Be it because of SELinux experiments, or through general audit experiments, sometimes you'll get in touch with a message similar to the following:

audit: audit_backlog=321 > audit_backlog_limit=320
audit: audit_lost=44395 audit_rate_limit=0 audit_backlog_limit=320
audit: backlog limit exceeded

The message shows up when certain audit events could not be logged through the audit subsystem. Depending on the system configuration, they might be either ignored, sent through the kernel logging infrastructure or even have the system panic. And if the messages are sent to the kernel log then they might show up, but even that log has its limitations, which can lead to output similar to the following:

__ratelimit: 53 callbacks suppressed

In this post, I want to give some pointers in configuring the audit subsystem as well as understand these messages...

There is auditd and kauditd

If you take a look at the audit processes running on the system, you'll notice that (assuming Linux auditing is used of course) two processes are running:

# ps -ef | grep audit
root      1483     1  0 10:11 ?        00:00:00 /sbin/auditd
root      1486     2  0 10:11 ?        00:00:00 [kauditd]

The /sbin/auditd daemon is the user-space audit daemon. It registers itself with the Linux kernel audit subsystem (through the audit netlink system), which responds with spawning the kauditd kernel thread/process. The fact that the process is a kernel-level one is why the kauditd is surrounded by brackets in the ps output.

Once this is done, audit messages are communicated through the netlink socket to the user-space audit daemon. For the detail-oriented people amongst you, look for the kauditd_send_skb() method in the kernel/audit.c file. Now, generated audit event messages are not directly relayed to the audit daemon - they are first queued in a sort-of backlog, which is where the backlog-related messages above come from.

Audit backlog queue

In the kernel-level audit subsystem, a socket buffer queue is used to hold audit events. Whenever a new audit event is received, it is logged and prepared to be added to this queue. Adding to this queue can be controlled through a few parameters.

The first parameter is the backlog limit. Be it through a kernel boot parameter (audit_backlog_limit=N) or through a message relayed by the user-space audit daemon (auditctl -b N), this limit will ensure that a queue cannot grow beyond a certain size (expressed in the amount of messages). If an audit event is logged which would grow the queue beyond this limit, then a failure occurs and is handled according to the system configuration (more on that later).

The second parameter is the rate limit. When more audit events are logged within a second than set through this parameter (which can be controlled through a message relayed by the user-space audit system, using auditctl -r N) then those audit events are not added to the queue. Instead, a failure occurs and is handled according to the system configuration.

Only when the limits are not reached is the message added to the queue, allowing the user-space audit daemon to consume those events and log those according to the audit configuration. There are some good resources on audit configuration available on the Internet. I find this SuSe chapter worth reading, but many others exist as well.

There is a useful command related to the subject of the audit backlog queue. It queries the audit subsystem for its current status:

# auditctl -s
AUDIT_STATUS: enabled=1 flag=1 pid=1483 rate_limit=0 backlog_limit=8192 lost=3 backlog=0

The command displays not only the audit state (enabled or not) but also the settings for rate limits (on the audit backlog) and backlog limit. It also shows how many events are currently still waiting in the backlog queue (which is zero in our case, so the audit user-space daemon has properly consumed and logged the audit events).

Failure handling

If an audit event cannot be logged, then this failure needs to be resolved. The Linux audit subsystem can be configured do either silently discard the message, switch to the kernel log subsystem, or panic. This can be configured through the audit user-space (auditctl -f [0..2]), but is usually left at the default (which is 1, being to switch to the kernel log subsystem).

Before that is done, the message is displayed which reveals the cause of the failure handling:

audit: audit_backlog=321 > audit_backlog_limit=320
audit: audit_lost=44395 audit_rate_limit=0 audit_backlog_limit=320
audit: backlog limit exceeded

In this case, the backlog queue was set to contain at most 320 entries (which is low for a production system) and more messages were being added (the Linux kernel in certain cases allows to have a few more entries than configured for performance and consistency reasons). The number of events already lost is displayed, as well as the current limitation settings. The message "backlog limit exceeded" can be "rate limit exceeded" if that was the limitation that was triggered.

Now, if the system is not configured to silently discard it, or to panic the system, then the "dropped" messages are sent to the kernel log subsystem. The calls however are also governed through a configurable limitation: it uses a rate limit which can be set through sysctl:

# sysctl -a | grep kernel.printk_rate
kernel.printk_ratelimit = 5
kernel.printk_ratelimit_burst = 10

In the above example, this system allows one message every 5 seconds, but does allow a burst of up to 10 messages at once. When the rate limitation kicks in, then the kernel will log (at most one per second) the number of suppressed events:

[40676.545099] __ratelimit: 246 callbacks suppressed

Although this limit is kernel-wide, not all kernel log events are governed through it. It is the caller subsystem (in our case, the audit subsystem) which is responsible for having its events governed through this rate limitation or not.

Finishing up

Before waving goodbye, I would like to point out that the backlog queue is a memory queue (and not on disk, Red Hat), just in case it wasn't obvious. Increasing the queue size can result in more kernel memory consumption. Apparently, a practical size estimate is around 9000 bytes per message. On production systems, it is advised not to make this setting too low. I personally set it to 8192.

Lost audit events might result in difficulties for troubleshooting, which is the case when dealing with new or experimental SELinux policies. It would also result in missing security-important events. It is the audit subsystem, after all. So tune it properly, and enjoy the power of Linux' audit subsystem.


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