I sometimes have a need to collect a packet capture for an extended period of time. On a busy host this can generate enough data that it needs some special handling. In particular it’s useful to roll over to a new file every now and then, and to offload the completed files somewhere else so they don’t fill up the disk.

This week I discovered that tcpdump has options -C, -G and -z that let me do exactly that, rendering obsolete my janky bash script that tried to do the same:

    -C size
        The file size (in multiples of 1e6 bytes) at which to roll over.
    -G age
        The file age (in seconds) at which to roll over.
    -z command
        Runs `command <filename>` on completion of a file.

The man page gives more details including a (somewhat vague) description of how tcpdump names files when using these options. I will be using something like this:

sudo tcpdump -G600 -C1000 -zgzip -wcapture-%s.pcap -s128 -i eth0 tcp port 12345 ...
#                      adjust these bits according to taste ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

This says to roll over every 10 minutes, and every 1GB, and to run gzip to compress the file on rollover. The first file in every 10-minute period is named something like capture-1607780545.pcap, and if that file hits 1GB then subsequent files are named capture-1607780545.pcap1, capture-1607780545.pcap2, etc. The lack of leading zeroes is a bit of a pain: the eleventh file in each period is called capture-1607780545.pcap10 which tends to sort between capture-1607780545.pcap1 and capture-1607780545.pcap2. At the end of the ten-minute period it starts over again at capture-1607781145.pcap.

Note that tcpdump will spawn command each time it rolls over to a new file. It does not itself limit how many of them are running concurrently, so it’s your responsibility to make sure that the system can keep up with the traffic. Make sure to give tcpdump a suitably restrictive filter. If you don’t, you’ll hit some limit or other eventually, which probably won’t go well. If the system is under particularly heavy load then you can alternatively use tcpdump -w- to send the capture to stdout and then pipe it somewhere else that does have the capacity for further processing. If you do that, make sure to exclude the piped-elsewhere data from the packets you’re capturing.

The command is executed using execlp(3) so it searches your $PATH for the executable like a shell, but you cannot pass any other arguments. Note also that the command above runs tcpdump as root which means that command runs as root too. The man page suggests writing a script to do some more advanced processing but you may not want (or be permitted) to run a more complicated script as root. If you’d rather do most of the work as a different user then you can have tcpdump run gzip and then use inotifywait to receive a notification each time a compressed capture file is ready for further action:

inotifywait -e delete . -m --format %f \
    | sed -ue '/gz$/d;s/$/.gz/' \
    | xargs -n1 ./done.sh

This works because gzip deletes the original file once the compressed file is complete which triggers the notification. The inotifywait command writes out the names of files that are deleted from the current directory, the sed command adds a .gz to the end of each filename, and then the xargs -n1 runs the named script on each compressed capture file.

The done.sh script can do whatever you need, often offloading the data elsewhere and then removing the original file:


echo Processing $1
aws s3 cp $1 s3://mybucket/captures/$HOSTNAME/$1
rm -vf $1

Invoking xargs like this will process the files in turn, with no parallelism, so if the done.sh script can’t keep up with the traffic then a backlog of compressed capture files might build up. Consider running these captures in their own filesystem to bound the disk space they can consume, or else adjust done.sh to simply drop the given file with no additional processing if disk usage is building up.

There’s a couple of feedback gotchas here. Firstly, deleting the compressed file triggers inotifywait again, which is why compressed files are skipped by the /gz$/d in the sed script. Secondly, if you’re sending the captured traffic back out over the network then there’s a risk that tcpdump will capture it all over again. Make sure you set up an appropriate filter in the original capture to avoid that.

Addendum 2020-12-15: An astute colleague pointed out that when we’re doing these kinds of network trace then we typically only care about the packet headers, and therefore -s128 is extremely effective at capturing what we need and dropping all the other junk in the payload. The headers compress pretty well too since there’s lots of stuff that appears in every one, whereas the payload is typically encrypted and therefore practically uncompressible. Tools like Wireshark correctly use the packet length reported in the header so they handle these truncated packets with no problems. I added that to the suggested tcpdump invocation above.