Here's a situation the ASP.NET developer is undoubtedly familiar with. The end user says your web application doesn't work and gives an error, possibly the infamous Yellow Screen of Death (Figure 1). But on your development environment, you cannot reproduce the problem. Since you have also disabled detailed error messages on the production server (usually a good practice), the error messages won't give you much information. This is especially the case if you've replaced the regular ASP.NET error messages with your own.
[error.jpg] Figure 1. An ASP.NET error page, or the "Yellow Screen of Death"
Learning to Let IIS Give a Helping Hand
Since the earliest versions of IIS (Internet Information Server), the web server has created logs in text-based files. These files can be configured to contain lots of useful information, and can be analyzed with many third- party utilities. But even so, they are quite basic in nature (Figure 2), and only display the result of a request: was it a success or a failure?
Figure 2. A basic text-based log file created by IIS
Of course, if you want to know how often your application(s) fail, then this information can already be useful. By knowing that a certain request URL always causes a 500 Internal Server Error to occur can lead you to the right track and location in code. Thus, if you have nothing else, make sure you start from these log files.
Even though the log files can be useful, they usually are not detailed enough. When the problems with the applications get tougher, you will need better troubleshooting tools. Fortunately, if you are using IIS version 7 or later (version 7.5 is the latest one at this writing), then you have additional methods available. The trick is to learn how to use them. Note that IIS 7 was introduced with Windows Vista in 2006; it is also available on Windows Server 2008, Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. Alas, you cannot retrofit IIS 7 to older Windows versions, say Windows Server 2003.
IIS 7 contains a new feature called Failed Request Tracing, or FRT for short (Microsoft internally calls the feature as FREB or Failed Request Event Buffering for historical reasons). Failed Request Tracing is an advanced feature that allows you to focus on just what you are after: failed requests. FRT is also versatile; you can set multiple tracing options, and only monitor certain web application types or requests reporting back only certain HTTP status codes. You can also limit monitoring to certain .aspx files. FRT can make a big difference: troubleshooting can take 15 minutes instead of three hours, so with it, there are chances to get home on time.
The following list shows some basic features which you utilize when working with Failed Request Tracing. The list is by no means comprehensive; so flexible is the feature in question.
- Monitor requests to any file type you specify, including .asp, .aspx and .php.
- Check full request and response HTTP headers to make sure all required data is available.
- Calculate how many bytes were sent back and forth, and how long it took to process the request in each pipeline step.
- Filter on requests that take over N seconds to process.
- Filter on certain HTTP response codes, such as 403, 404 or 500.
- Filter on filenames with wildcards, such as "login*.aspx".
- Know which HTTP modules were used to handle the request.
- See how routing and URL rewriting affect request processing.
- Monitor which application pools were used to handle the request.
- See how load balancing (if enabled) is working and which server is responding to the request.
- Select the appropriate providers for tracing events, such as web server caching, compression, ASP.NET infrastructure, and so on.
Even though the name of the feature starts with the word "Failed", you can in fact use FRT to monitor completely valid requests to the web server as well. This way, you can for instance check to see that all HTTP headers are in place and that serving the requests doesn't take too long. In this article, the focus is on monitoring ASP.NET web applications, but as you have already gathered from the above, the feature is useful to investigate with any web application type, including classic ASP, PHP and others.
Installing and Enabling Tracing
To get started with Failed Request Tracing in IIS 7, you must first enable the feature. The following steps are taken from Windows Server 2008, but the instructions would be similar for Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.
First, you need to make sure the FRT feature is installed with IIS. By default, IIS 7 only installs those features that are absolutely necessary to prevent security attacks to the server. This means that FRT is also missing by default, so you need to separately install it to be able to use it.
Windows Servers have lately been using the words "role", "feature" and "role services" to describe functionality. Within this terminology, FRT is a role service of the web server role. To install it, start the Server Manager (usually at the top of the Start menu), go to the web server role (available at the tree view on the left), and then choose the "Add Role Services" link from the right (Figure 3).
Figure 3. To add support for tracing into IIS 7, you must add the tracing role service
At this point, a new dialog box opens showing a list of available services for the web server. Under the Health and Monitoring node, make sure Tracing is checked, and then proceed with the Next and Install buttons. After the tracing service has been installed, you should see a message saying "Installation succeeded". Click Close to dismiss the dialog box.
Once you have completed the installation, you can find the Failed Request Tracing Rules icon in the management console (Figure 4). To be able to use FRT, you must enable it for each web site you want to monitor. This is done from the IIS Manager (also available as part of Server Manager) by choosing the site from the left-hand side, and then navigating to the Failed Request Tracing Rules icon.
Figure 4. The FRT icon becomes visible in the management console after installation
Under Actions on the right, click the link "Edit Site Tracing" (Figure 5). This will open a dialog box where you must check the Enable check box, and select the folder to which you want to store the log files. You can also specify how many log files can be created before the older ones start to be deleted.
Figure 5. Tracing must be enabled for each site whose requests you want to monitor
Even though you need to specifically enable FRT for each site, it doesn't mean that every request coming to the site is traced (unless that is what you want to do). Instead, you can configure the feature on different scopes: site-wide, application-wide, and so on. This is important from a maintenance perspective, but also from a performance perspective.
Performance is a consideration because enabling FRT will affect IIS's request processing speed. Therefore, you should only enable the feature when necessary, and then within the appropriate scope. But even if you would enable FRT on a very busy site, the feature will auto-tune itself if there are too many requests in a short period of time. Thus, even gross mistakes in configuring the feature should not bring the web server to a grinding halt.