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Service Discovery and Health Monitoring

Register External Services with Consul Service Discovery

Consul enables the registration and discovery of services internal to your infrastructure as well as external services: third-party SaaS services, and services running in other environments where it is not possible to run the Consul agent directly.

In this tutorial, you will compare the process of registering and health checking internal and external services using Consul and Consul ESM (External Service Monitor). Before you begin you will want to download Consul. This is the only prerequisite.

We will cover:

  • Internal service registration and health checks
  • External service registration and health checks
  • Using Consul ESM to monitor the health of external services
  • A discussion of pull vs. push health checking

»Start the Consul agent

For this tutorial, you will deploy a Consul agent running locally in -dev mode with the Consul -ui enabled. You'll use the -enable-script-checks flag to allow simple ping-based health checks, and will specify a node name of web rather than the default of hostname to make the examples clearer.

Begin by starting the Consul agent.

$ consul agent -dev -enable-script-checks -node=web -ui

Throughout the tutorial, you will use curl to interact with Consul's HTTP API as well as Consul's Web UI, available at http://localhost:8500/ui.

»Register an internal service with a health check

First you will register an internal service. Internal services run on the same node (machine) as a Consul agent. You register internal services via service definitions, which you supply in configuration files that Consul loads from the Consul agent's data directory, either when the Consul agent starts, or after the agent has started via the local HTTP API endpoint at /agent/service/register. The local Consul agent is responsible for running any health checks registered for the service and updating the catalog accordingly.

Create a file called web.json that contains the following configuration:

  "id": "web1",
  "name": "web",
  "port": 80,
  "check": {
    "name": "ping check",
    "args": ["ping", "-c1", ""],
    "interval": "30s",
    "status": "passing"

The above web service will have unique id web1, logical name web, run on port 80 and have one health check.

The health check verifies that the web service can connect to the public internet by pinging every 30 seconds. In the case of an actual web service, you should configure a more useful health check. Consul provides several kinds of health checks, including: Script, HTTP, TCP, Time to Live (TTL), Docker, and gPRC.

Register the example web service by calling the HTTP API with a PUT request:

$ curl --request PUT --data @web.json localhost:8500/v1/agent/service/register

Verify that the example web service has been registered, by querying the /catalog/service/:service endpoint:

$ curl localhost:8500/v1/catalog/service/web
        "ID": "a2ebf70e-f912-54b5-2354-c65e2a2808de",
        "Node": "web",
        "Address": "",
        "Datacenter": "dc1",
        "TaggedAddresses": {
            "lan": "",
            "wan": ""
        "NodeMeta": {
            "consul-network-segment": ""
        "ServiceID": "web1",
        "ServiceName": "web",
        "ServiceAddress": "",
        "ServiceMeta": {},
        "ServicePort": 80,
        "ServiceEnableTagOverride": false,
        "CreateIndex": 7,
        "ModifyIndex": 7

Inspect all the health checks configured for services registered with a given local node using the /agent/checks/ endpoint:

$ curl localhost:8500/v1/agent/checks
    "service:web1": {
        "Node": "web",
        "CheckID": "service:web1",
        "Name": "ping check",
        "Status": "passing",
        "Notes": "",
        "Output": "PING ( 56 data bytes\n64 bytes from icmp_seq=0 ttl=52 time=21.902 ms\n\n--- ping statistics ---\n1 packets transmitted, 1 packets received, 0.0% packet loss\nround-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 21.902/21.902/21.902/0.000 ms\n",
        "ServiceID": "web1",
        "ServiceName": "web",
        "ServiceTags": [
        "Definition": {},
        "CreateIndex": 0,
        "ModifyIndex": 0

You can also query the health of individual services with /health/service/:service and nodes with /health/node/:node.

Navigate to your web service in the Consul UI and click on the "Health Checks" tab for a graphical view of your health check.

»Register an external service with a health check

In the context of Consul, external services run on nodes where you cannot run a local Consul agent. These nodes might be inside your infrastructure (e.g. a mainframe, virtual appliance, or unsupported platform) or outside of it (e.g. a SaaS platform).

Because external services by definition don't have a local Consul agent, you can't register them with that agent or use it for health checking. Instead, you must register them directly with the catalog using the /catalog/register endpoint. In contrast to service registration where the object context for the endpoint is a service, the object context for the catalog endpoint is the node. In other words, using the /catalog/register endpoint registers an entire node, while the /agent/service/register endpoint registers individual services in the context of a node.

The configuration for an external service registered directly with the catalog is slightly different than for an internal service registered via an agent:

  • Node and Address are both required since they cannot be automatically determined from the local node Consul agent.

  • Services and health checks are defined separately.

  • If a ServiceID is provided that matches the ID of a service on that node, the check is treated as a service level health check, instead of a node level health check.

  • The Definition field can be provided with details for a TCP or HTTP health check. For more information, check the Health Checks documentation.

To understand how external service registration works, register an external learn service provided by HashiCorp. First create the following configuration file, external.json:

  "Node": "hashicorp",
  "Address": "",
  "NodeMeta": {
    "external-node": "true",
    "external-probe": "true"
  "Service": {
    "ID": "learn1",
    "Service": "learn",
    "Port": 80
  "Checks": [
      "Name": "http-check",
      "status": "passing",
      "Definition": {
        "http": "",
        "interval": "30s"

This configuration defines a node named hashicorp available at address that provides a learn service with an ID of learn1 running on port 80. When Address is defined, Consul will ping the address by default. It also defines an HTTP-type health check to be run every 30 seconds and sets an initial state for that check of passing.

Typically external services are registered via nodes dedicated for that purpose so we'll continue our example using the Consul dev agent (localhost) as if it were running on a different node (e.g. "External Services") from the one where our internal web service is registered.

This diagram visualizes the differences between how internal and external services are registered with Consul:

Diagram showing difference between how internal and external services are registered with Consul.

Use a PUT request to register the external service.

$ curl --request PUT --data @external.json localhost:8500/v1/catalog/register

Query the /catalog/service/:service endpoint to verify that the external service registered with the catalog, just like you did for the internal service.

$ curl localhost:8500/v1/catalog/service/learn
        "ID": "",
        "Node": "hashicorp",
        "Address": "",
        "Datacenter": "dc1",
        "TaggedAddresses": null,
        "NodeMeta": {
            "external-node": "true",
            "external-probe": "true"
        "ServiceID": "learn1",
        "ServiceName": "learn",
        "ServiceTags": [],
        "ServiceAddress": "",
        "ServiceMeta": {},
        "ServicePort": 80,
        "ServiceEnableTagOverride": false,
        "CreateIndex": 246,
        "ModifyIndex": 246

In the example of an internal web service, you verified your health check was active by querying the local agent endpoint /agent/checks. If you query this again after adding our external service, you won't get the health check listed because it was registered with the service catalog not the local agent. Instead, you'll need to query a catalog-level endpoint such as /health/service/:service, /health/node/:node, or /health/state/:state. You can, however, verify the service and its health check are listed in the Consul UI. Because the check is listed we know that there is an entry for it in the catalog, but because this node and service don't have a local agent to run the check the node's health will not be monitored.

»Simulate an outage

To see the difference between internal and external service health checks query for node health after simulating an outage.

To simulate an outage, disconnect from the internet, wait a few moments, and look at your health checks in the Consul UI. You will see a failing check for the internal web service, but continue to see the passing check for the external learn service, even though it can't reach Health checks for both services should fail while disconnected from the internet but only the check for our internal web service is failing.

The external service's health check doesn't update with the new failing status, because Consul's health checks rely on the local Consul agent to report status changes, and external services don't have local agents. An extra component is required to keep external service health checks up to date.

»Monitor the external service with Consul ESM

Consul ESM is a daemon that runs alongside Consul in order to health check external nodes and update their status in the catalog. It allows externally registered services and checks to access the same features as if they were registered locally on Consul agents. You can run multiple instances of ESM for availability. ESM will perform a leader election by holding a lock in Consul. The leader will then continually watch Consul for updates to the catalog and perform health checks defined on any external nodes it discovers.

The diagram from earlier is updated to show how Consul ESM works with Consul to monitor the health of external services:

Diagram showing how Consul ESM works with Consul to monitor the health of external services.

Consul ESM is provided as a single binary. To install, download the latest release appropriate for your system and make it available in your PATH.

Open a new terminal and start Consul ESM with consul-esm.

$ consul-esm

2018/06/14 12:50:44 [INFO] Connecting to Consul on
Consul ESM running!
      Datacenter: (default)
         Service: "consul-esm"
      Leader Key: "consul-esm/lock"
Node Reconnect Timeout: "72h0m0s"

Log data will now stream in as it occurs:

2018/06/14 12:50:44 [INFO] Waiting to obtain leadership...
2018/06/14 12:50:44 [INFO] Obtained leadership

If your internet provider does not allow UDP pings you may have to set ping_type = "socket" in a config file and launch consul-esm with that config file. If you are using macOS you will need to run with sudo:

$ sudo consul-esm -config-file=./consul-esm.hcl

The example external service definition you used included the following NodeMeta values that enable health monitoring by Consul ESM:

  • "external-node" identifies the node as an external one that Consul ESM should monitor.
  • "external-probe": "true" tells Consul ESM to perform regular pings to the node and maintain an externalNodeHealth check for the node (similar to the serfHealth check used by Consul agents).

Once Consul ESM is running, simulate an outage again by disconnecting from the internet. Now in Consul UI, you will see that the health checks for the external service are updated to critical as they should be.

Consul ESM supports HTTP and TCP health checks. Ping health checks are added automatically with "external-probe": "true".

»Discussion: push vs. pull health checking

Traditional health checking uses a pull model; on a regular interval, the monitoring server asks all the nodes if they are healthy and the nodes respond with a status. This makes sure that the status of each node stays up to date, but creates a bottleneck because as the number of nodes scales, so does the amount of traffic to the monitoring service. This clogs local network traffic and puts unnecessary load on the datacenter.

Consul solves this problem using a push-based model, where agents send events only upon status changes which keeps the number of requests low. The problem with this edge-triggered monitoring is that there are no liveness heartbeats. In the absence of any updates Consul assumes that the server is still healthy, even if it has died. Consul gets around this by using a gossip-based failure detector. All datacenter members take part in a background gossip, which has a constant load regardless of datacenter size. The combination of gossip-based failure detection and edge-triggered updates allows Consul to scale to very large datacenter sizes without being heavily loaded.

By definition, external services don't have a local Consul agent to participate in gossip, so if the node running an external service dies, Consul won't know about it. This is why ESM is required for monitoring external services.

»Next steps

Internal services are those provided by nodes where the Consul agent can run directly. They are registered with service definitions via the local Consul agent. The local Consul agent on the node is responsible for running any health checks registered for the service and updating the catalog accordingly.

External services run on nodes where the Consul agent cannot be run. They must be registered directly with the catalog because, by definition, they don't have a local Consul agent to register with.

Both internal and external services can have health checks associated with them. Health checking in Consul uses a push-based model where agents send events only upon status changes. Because Consul monitoring requires that a Consul agent be running on the monitored service, health checks are not performed on external services. To enable health monitoring for external services, use Consul External Service Monitor.

In this tutorial, you registered both internal and external services with heath checks, using the Consul ESM to monitor health of the external service. Consul provides several kinds of health checks including: Script , HTTP, TCP, Time to Live (TTL), Docker, and gPRC. To learn more about health check options in Consul, please visit the health check documentation.