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Gathering and Visualizing metrics from Rails application using InfluxDB


Checkout how using a distributed time series database like InfluxDB can help keep track of application events from all multiple Rails processes in a centralized hub.


InfluxDB is a distributed time series database. It is a specialized data store for saving large volumes of timestamped event data and this makes it especially suited for storing metrics, lifecycle events and analytics. The influxdb-rails gem, maintained by the InfluxDB team, facilitates integration with Rails and makes it easy to save various metrics from a rails application to InfluxDB and visualize it through frontends like Grafana.

The rest of this post, explores various aspects of a simple setup in which we build a rudimentary cms based site and monitor it using influxdb and grafana. We don't assume prior familiarity with InfluxDB, and elaborate on relevant aspects of time series databases on the go, but familiarity with Rails is assumed.

This post also assumes that InfluxDB is installed as per the official installation instructions with default configuration. If installation has been customized eg. ports have been changed, the configurations provided to influxdb-rails will have to be adapted accordingly. On mac influxdb can be installed using Homebrew : brew install influxdb.

Setting up a basic application

Next, we bootstrap a simple rails application using the Comfortable mexican sofa CMS to quickly setup a site with a few pages we can tinker with. This is not really important, but it simply helps us work with a reasonably more realistic setup than a typically crud ui generated through scaffolds.

rails new influxdb-cms-demo --database=mysql

In Gemfile:

gem 'comfortable_mexican_sofa', '~> 1.12.0'
gem 'influxdb-rails'

Setting up CMS requires an additional step:

rails generate comfy:cms

Setting up InfluxDB adapter also requires an additional step:

rails g influxdb

The default configuration options are available in the generated influxdb-rails.rb and they correspond to the default settings of influxdb.

InfluxDB::Rails.configure do |config|
  config.influxdb_database = "rails"
  config.influxdb_username = "root"
  config.influxdb_password = "root"
  config.influxdb_hosts    = ["localhost"]
  config.influxdb_port     = 8086

  # config.series_name_for_controller_runtimes = "rails.controller"
  # config.series_name_for_view_runtimes       = "rails.view"
  # config.series_name_for_db_runtimes         = "rails.db"

The last three lines signify the names of time series where the corresponding metrics would be stored, and we will use the same when querying the time series database.

Before our application can start dispatching metrics to InfluxDB the database "rails" specified in the above configuration file would have to be created. InfluxDB admin provides a means to do that using the GUI. The admin interface may be accessed by visiting: localhost:8083

InfluxDB landing page

The default username/password combination is root/root, which is not advisable for production use.

The only option that is particularly relevant is database name: which we would have to change to "rails".

InfluxDB creating database

This would be a good point to run db:migrate and visit the CMS dashboard /admin

Once a new site has been bootstrapped, we can rapidly create multiple pages through the CMS admin interface. These steps are not elaborated here because the guided CMS admin makes it pretty trivial. Once a few pages have been setup, we have some metrics to explore in InfluxDB.

Add a new page in CMS

Data exploration

In the list of databases, we should have an option to Explore Data. Let us go ahead and click that:

InfluxDB database list

We will be presented with a simple interface to read and write points (which are essentially multi-column timestamped datasets).

InfluxDB Query interface

This page also highlights an interesting aspect of InfluxDB - though it is not a relational database, it does provide an SQL like language to query the database.

A basic query might look something like this:

InfluxDB Select All Query

Besides controllers, we can also run similar queries for our timeseries for views and db: InfluxDB Select All from View Query InfluxDB Select All from DB Query

Configuring additional lifecycle events

In a real applications we would want to aggregate additional metrics of our choosing. A popular solution for dispatching and subscribing to various lifecycle events that ruby community has developed is ActiveSupport::Notifications which Rails internally uses.

Using ActiveSupport::Notifications we can subscribe to lifecycle events of a rails application and add callbacks to dispatch these metrics to InfluxDB.

For example if we would like to track the execution times of queries in InfluxDB we can write an initializer:

ActiveSupport::Notifications.subscribe('sql.active_record') do |name, start, finish, id, payload|
  InfluxDB::Rails.client.write_point(name, { value: (finish-start), start: start, finish: finish })

The value attribute is something that InfluxDB admin will use to generate graph by default. We can query this just like the previous queries:

InfluxDB Query lifecycle event

More lifecycle events of Rails application can be found in the Rails guides.

In addition, the instrumentation API can be used directly to create a custom lifecycle events. Here is an example taken from the official documentation that outlines how a part of application code can be wrapped into an instrumented block which we could subscribe to in an identical fashion.

ActiveSupport::Notifications.instrument('render', extra: :information) do
  render text: 'Foo'

While the InfluxDB admin interface provides a convenient dashboard to visualize the metrics, it is not ideal for complex, comparative or realtime visualizations. For such use cases it is better to resort to dedicated solutions like Grafana.

Setting up Grafana

While Grafana releases binary downloads for most major versions of linux, there isn't one available for Mac. And neither is it available from Homebrew. However installation from the sources is straightforward if you have Go. It is important that the version of Go is correct (1.4 +) otherwise installation fails with totally incomprehensible errors. The version of Go available from Homebrew is outdated - however Google provides installers which work like a charm. Once Go is setup properly, the installation steps for Grafana are straightforward.

Another hiccup is that when running the web interface, Grafana uses the same default port as Rails (3000). To alleviate that we need to edit configuration file dev.ini in $GOPATH/src/ and specify an alternate port

app_mode = development

router_logging = false
http_port = 8000

level = Trace

Once this is configured running ./grafana web from grafana source directory, should run the webserver on port 8000:

Grafana server log

Now we can browse the Grafana dashboard and provide the default login details admin/admin. Again it is not advisable to use this in production.

Grafana Login

The default dashboard is pretty bare:

Grafana Home page

Adding a new dashboard is straightforward:

Grafana : Adding a dashboard

Once we have a dedicated dashboard for our Rails application we can start adding graphs:

Grafana : Add Graph

It would be probably surprising to see a great looking graph instantly generated. After all no influxdb/rails specific configuration has been done yet, so what data is being presented ?

Grafana : Default Graph

Once we try to edit the data source, it would become clear that the graph being presented is infact coming from a dummy data source

Grafana : Edit Graph Grafana : Configure Graph Data Source

At this point, because InfluxDB data source hasn't been configured hence no other data source is available :

Grafana : Missing Data Source

The sidebar has a section for data sources that can be used for this task: Grafana : Sidebar Grafana : Add data source

While adding a data source it is of particular importance the version of InfluxDB is correct in the type field. Rest of the fields in form are self explanatory - It is advisable that in production Auth is configured to protect against intrusion.

Grafana : Edit data source

Now in the graph editor multiple data sources should be available:

Grafana : Multiple data sources

We can now specify the InfluxDB query to be made in the Metrics section: Grafana : Specify Metric

Since we don't have a lot of historical data at this point, for inspection we can adjust the time range to something recent: Grafana : Range Selection

The dummy graph should now be replaced with a real visualization of our metric Grfana : Metric Output

In similar fashion more graphs can be added and additional dashboards can be set up as per requirements.


This concludes this post, in which we have setup a basic development setup of InfluxDB and explored how a time series datastore can be used to save metrics from our Rails application and how we can query this data store and derive actionable insights. Also we explored creation of dashboards using Grafana to visualize these metrics in near-real time.

Our proof of concept setup, however is not suitable for production deployments with large volumes of data, in which case we would want to utilize advanced cluster management features of InfluxDB. Fortunately InfluxDB documentation already has a lot of helpful information on scaling up production deployment which is only expected to mature over time. There are also commercial options available for hosted InfluxDB which I encourage users to try out and evaluate.

Where to go from here

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Full stack web developer and polyglot programmer with strong interest in dynamic languages, web application development and user experience design.

Strong believer in agile methodologies, behaviour driven development and efficacy of open source technologies.

© 2013 - 2015 Gaurab Paul

Code licensed under the The MIT License. Content and Artwork licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

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