How to monitor activity on your Linux server

The watch, top, and ac commands provide some effective ways to oversee what is happening on your Linux servers.

Commands to help you monitor activity on your Linux server
AK Badwolf (CC BY 2.0)
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Linux systems provide a number of commands that make it easy to report on system activity. In this post, we're going to look at several commands that are especially helpful.

The watch command

The watch command is one that makes it easy to repeatedly examine a variety of data on your system — user activities, running processes, logins, memory usage, etc. All the command really does is run the command that you specify repeatedly, each time overwriting the previously displayed output, but this lends itself to a very convenient way of monitoring what's happening on your system.

To start with a very basic and not particularly useful command, you could run watch -n 5 date and see a display with the current date and time that updates every 5 seconds. As you likely have guessed, the -n 5 option specifies the number of seconds to wait between each run of the command. The default is 2 seconds. The command will run and update a display like this until you stop it with a ^c.

Every 5.0s: date                             butterfly: Wed Jan 23 15:59:14 2019

Wed Jan 23 15:59:14 EST 2019

As a more interesting command example, you can watch an updated list of whoever is logging into the server. As written, this command will update every 10 seconds. Users who log out will disappear from the current display and those who log in will come into view. If no one is logging in or out, the display will remain the same except for the time displayed.

$ watch -n 10 who
Every 10.0s: who                             butterfly: Tue Jan 23 16:02:03 2019

shs      :0           2019-01-23 09:45 (:0)
dory     pts/0        2019-01-23 15:50 (192.168.0.5)
nemo     pts/1        2019-01-23 16:01 (192.168.0.15)
shark    pts/3        2019-01-23 11:11 (192.168.0.27)

If you just want to see how many users are logged in, you can get a user count along with load averages showing you how hard the system is working by having watch call the uptime command.

$ watch uptime
Every 2.0s: uptime                           butterfly: Tue Jan 23 16:25:48 2019

 16:25:48 up 22 days,  4:38,  3 users,  load average: 1.15, 0.89, 1.02

If you want to use watch to repeat a command that includes a pipe, you need to put the command between quote marks like this command that every 5 seconds shows you how many processes are running:

$ watch -n 5 'ps -ef | wc -l'
Every 5.0s: ps -ef | wc -l                   butterfly: Tue Jan 23 16:11:54 2019

245

To watch memory usage, you might try a command like this one:

$ watch -n 5 free -m
Every 5.0s: free -m                          butterfly: Tue Jan 23 16:34:09 2019

              total        used        free      shared  buff/cache   available
Mem:           5959         776        3276          12        1906        4878
Swap:          2047           0        2047

You could watch processes being run by one particular user with watch, but the top command provides a much better option.

The top command

If you want to watch one particular user's processes, top has an ideal option for you — the -u option:

$ top -u nemo
top - 16:14:33 up 2 days,  4:27,  3 users,  load average: 0.00, 0.01, 0.02
Tasks: 199 total,   1 running, 198 sleeping,   0 stopped,   0 zombie
%Cpu(s):  0.0 us,  0.2 sy,  0.0 ni, 99.8 id,  0.0 wa,  0.0 hi,  0.0 si,  0.0 st
MiB Mem :   5959.4 total,   3277.3 free,    776.4 used,   1905.8 buff/cache
MiB Swap:   2048.0 total,   2048.0 free,      0.0 used.   4878.4 avail Mem

  PID USER      PR  NI    VIRT    RES    SHR S  %CPU  %MEM     TIME+ COMMAND
23026 nemo      20   0   46340   7820   6504 S   0.0   0.1   0:00.05 systemd
23033 nemo      20   0  149660   3140     72 S   0.0   0.1   0:00.00 (sd-pam)
23125 nemo      20   0   63396   5100   4092 S   0.0   0.1   0:00.00 sshd
23128 nemo      20   0   16836   5636   4284 S   0.0   0.1   0:00.03 zsh

You not only see what processes the user is running, but the resources (CPU time and memory) that the process is consuming and how hard the system is working overall.

The ac command

If you'd like to see how much time each of your users is spending logged in, you can make use of the ac command. This requires installation of the acct (Debian) or psacct (RHEL, Centos, etc.) package.

The ac command has a number of options, but it pulls its data from the current wtmp file. Here's an example showing the total number of hours users were logged in recently:

$ ac
        total     1261.72

This command shows total hours by user:

$ ac -p
        shark                                5.24
        nemo                                 5.52
        shs                               1251.00
        total     1261.76

This ac command shows daily counts of how many hours users were logged in:

$ ac -d | tail -10
Jan 11  total        0.05
Jan 12  total        1.36
Jan 13  total       16.39
Jan 15  total       55.33
Jan 16  total       38.02
Jan 17  total       28.51
Jan 19  total       48.66
Jan 20  total        1.37
Jan 22  total       23.48
Today   total        9.83

Wrap-up

There are many commands for examining system activity. The watch command allows you to run just about any command in a repetitive way and watch how the output changes. The top command is a better option for focusing on user processes and also loops in a way that allows you to see the changes as they happen, while the ac command examines user connect time.

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