Prometheus reverse_exporter

Written by Will Rouesnel

Find reverse_exporter on Github Releases

In which I talk about something I made to solve a problem I had.


I like to make my deployments of things as “appliance-like” as possible. I want them to be plug-and-play, and have sensible defaults - in fact if possible I want to make them production-ready “out of the box”.

This usually involves setting up VMs or containers which include a number of components, or a quorum of either which do the same.

To take a real example - I have a PowerDNS authoritative container which uses Postgres replication for a backend. These are tightly coupled components - so tightly that it’s a lot easier to run them in the same container. PowerDNS is nice because it has an HTTP REST API, which leads to a great turn-key DNS solution while retaining a lot of power - but it totally lacks an authentication layer, so we also need to throw in nginx to provide that (and maybe something else for auth later - for now I manage static password lists, but we might do LDAP or something else - who knows?)

Obviously, we want to monitor all these components, and the way I like doing that is with Prometheus.

The Problem

Prometheus exporters provide metrics, typically on an http endpoint like /metrics. For our appliance like container, ideally, we want to replicate this experience.

The individual components in it - PowerDNS, Postgres, nginx - all have their own exporters which provide specific metrics but also generic information about the exporter itself - which means we have conflicting metric names for at least the go-runtime specific metrics. And while we’re at it we probably have a bunch of random glue-code we’d like to produce some metrics about, plus some SSL certificates we’d like to advertise expiry dates for.

There’s also a third factor here which is important: we don’t necessarily have liberty to just open ports willy-nilly to support this - or we’d like to able to avoid it. In the space of corporations with security policies, HTTP/HTTPS on port 80 and 443 is easy to justify. But good luck getting another 3 ports opened to support monitoring - oh and you’ll have to put SSL and auth on those too.

Solution 1 - separate endpoints

In our single-container example, we only have the 1 IP for the container - but we have nginx so we could just farm the metrics out to separate endpoints. This works - it’s my original solution. But instead of a nice, by-convention /metrics endpoint we now have something like /metrics/psql, /metrics/nginx, /metrics/pdns.

Which means 3 separate entries in the Prometheus config file to scrape them, and breaks nice features like DNS-SD to let us just discover.

And it feels unclean: the PowerDNS container has a bunch of things in it, but they’re all providing one-service - they’re all one product. Shouldn’t their metrics all be given as one endpoint?

Solution 2 - just use multiple ports

This is the Prometheus way. And it would work. But it still has some of the drawbacks above - we’re still explicitly scraping 3 targets, and we’re doing some slicing on the Prometheus side to try and group these sensibly - in fact we’re requiring Prometheus to understand our architecture in detail which shouldn’t matter.

i.e. is the DNS container a single job with 3 endpoints in it, multiple jobs per container? The latter feels wrong again - if our database goes sideways, its not really a database cluster going down - just a single “DNS server” instance.

Prometheus has the idea of an “instance” tag per scraped endpoint…we’d kind of like to support that.

Solution 3 - combine the exporters into one endpoint - reverse_exporter

reverse_exporter is essentially the implementation of how we achieve this.

The main thing reverse_exporter was designed to do is receive a scrape request, proxy it to a bunch of exporters listening on localhost behind it, and then decode the metrics they produce so it can rewrite them with unique identifier labels before handing them to Prometheus.

Obviously metric relabelling on Prometheus can do something like this, but in this case as solution designers/application developers/whatever we are, we want to express an opinion on how this container runs, and simplify the overhead to supporting it.

The reason we rewrite the metrics is to allow namespace collisisions - specifically we want to ensure we can have multiple golang runtime metrics from Prometheus live side-by-side, but still be able to separate them out in our visualiazation tooling. We might also want to have multiples of the same application in our container (or maybe its something like a Kubernetes pod and we want it to be monitored like a single appliance). The point is: from a Prometheus perspective, it all comes out looking like metrics from the 1 “instance”, and gets metadata added by Prometheus as such without any extra effort. And that’s powerful - because it means DNS SD or service discovery works again. And it means we can start to talk about cluster application policy in a sane way - “we’ll monitor /metrics on port 80 or 443 for you if it’s there.

Other Problems (which are solved)

There were a few other common dilemmas I wanted a “correct” solution for when I started playing around with reverse_exporter which it solves.

We don’t always want to write an entire exporter for Prometheus - sometimes we just have something tiny and fairly obvious we’d like to scrape with a text format script. When using the Prometheus node_exporter you can do this with the text collector, which will read *.prom files on every scrape - but you need to setup cron to periodically update these - which can be a pain, and gives the metrics lag.

What if we want to have an on-demand script?

reverse_exporter allows this - you can specify a bash script, even allow arguments to be passed via URL params, and it’ll execute and collect any metrics you write to stdout.

But it also protects you from the danger of naive approach here: a possible denial of service from an overzealous or possibly malicious user sending a huge number of requests to your script. If we just spawned a process each time, we could quickly exhaust container or system resources. reverse_exporter avoids this problem by waterfalling the results of each execution - since Prometheus regards a scrape as a time-slice of state at the moment it gets results, we can protect the system by queuing up inbound scrapers while the script executes, and then sending them all the same results (provided they’re happy with the wait time - which Prometheus is good about).

We avoid thrashing the system resources, and we can confidently let users and admins reload the metrics page without bringing down our container or our host.


This post feels a bit marketing like to me, but I am pretty excited that for me at least reverse_exporter works well.

Hopefully, it proves helpful to other Prometheus users as well!