Prometheus is a robust monitoring and alerting system widely used in cloud-native and Kubernetes environments. One of the critical features of Prometheus is its ability to create and trigger alerts based on metrics it collects from various sources. Additionally, you can analyze and filter the metrics to develop:
In this article, we look at Prometheus alert rules in detail. We cover alert template fields, the proper syntax for writing a rule, and several Prometheus sample alert rules you can use as is. Additionally, we also cover some challenges and best practices in Prometheus alert rule management and response.
Before we go into more detail on writing Prometheus alert rules, let's quickly summarize the concepts that this article will cover.
Prometheus alert templates provide a way to define standard fields and behavior for multiple alerts. You can define these templates in the Prometheus configuration file. You can reuse templates across multiple alerts to keep your alert configuration clean, maintainable, and understandable.
The following are the main fields available in Prometheus alert templates:
This field specifies the alert's name. It identifies the alert and must be unique within a Prometheus instance.
This field specifies the Prometheus query expression that evaluates the alert condition. It is the most important field in an alert template, and you must specify it.
This field adds additional information to the alert. You can use it to specify the severity of the alert, the affected service or component, and any other relevant information.
This field provides additional context and human-readable information about the alert. You can include a summary of the alert, a description of the issue, or any other relevant information.
This field specifies the duration for which the alert condition must be true before Prometheus triggers the alert.
This field groups multiple alerts together. A single alert condition in a group triggers all alerts in the same group.
Prometheus uses the PromQL (Prometheus Query Language) to create alerting rules. The alert expression is the core of a Prometheus alert. You use PromQL to define the condition that triggers an alert. For example, the following expression triggers an alert if the average CPU utilization on a host exceeds 80% for 5 minutes:
The basic syntax of an alert expression is as follows:
For more complex scenarios, you can use functions, like avg, sum, min, max, etc., in the expression to aggregate the metrics and make more complex comparisons. For instance, the below query triggers an alert if the average rate of HTTP requests per second to the "api" service exceeds 50 for a 5-minute period.
Other advanced features include:
We present examples that cover a variety of situations where you may want to produce alerts based on environment metrics. You can use them as-is, or adapted to fit your specific needs.
Like any tool, Prometheus has its own set of challenges and limitations.
Prometheus alerts are based on metrics, and sometimes metrics can be noisy and difficult to interpret. This may lead to false positives or false negatives, which can be difficult to troubleshoot.
As the number of metrics and alerting rules increases, Prometheus becomes resource-intensive and may require additional scaling or optimization. Too many complex alerting rules can also become challenging to understand and troubleshoot. Additionally, Prometheus does not have built-in dashboards, so you have to use external dashboarding tools, like Grafana, for metric visualization.
Prometheus alerts are based on metrics, but in some scenarios, a particular service metric depends on a different service behavior. In such cases, inaccuracy increases, and alerts become difficult to action.
Prometheus does not have built-in alert suppression or deduplication. Depending on your configuration, you could have a high volume of alerts for non-critical issues. To mitigate this, users can use an additional component, such as Alertmanager, to group, deduplicate, and route alerts to the appropriate channel.
While you can integrate Prometheus with various notification channels, it does present limited integration opportunities with other monitoring and alerting tools. You may already have existing monitoring infrastructure that is incompatible with Prometheus.
Despite some challenges, you can customize Prometheus to meet your organization's needs. Proper planning and configuration proactively identify and resolve issues before they become critical.
Here are some best practices to follow when using Prometheus alerting rules:
Write alert templates and configurations that even new team members can understand. For example:
These best practices provide more context about the alert and improve response and troubleshooting time.
Make sure the time window specified in the for clause of an alert is appropriate for the metric you are monitoring. A short time window may result in too many false positive alerts, while a long time window may delay detecting real issues. For example, some user actions may cause your application's CPU usage to spike quickly before subsiding again. You may not want to action every small spike.
Test your alert rules in a test environment before deploying them to production. This helps to ensure that the rules are working as expected and eliminates the risk of unintended consequences. Additionally, you can:
Automate alert handling where possible to reduce the time required to respond to alerts and to minimize human error. You can also use your Prometheus metrics and alerts for productive incident retrospectives or build runbooks to handle similar issues.
You can use tools like Squadcast to route alerts to applicable teams. Squadcast extends beyond basic incident response functionality to provide many other features like documenting retrospectives, tracking service level objectives (SLO), and error budgets.
Your organization's incident response algorithms could be as simple as sending an email to your team letting them know that a failure is imminent. More complex alerts may trigger runbooks to automate the resolution process. For example, your ruleset could be defined to automatically scale services if a particular error budget exceeds a predefined threshold. Should the error rate continue to climb, a tool like Squadcast contacts the on-call administrator to step in and handle the incident.
It is crucial to build out proper runbooks for handling some of the more common issues. Administrators use runbooks to facilitate incident resolution or convert them into scripts to automate the process. For example, you may write a runbook on handling an issue where a specific web server starts to segfault randomly, causing a high rate of HTTP failures. The runbook includes information on where to look for the errors, and specifically what services you need to restart as a result.
The best time to develop these runbooks is during the post-mortem of the incident, also known as a retrospective. This is the time when incident managers determine what went well, what did not go well, and what action items the team can take to correct issues in the future.
As you can see, Prometheus is an excellent tool to alert on key metrics in cloud-native environments. Prometheus's flexible query language and integration capabilities make it a versatile solution for efficient monitoring and alerting at scale. Our Prometheus sample alert rules and best practices will surely assist you in fully utilizing the most comprehensive Kubernetes alerting tools available today.