A user interface design for a scrolling log viewer with varying levels of importance (by )

Like many people involved with computer programming and systems administration, I spend a lot of time looking at rapidly scrolling logs.

These logs tend to have lines of varying importance in them. This can fall into two kinds, that I see - one is where the lines have a "severity" (ranging from fatal errors down to debugging information). Another is where there's an explicit structure, with headings and subheadings.

Both suffer from a shared problem: important events or top-level headings whoosh past amidst a stream of minutae, and can be missed. A fatal error message can be obscured by thousands of routine notifications.

What I think might help is a tool that can be shoved in a pipe when viewing such a log, that uses some means (regexps, etc) to classify log lines with a numerical "importance" as appropriate, and then relaying them to the output.

However, it will use terminal control sequences to:

  1. Colour the lines according to their importance
  2. Ensure that the most recent entry at each level of importance remains onscreen, unless superceded by a later entry with a higher importance.

The latter deserves some explanation.

To start with, if we just have two levels of importance - ERROR and WARNING, for instance - it means that in a stream of output, as an ERROR scrolls up the screen, when it gets to the top it will "stick" and not scroll off, even while WARNINGs scroll by beneath it.

If a new ERROR appears at the bottom of the screen, it supercedes the old one, which can now disappear - letting the new ERROR scroll up until it hits the top and sticks.

Likewise, if you have three levels - ERROR, WARNING and INFO - then the most recent ERROR and WARNING will be stuck at the top of the screen (the WARNING below the ERROR) while INFOs scroll by. If a new WARNING appears, then the old one will unstick and scroll away until the new WARNING hits the top. If a new ERROR appears, then the old ERROR and WARNING at the top will become unstuck and scroll away until the new ERROR reaches the top.

So the screen is divided into two areas; the stuck things at the top, and the scrolling area at the bottom. Messages always scroll up through the scrolling area as they come, but any message that scrolls off the top will stick in the stuck things area unless there's another message at the same or higher level further down the scrolling area. And the emergence of a message into the bottom of the scrolling area automatically unsticks any message at that, or a less important, level from the stuck area.

That way, you can quickly look at the screen and see a scrolling status display, as well as (for activity logs from servers) the most recent FATAL, ERROR, WARNING, etc. message; or for the kinds of logs generated by long-running batch jobs, which tend to have lots of headings and subheadings, you'll always instantly see the headings/subheadings in effect for the log items you're reading.

This is related somewhat to the idea of having ERRORs and WARNINGs be situations with a beginning and an end (rather than just logged when they arise), such as "being low on disk space"; such a "situation alert" (rather than an event alert, as a single log message is) should linger on-screen somewhere until it's cancelled by the software that raised it emitting a corresponding "situation is over" event. Also related is the idea that event alerts above a certain severity should cause some kind of beeping/flashing to happen, which persists until manually stopped by pushing a button to acknowledge all current alerts. Such facilities can be integrated into the system.

This is relevant for a HYDROGEN console UI and pertinent to my previous thoughts on user interfaces for streams of events and programming interfaces to logging systems.

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