptables has a connection tracking feature, that tracks active connections, allowing for stateful packet inspection. If you have the kernel feature enabled, it will also count the traffic numbers, which you can then view in /proc/net/ip_conntrack (or /proc/net/nf_conntrack for newer installations). Using that, and cross referencing it with the netstat -anp and process table will give you an idea of which user owns the connection. This is assuming of course that the process doesn’t setuid to change users.

But then, how are we going to collect all the data? Polling would be extremely slow and tedious and you might miss short lived connections. It seems that using libnetfilter_conntrack, you can subscribe to an event that notifies when connection states have changed (CONFIG_IP_NF_CONNTRACK_EVENTS). Using that, you can record when connections are opened and when they are closed as they happen.

What about processes? Processing accounting can be easily taken care of by the unix acct tools, which monitors processes as they are created and destroyed, provided you have the correct kernel options enabled. But what if you don’t have this option, ie on a VPS – Is there an alternative? The answer is yes, but ugly. You might remember that process information can be access via /proc. What if I set inotify, the file system change mechanism to tell me when /proc has changed? Somebody already thought of this and found it didn’t work quite as expected. The reason for this was mentioned in the linked thread, but the responders did give a good alternative – using ptrace ().

The ptrace command is a powerful unix system call that can manipulate processes it has attached to. It is what the debugger gdb uses to debug running applications. Using the ptrace function, you can set an option to notify the controlling process via SIGTRAP that the ptrace’d process has terminated, or forked/execed. Using this, you can potentially hook into every process and closely monitor their lifecycle. The downside is that you cannot have two ptrace active on the same process, which means application like gdb will fail if your monitoring system is active. Since ptrace is primarily used for debugging, it may also degrade performance of application it has been attached to. So the bottom line is that it looks like it is too extravagant and thus the wrong way to go for implementing a process accounting/monitoring system.

Looks like my quest to find a viable way of accounting per user accounting has so far eluded me. Perhaps the old ways of individual accounting in every application service – apache/ftp/imap/smtp is here to stay.

3 thoughts on “Pondering per user accounting in Linux

  1. tomek

    Hi, I am interested to, please let me know if you have some tips. Currently I am trying to do it using nethogs, but not sure it is proper way.

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