Using AWS Lambda to improve Lambda Error Reports

I use AWS Lambda for multiple small things, like my own music scrobbler and tracking replies to Twitter threads. One use that I really like Lambda for is just making sure everything looks A-OK on my server. I mean, why pay a service like Pingdom to do something that I can do in a 20-line Python script?

One thing I don't like about Lambda is the error messages I get via SNS when things fail:

  "version": "0",
  "id": "3a26baa3-e818-8bc4-62cf-cb7ab71757c9",
  "detail-type": "Scheduled Event",
  "source": "",
  "account": "123456789",
  "time": "2018-05-02T12:12:11Z",
  "region": "us-east-2",
  "resources": [
  "detail": {}

Not exactly straightforward, is it? And that was pretty-printed! Not only do I not know what exactly went wrong (my check function checks multiple things like whether the server is up, if TLS is set up properly, if search is returning results, etc), but I also have multiple functions using the same SNS topic to inform me, so I don't even know which function failed! For the former, I can always log in to the AWS console to view the logs, and I can cross reference Cloudwatch error alarms for different functions for the latter, but that's a lot of work if the fix is something simple like “log on to your server and restart a service”. I figured there had to be a better way!

Well, as you would expect from the title, there is! And the best part is that I can fix Lambda's poor error reporting using another Lambda function. In this post, we'll cover how Lambda handles errors with dead letter queues, go over Cloudwatch logs, and discover some pitfalls that you can run into while doing development for Lambda.

Dead Letter Queues

The first thing you need to know, if you don't already, is how Lambda functions report errors. Lambda functions invoked via an asynchronous event (such as a Cloudwatch Event - think of it like a cronjob timer) are retried three times - if none of those tries succeed, the event is forwarded to what's called a dead letter queue (aka DLQ). A dead letter queue in AWS can be a SNS topic or an SQS queue - I chose the former since it's really easy to wire up to my e-mail. And that's where that “bad error message” blob of JSON above came from - it's the event that Cloudwatch events to kick off my Lambda function.

Lambda functions can get invoked from sources other than Cloudwatch Events; another potential source is - you guessed it - an SNS topic! So all I needed to do was write another Lambda function to intercept the dead letter queue message, format a pretty e-mail, and send it my way.

Intercepting Failures

The first thing I did was set up a new SNS topic named lambda-failures - I didn't want to contaminate the old topic I use for SNS notifications with these new messages, especially while I was working. The next step was to point the my ping function's DLQ to this new topic, and then create a new Lambda function to accept messages on this topic. Then I introduced a deliberate failure in my ping function in the $LATEST version 1). Now that everything is wired up, all we need to do is hit the “Test” button on the ping function to cause an error, right?

So, I hit the test button - the function did indeed fail, but I didn't get a message sent to my new Lambda function. What gives?

This took me a while to figure out, but I'll spare you that, dear reader. You may remember from my description of dead letter queues above that DLQs are involved for Lambda invocations triggered by asynchronous events - but they are not involved with synchronous invocations! Clicking the test button creates a synchronous invocation, which doesn't send failures to the DLQ (the idea being that the caller is responsible for handling errors).

So, to convince my function to use its DLQ, I created a “once per minute” CloudWatch event and hooked it up to my new Lambda function 2). Now I have asynchronous invocations happening! To speed up my developing and testing, I dumped out the event being sent to the new function and saved it as a test event - that way I can just click “Test” to test my function!

Extracting Log Messages

AWS Lambda automatically sends logging output from a function into Cloudwatch Logs - the next trick here was to extract the logs generated by a particular invocation and using them to create a formatted error message. I know from experience at my job that if you send Cloudwatch Logs a message that parses as JSON, you can write JSONPath queries to search a log stream for matching entries. So I did a little work to make my ping function log everything as JSON, using a message key for the actual message and the id for the event ID that Cloudwatch Events gave me.

After this, I wrote some code to extract the event ID from the event forwarded to my function via the DLQ, and to look up that event ID in the Cloudwatch logs. I hadn't granted my function Cloudwatch logs read permissions, so I still needed to grant them to the function's role in IAM. Once you do this, you need to wait a few moments for the new permissions to take effect in Lambda.

I needed to figure out which log group to check - Lambda uses a single log group per function. I didn't find an easy way to determine the function based on the Cloudwatch event, so for now I have it hardcoded to always look at the logs for my ping function. You can customize the payload that Cloudwatch events uses when it invokes a Lambda function, but I figured I would add that when I needed it.

Messages in Triplicate

After I finished, I noticed something odd - I was getting the log messages in triplicate! This confused me for a bit, but then I remembered that a function will get tried three times before Lambda puts the event into the DLQ!

Lessons Learned & Moving Forward

So we learned a few lessons about AWS Lambda:

There are definitely some improvements I could make on this - for one, I would like to dynamically discover which function failed and use that to determine the correct log group to query. Another thing I would like to do for future Lambda development is to check out something like Zappa - I've looked at Serverless, but I hesitated because you need to give it an IAM user with very broad permissions.

  1. 1) Lambda allows you to version your functions and assign aliases to versions - similar to Git tags and branches. Read AWS Lambda Function Versioning and Aliases for more!
  2. 2) In retrospect, it would have been simpler to use the aws lambda invoke --invocation-type Event to manually invoke the function
Published on 2018-05-20