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
$97.67
Apple Inc.
+0.64
MSFT
$44.50
Microsoft Corpora
+0.10
GOOG
$589.02
Google Inc.
-4.33

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

TinkerTool 5.3 - Expanded preference set...
TinkerTool is an application that gives you access to additional preference settings Apple has built into Mac OS X. This allows to activate hidden features in the operating system and in some of the... Read more
Audio Hijack Pro 2.11.0 - Record and enh...
Audio Hijack Pro drastically changes the way you use audio on your computer, giving you the freedom to listen to audio when you want and how you want. Record and enhance any audio with Audio Hijack... Read more
Intermission 1.1.1 - Pause and rewind li...
Intermission allows you to pause and rewind live audio from any application on your Mac. Intermission will buffer up to 3 hours of audio, allowing users to skip through any assortment of audio... Read more
Autopano Giga 3.6 - Stitch multiple imag...
Autopano Giga allows you to stitch 2, 20, or 2,000 images. Version 3.0 integrates impressive new features that will definitely make you adopt Autopano Pro or Autopano Giga: Choose between 9... Read more
Airfoil 4.8.7 - Send audio from any app...
Airfoil allows you to send any audio to AirPort Express units, Apple TVs, and even other Macs and PCs, all in sync! It's your audio - everywhere. With Airfoil you can take audio from any... Read more
Microsoft Remote Desktop 8.0.8 - Connect...
With Microsoft Remote Desktop, you can connect to a remote PC and your work resources from almost anywhere. Experience the power of Windows with RemoteFX in a Remote Desktop client designed to help... Read more
xACT 2.30 - Audio compression toolkit. (...
xACT stands for X Aaudio Compression Toolkit, an application that encodes and decodes FLAC, SHN, Monkey’s Audio, TTA, Wavpack, and Apple Lossless files. It also can encode these formats to MP3, AAC... Read more
Firefox 31.0 - Fast, safe Web browser. (...
Firefox for Mac offers a fast, safe Web browsing experience. Browse quickly, securely, and effortlessly. With its industry-leading features, Firefox is the choice of Web development professionals... Read more
Little Snitch 3.3.3 - Alerts you to outg...
Little Snitch gives you control over your private outgoing data. Track background activityAs soon as your computer connects to the Internet, applications often have permission to send any... Read more
Thunderbird 31.0 - Email client from Moz...
As of July 2012, Thunderbird has transitioned to a new governance model, with new features being developed by the broader free software and open source community, and security fixes and improvements... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Reddme for iPhone - The Reddit Client (...
Reddme for iPhone - The Reddit Client 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: News Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Reddme for iPhone is an iOS 7-optimized Reddit client that offers a refreshing new way to experience Reddit... | Read more »
Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery : Ep...
Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery : Episode 2 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Jacob Jones is back in Episode 2 of one of Apples 'Best of 2013' games and an App Store... | Read more »
New Trailer For Outcast Odyssey, A New K...
New Trailer For Outcast Odyssey, A New Kind of Card Battler Posted by Jennifer Allen on July 25th, 2014 [ permalink ] Out this Fall is a new kind of card battle game: Outcast Odyssey. | Read more »
Garfield: Survival of the Fattest Coming...
Garfield: Survival of the Fattest Coming to iOS this Fall Posted by Jennifer Allen on July 25th, 2014 [ permalink ] Who loves lasagna? Me. Also everyone’s favorite grumpy fat cat, Garfield. | Read more »
Happy Flock Review
Happy Flock Review By Andrew Fisher on July 25th, 2014 Our Rating: :: HERD IT ALL BEFOREUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Underneath the gloss of Happy Flock’s visuals is a game of very little substance. It’s cute, but... | Read more »
Square Register Updates Adds Offline Pay...
Square Register Updates Adds Offline Payments Posted by Ellis Spice on July 25th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Looking For Group – Hearthstone’s Curse...
For the first time since its release (which has thankfully been a much shorter window for iPad players than their PC counterparts), Blizzard’s wildly successful Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft CCG is sporting some brand new content: the single... | Read more »
Poptile Review
Poptile Review By Jennifer Allen on July 25th, 2014 Our Rating: :: SIMPLY FUNUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Simple yet a little bit glorious, Poptile is a satisfying entertaining puzzle game with oodles of the ‘one... | Read more »
Modern Combat 5: Blackout Review
Modern Combat 5: Blackout Review By Brittany Vincent on July 25th, 2014 Our Rating: :: LESS QQ, MORE PEW PEWUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad The fifth entry into the blockbuster Modern Combat series is what mobile... | Read more »
Watch and Share Mobile Gameplay Videos W...
Watch and Share Mobile Gameplay Videos With Kamcord Posted by Jennifer Allen on July 25th, 2014 [ permalink ] iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple’s 2014 Back to School promotion: $100 g...
 Apple’s 2014 Back to School promotion includes a free $100 App Store Gift Card with the purchase of any new Mac (Mac mini excluded), or a $50 Gift Card with the purchase of an iPad or iPhone,... Read more
iMacs on sale for $150 off MSRP, $250 off for...
Best Buy has iMacs on sale for up to $160 off MSRP for a limited time. Choose free home shipping or free instant local store pickup (if available). Prices are valid for online orders only, in-store... Read more
Mac minis on sale for $100 off MSRP, starting...
Best Buy has Mac minis on sale for $100 off MSRP. Choose free shipping or free instant local store pickup. Prices are for online orders only, in-store prices may vary: 2.5GHz Mac mini: $499.99 2.3GHz... Read more
Global Tablet Market Grows 11% in Q2/14 Notwi...
Worldwide tablet sales grew 11.0 percent year over year in the second quarter of 2014, with shipments reaching 49.3 million units according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation... Read more
New iPhone 6 Models to Have Staggered Release...
Digitimes’ Cage Chao and Steve Shen report that according to unnamed sources in Apple’s upstream iPhone supply chain, the new 5.5-inch iPhone will be released several months later than the new 4.7-... Read more
New iOS App Helps People Feel Good About thei...
Mobile shoppers looking for big savings at their favorite stores can turn to the Goodshop app, a new iOS app with the latest coupons and deals at more than 5,000 online stores. In addition to being a... Read more
Save on 5th generation refurbished iPod touch...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 5th generation iPod touches available starting at $149. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Many, but not all... Read more
What Should Apple’s Next MacBook Priority Be;...
Stabley Times’ Phil Moore says that after expanding its iMac lineup with a new low end model, Apple’s next Mac hardware decision will be how it wants to approach expanding its MacBook lineup as well... Read more
ArtRage For iPhone Painting App Free During C...
ArtRage for iPhone is currently being offered for free (regularly $1.99) during Comic-Con San Diego #SDCC, July 24-27, in celebration of the upcoming ArtRage 4.5 and other 64-bit versions of the... Read more
With The Apple/IBM Alliance, Is The iPad Now...
Almost since the iPad was rolled out in 2010, and especially after Apple made a 128 GB storage configuration available in 2012, there’s been debate over whether the iPad is a serious tool for... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
Sr Software Lead Engineer, *Apple* Online S...
Sr Software Lead Engineer, Apple Online Store Publishing Systems Keywords: Company: Apple Job Code: E3PCAK8MgYYkw Location (City or ZIP): Santa Clara Status: Full Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.