TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Enabling CGI Scripts

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 9
Column Tag: Programming

Untangling the Web

Enabling CGI Scripts

by Kevin Hemenway

Prepare your server for more powerful dynamic capabilities

Last month, we started down the road of adding dynamic content to our web server with the use of Server Side Includes (SSI). Often regarded as "simple" compared to languages like Perl and PHP, they can provide some quick turnaround to minor features like small single-item databases, changing content based on user whim or URL, and so forth. Regardless of whether you plan on using SSIs or not, we laid some important groundwork with our understanding of how modules work, Apache's "block" configuration format, and a soft introduction to GET and POST.

All relatively Lego. Let's break out the Technix.

A Quick 'How do ya do?' To CGI

SSI's are built into Apache through the use of a module--when they're enabled, the web server handles the request of a resource, processes the SSI statements within, and then sends the final output back to the user. Since Apache is a web server and not a programming language, the capabilities of the built-in SSIs are minimal--they're not intended to be a full-fledged coding environment, and they never will be.

This is where CGI comes in. Meaning "Common Gateway Interface", it defines a way for a web server to interact with external programs: Apache handles the request, sends some relevant information to the requested resource, and trusts the resource to handle the rest (including sending back the final content). If the resource doesn't respond properly (either due to bad programming, incorrect permissions, etc.), Apache generates an error.

What does this really mean? Ultimately, it allows you to use any shell programming language to "do stuff" before showing the results to your visitors. Whether this means displaying content from a database, resetting passwords, saving a comment to a weblog, etc., as long as your program finishes properly, Apache doesn't give a darn.

Most commonly, these "CGI scripts" are written in Perl, but you can use PHP, C, Bash, Ruby, Python, and anything else you may be interested in. Likewise, you can use them all in tandem--you're not locked into any one programming language at any one time. Be forewarned, however: you are locked into security concerns: anything possible in your programming language of choice is doable within your CGI script, including deletion of files, exhaustion of memory, buffer overflows, poor security, and impolite use of resources. Add in the fact that all of these errors in judgment become publicly run-able by anyone who accesses your server, and you've got a whole mess of potential trouble.

Enabling The Gateway to Your Scripts

Learning about CGI follows my oft-repeated method of "search the httpd.conf for the feature you want". So, open up /etc/httpd/httpd.conf in your favorite text editor and search for the word "CGI"--our first two matches look vaguely familiar:

LoadModule cgi_module         libexec/httpd/mod_cgi.so
AddModule mod_cgi.c

If you recall from our previous articles, Apache contains most of its features broken up into modules--the equivalent of plugins. To enable a module, two lines must exist uncommented (not preceded by a # character) in the httpd.conf file, an AddModule and a LoadModule. As previously with SSI, so too with CGI: our two lines already exist, and are already enabled. Let's move on to our next search result, which is also similar to what we saw last month:

<Directory "/Library/WebServer/Documents">
    # This may also be "None", "All", or any combination of 
    # "Indexes", "Includes", "FollowSymLinks", "ExecCGI",   
    # or "MultiViews".
    Options Indexes FollowSymLinks MultiViews
    AllowOverride None
    Order allow,deny
    Allow from all
</Directory>

Whereas last article the above result was triggered by the word Includes, it's ExecCGI this time around. Unfortunately, explaining ExecCGI without some prior knowledge will cause a little bit of confusion, so let's skip ahead to our next few matches before we go much further. I've truncated them for relevance:

# ScriptAlias: This controls which directories
# contain server scripts. ScriptAliases are essentially
# the same as Aliases, except that documents in the 
# realname directory are treated as applications and
# run by the server when requested rather than as
# documents sent to the client. 
#
ScriptAlias /cgi-bin/ "/Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables/"
# "/Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables" should be changed
# to whatever your ScriptAliased CGI directory exists,
# if you have that configured.
#
<Directory "/Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables">
    AllowOverride None
    Options None
    Order allow,deny
    Allow from all
</Directory>

The most common CGI configuration is all about segregation: "only files in this directory should be executed as programs--everything else, anywhere else, are just plain old files that should be processed normally." From the standpoint of an overbearing system administrator, this makes sense. With only one directory that can execute code unconditionally, and only one person (you) who can put programs there, it can bring a little sanity to your day-to-day security paranoia.

This is how Apache is configured by default, and the above httpd.conf snippet shows these settings. Our first directive, ScriptAlias, lets us pick and choose which directory we'd like CGI scripts to live in. Anything within that directory, CGI script or not, will be executed by the web server as if it were a program. If something goes wrong, Apache will return an "Internal Server Error" to the requesting user-agent (ie. your visitor's browser).

ScriptAlias consists of two space-separated parts: the fake name and the real name. The fake name, /cgi-bin/, defines what URL will be used to access the real name, /Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables/. In the currently configured settings, whenever we access a URL like http://127.0.0.1/cgi-bin/printenv, we'll really be accessing the matching file stored at /Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables/printenv.

The second part of our configuration is a block directive focusing on that specific location of our hard drive. It merely ensures that said directory has no special privileges besides that ScriptAlias: it can't override anything in the Apache configuration (AllowOverride None), and there are no special capabilities (Options None) associated with it.

At this point, if you only care about the directory segregation of CGI, you can skip over to our next subheading, "Let's See One of These CGI Thingies In Action!" If, on the other hand, you'd like to hear me get high-and-mighty over the "right" way of doing things, read on.

CGI EVERYWHERE: "A Brilliant Psychological Thriller!"

In the very first "Untangling the Web", I professed a fondness and desire to teach you the "right" way to create URLs (MacTech Magazine, June 2003, "Untangling The Web", "Familiarity That Breeds An Uh-Oh!"). A good URL will remain in existence until the dusk of time, never needing to be changed, never needing to be refactored. It's not a snap-decision: if you find yourself changing your URLs around, you designed your site poorly (from an engineering, not visual, standpoint).

One of the maxims, which I'll reiterate here, is that "Your URLs Should Not Reveal Your Technical Capabilities". This has absolutely nothing to do with the oft-maligned "security through obscurity"--the belief that hiding information makes you less susceptible to risk. Instead, removing the technicalities of your URL will allow your site to grow with your needs.

Consider the default configuration of CGI: anytime you want to add some dynamic functionality to your site (with Perl, Python, etc.), you've got to stick your script in a directory and point to it with a URL like http://127.0.0.1/cgi-bin/add_user.pl (where .pl denotes a Perl script) or http://127.0.0.1/cgi-bin/del_user.py (.py denoting Python). What happens, though, when you no longer need CGI scripts, but have moved to an embedded language like PHP? Suddenly, all of your pages that point to that ugly /cgi-bin/ URL are broken, useless, and inaccurate. You find yourself refactoring pages to point to new locations.

The solution? Remove /cgi-bin/ and the file extension from the URL. By clearing this needless technical cruft, you get stronger addresses with less need for change. http://127.0.0.1/admin/add_user and http://127.0.0.1/admin/del_user contain no indication of the technology behind them, merely their purpose in the grande scheme of things.

We're already halfway through removing /cgi-bin/ from our URLs (file extensions I keep putting off, but I'll get to 'em eventually, I promise!). Our very first match for our "CGI" search was for an ExecCGI addition to the Options line of our root web directory (/Library/WebServer/Documents/). ExecCGI works similarly to Includes, which helped get our SSIs running last month. By adding it to the Options line of any Directory we, like SSIs, are telling Apache to allow CGI scripts at that location:

Options Indexes FollowSymLinks MultiViews ExecCGI

To make the comparison even more apt, there's one other thing we need to do before we can use CGIs wherever we need them: we need to add a handler that says "Apache! Listen up! Whenever we request a file with this extension, we want you to treat it as an executable program!" This handler was also needed last month--we told Apache that anytime it ran across a file with an shtml extension, it should process it for SSIs statements.

Thankfully, there's not much brainwork involved here, as our final relevant search match for "CGI" brings us to the below. Simply uncomment the AddHandler (by removing the #), restart Apache (sudo apachectl restart in your Terminal) and you're ready to go:

# If you want to use server side includes, or CGI outside
# ScriptAliased directories, uncomment the following lines.
#
# To use CGI scripts:
#
#AddHandler cgi-script .cgi

Two caveats that may be running through head: "what about the cgi extension?" and "what about that security brouhaha you cautioned us about?" Concerning the file extension, yes, we're swapping /cgi-bin/ for cgi, but this will never be an issue once we remove the need for them in our URLs. As for security, there's not much I can say besides "be careful"--you'll no longer have the niceties of a single and central directory for your code execution, so double and triple check the scripts you'll be programming or using. I'll talk a little more about script security in next month's column.

Let's See One of These CGI Thingies In Action!

Browse to your /Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables/ directory, the default location that Apache has been configured for CGI scripts. You should see two files, printenv and test-cgi, there already. These are some default Apache CGI scripts that will help you quickly test if things are a-ok. Since CGI was already pre-configured in the httpd.conf, we should be able to just load one of these files in the browser and see some fireworks, right? Load http://127.0.0.1/cgi-bin/test-cgi, and we'll receive the response in Figure 1.


Figure 1: An error after loading our test-cgi, but why?

If CGI scripts were already configured, why this rather rude error message? Let's check Apache's error_log, which will always contain some sort of light bulb enlightening response. After running tail /var/log/httpd/error_log on the command line, we'll see something similar to the below as the last line of output:

[Sun Aug 17 10:41:16 2003] [error] [client 127.0.0.1] file 
permissions deny server execution: /Library/WebServer/CGI-
Executables/test-cgi

This is one of the more common errors you'll experience with CGI scripts: the test-cgi file doesn't have the proper credentials to be considered an executable program. I won't get into the vagaries of file ownership or permissions, but follow through the bolded commands below to give both of the default CGI files "execute" access for all users:

> cd /Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables/
> ls -l
total 24
-rw-r--r--  1 root  admin  5398 Jul 27  2002 printenv
-rw-r--r--  1 root  admin   757 Jul 27  2002 test-cgi
> sudo chmod 755 *
Password: **********
> ls -l
total 24
-rwxr-xr-x  1 root  admin  5398 Jul 27  2002 printenv
-rwxr-xr-x  1 root  admin   757 Jul 27  2002 test-cgi

Now, let's try our URL again. Figure 2 shows our new output:


Figure 2: The correct output of our test-cgi script.

Figure 3 shows the output from the other script, http://127.0.0.1/cgi-bin/printenv:


Figure 3: Similar output from the default printenv script.

If you followed the instructions under the "CGI EVERYWHERE!" subheading, you can also move either of the printenv or test-cgi scripts out of their current location and stick them in /Library/WebServer/Documents/ with a cgi file extension. Once you do so, you should then be able to run them under the non-/cgi-bin/ URL and receive the same output (if not, what's your first course of action? Check the error_log!).

Assuming you get similar output as Figures 2 and 3, what does all this gibberish mean? What exactly did we just do? Both scripts show a number of environment variables, which is just a fancy term for data that exists "invisibly" and floats around waiting to be used or read. Some of the variables were set by the browser (like HTTP_USER_AGENT), and some have been set by the server (like SERVER_PROTOCOL). When I first introduced CGI, I mentioned that Apache "sends some relevant information to the requested resource". This "relevant information" is stored in environment variables.

Environment variables can exist outside of your web server too. For instance, if you run printenv in your Terminal, you'll see a listing of variables similar to Figure 4:


Figure 4: Environment variables in your Terminal.

Believe it or not, we've dealt with environment variables already in this series. In our article on Server Side Includes, we checked the $QUERY_STRING variable to see which quote should be displayed at the user's request. If you check back to Figure 3, you'll see an environment variable named QUERY_STRING, which is currently empty. Try adding ?q02 to the end of our URL (http://127.0.0.1/cgi-bin/printenv?q02), and see how that changes the output (Figure 5):


Figure 5: Our QUERY_STRING now has a value.

With the above two scripts working correctly, our CGI capabilities are ready for use.

Homework Malignments

In our next column, we'll chat further about CGI: how to begin creating our own, the most common errors during development and deployment, security issues we should be aware of, and how to find the "good ones" from the immense ocean of crap. If we have time, we'll show you how to install a few that have stood the test of time. For now, students may contact the teacher at morbus@disobey.com.

  • Take a look inside printenv and test-cgi in a text editor.

  • View the printenv script from various browsers and machines. Determine how the output changes, and see if you can figure out what each setting actually means.

  • Forgive me for not including anything amusing in this article.


Kevin Hemenway, coauthor of Mac OS X Hacks, is better known as Morbus Iff, the creator of disobey.com, which bills itself as "content for the discontented." Publisher and developer of more home cooking than you could ever imagine (like the popular open-sourced aggregator AmphetaDesk, the best-kept gaming secret Gamegrene.com, articles for Apple's Internet Developer and the O'Reilly Network, etc.), he's been spending the last two months listening to every song in his iTunes library twice. Contact him at morbus@disobey.com.

 
AAPL
$103.30
Apple Inc.
+0.80
MSFT
$45.09
Microsoft Corpora
-0.34
GOOG
$577.33
Google Inc.
+5.73

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

TextSoap 7.4.0 - Flexible text editing u...
TextSoap is for people who work with text. TextSoap effortlessly cleans up text from endlessly different formats. Wash away unwanted characters, spaces, tabs. Fix paragraphs with hard returns at the... Read more
NetShade 6.0.2 - Browse privately using...
NetShade is an Internet security tool that conceals your IP address on the web. NetShade routes your Web connection through either a public anonymous proxy server, or one of NetShade's own dedicated... Read more
Mac DVDRipper Pro 5.0 - Copy, backup, an...
Mac DVDRipper Pro is the DVD backup solution that lets you protect your DVDs from scratches, save your batteries by reading your movies from your hard disk, manage your collection with just a few... Read more
pwSafe 3.1 - Secure password management...
pwSafe provides simple and secure password management across devices and computers. pwSafe uses iCloud to keep your password databases backed-up and synced between Macs and iOS devices. It is... Read more
StatsBar 1.8 - Monitor system processes...
StatsBar gives you a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the following areas of your Mac: CPU usage Memory usage Disk usage Network and bandwidth usage Battery power and health (MacBooks only)... Read more
Path Finder 6.5.5 - Powerful, award-winn...
Path Finder is a file browser that combines the familiar Finder interface with the powerful utilities and innovative features. Just a small selection of the Path Finder 6 feature set: Dual pane... Read more
QuarkXPress 10.2.1 - Desktop publishing...
With QuarkXPress, you can communicate in all the ways you need to -- and always look professional -- in print and digital media, all in a single tool. Features include: Easy to Use -- QuarkXPress is... Read more
Skype 6.19.0.450 - Voice-over-internet p...
Skype allows you to talk to friends, family and co-workers across the Internet without the inconvenience of long distance telephone charges. Using peer-to-peer data transmission technology, Skype... Read more
VueScan 9.4.41 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
Cloud 3.0.0 - File sharing from your men...
Cloud is simple file sharing for the Mac. Drag a file from your Mac to the CloudApp icon in the menubar and we take care of the rest. A link to the file will automatically be copied to your clipboard... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Modern Combat 5 Gets a Major Multiplayer...
Modern Combat 5 Gets a Major Multiplayer Update Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Alien Creeps TD Review
Alien Creeps TD Review By Jennifer Allen on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: EXPENSIVE DEFENSESUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Alien Creeps TD would be a fun if unremarkable Tower Defense game, but its heavy focus on... | Read more »
The Journey Down: Chapter Two Review
The Journey Down: Chapter Two Review By Jennifer Allen on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: DARK YET ENTICINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad It’s a little dark, in every sense of the word, but The Journey Down:... | Read more »
Function Space, a Social Network App for...
Function Space, a Social Network App for Science, Launches on iOS Posted by Ellis Spice on September 2nd, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Stupidfast – How Taylor Martinez Switche...
How do you make an Endless Running game more than just another Endless Running game? By adding real life prizes to it, of course! That’s the thinking behind StupidFast: a game designed for football enthusiasts, and the brainchild of former college... | Read more »
Little Raiders: Robin’s Revenge Review
Little Raiders: Robin’s Revenge Review By Jennifer Allen on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: CASUAL RAIDINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Combining simple combat with village building is a potent combination for... | Read more »
Treasure Tombs: Ra Deal Coming from Bulk...
Treasure Tombs: Ra Deal Coming from Bulkypix and Dark Tonic This Fall Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 [ permalink ] Dark Tonic and | Read more »
Pirate Bash Review
Pirate Bash Review By Nadia Oxford on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: BAD PIRATES, GOOD TIMESUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Pirate Bash’s turn-based battles add an intriguing twist to a typical physics game.   | Read more »
Tiny Tower Vegas Review
Tiny Tower Vegas Review By Jennifer Allen on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: STEADY DEVELOPMENTUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Build a huge tower again but Vegas-style in Tiny Tower Vegas.   | Read more »
The Manhattan Project Review
The Manhattan Project Review By Andrew Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: ROCKET SCIENCEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad The Manhattan Project offers a great Euro-style gameplay experience, but it is totally... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple refurbished iPads available for up to $...
Apple is offering Certified Refurbished iPad Airs for up to $140 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Stock tends to come and go with some of these... Read more
Are We Now In The Post-Post-PC Era?
A longtime and thoroughgoing laptop aficionado, I was more than a little dismayed by Steve Jobs’s declaration back in 2010 when he sprang the iPad on an unsuspecting world. that we’d entered a “post-... Read more
PC Outlook Improves, But 2014 Shipments Still...
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, worldwide PC shipments are expected to fall by -3.7 percent in 2014. To hat’s actually an improvement from the... Read more
IDC Lowers Tablet Sales Projections for 2014...
Following a second consecutive quarter of softer than expected demand, International Data Corporation (IDC) has lowered its worldwide tablet plus 2-in-1 forecast for 2014 to 233.1 million units. The... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 21-inch 1.4GHz...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 21″ 1.4GHz iMacs for $929 including free shipping plus Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Their price is $170 off the cost of new models,... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2.5GHz Mac mini on sale for $549.99 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software. NY sales tax only. Read more
Save up to $300 on an iMac with Apple refurbi...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $300 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. These are the best prices on... Read more
The Rise of Phablets
Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, a businesses and technology consulting firm focused solely on the financial services industry, has released an infographic depicting the convergence of... Read more
Bad Driver Database App Allows Good Drivers t...
Bad Driver Database 1.4 by Facile Group is a new iOS and Android app that lets users instantly input and see how many times a careless, reckless or just plain stupid driver has been added to the... Read more
Eddy – Cloud Music Player for iPhone/iPad Fre...
Ukraine based CapableBits announces the release of Eddy, its tiny, but smart and powerful cloud music player for iPhone and iPad that allows users to stream or download music directly from cloud... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.