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
$116.47
Apple Inc.
+0.16
MSFT
$47.98
Microsoft Corpora
-0.72
GOOG
$537.50
Google Inc.
+2.67

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Cobook 3.0.7 - Intelligent address book....
Cobook Contacts is an intuitive, engaging address book. Solve the problem of contact management with Cobook Contacts and its simple interface and powerful syncing and integration possibilities.... Read more
StatsBar 1.9 - 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
Cyberduck 4.6 - FTP and SFTP browser. (F...
Cyberduck is a robust FTP/FTP-TLS/SFTP browser for the Mac whose lack of visual clutter and cleverly intuitive features make it easy to use. Support for external editors and system technologies such... Read more
Maya 2015 - Professional 3D modeling and...
Maya is an award-winning software and powerful, integrated 3D modeling, animation, visual effects, and rendering solution. Because Maya is based on an open architecture, all your work can be scripted... Read more
Evernote 6.0.1 - Create searchable notes...
Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at anytime, from... Read more
calibre 2.11 - Complete e-library manage...
Calibre is a complete e-book library manager. Organize your collection, convert your books to multiple formats, and sync with all of your devices. Let Calibre be your multi-tasking digital... Read more
Herald 5.0.1 - Notification plugin for M...
Note: Versions 2.1.3 (for OS X 10.7), 3.0.6 (for OS X 10.8), and 4.0.8 (for OS X 10.9) are no longer supported by the developer. Herald is a notification plugin for Mail.app, Apple's Mac OS X email... Read more
Firetask 3.7 - Innovative task managemen...
Firetask uniquely combines the advantages of classical priority-and-due-date-based task management with GTD. Stay focused and on top of your commitments - Firetask's "Today" view shows all relevant... Read more
TechTool Pro 7.0.6 - Hard drive and syst...
TechTool Pro is now 7, and this is the most advanced version of the acclaimed Macintosh troubleshooting utility created in its 20-year history. Micromat has redeveloped TechTool Pro 7 to be fully 64... Read more
PhotoDesk 3.0.1 - Instagram client for p...
PhotoDesk lets you view, like, comment, and download Instagram pictures/videos! (NO Uploads! / Image Posting! Instagram forbids that! AND you *need* an *existing* Instagram account). But you can do... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Ubisoft Gives Everyone Two New Ways to E...
Ubisoft Gives Everyone Two New Ways to Earn In-Game Stuff for Far Cry 4 Posted by Jessica Fisher on November 21st, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Golfinity – Tips, Tricks, Strategies, an...
Dig this: Would you like to know what we thought of being an infinite golfer? Check out our Golfinity review! Golfinity offers unlimited ways to test your skills at golf. Here are a few ways to make sure your score doesn’t get too high and your... | Read more »
Dark Hearts, The Sequel to Haunting Meli...
Dark Hearts, The Sequel to Haunting Melissa, is Available Now Posted by Jessica Fisher on November 21st, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Meowza! Toyze Brings Talking Tom to Life...
Meowza! | Read more »
Square Enix Announces New Tactical RPG f...
Square Enix Announces New Tactical RPG for Mobile, Heavenstrike Rivals. Posted by Jessica Fisher on November 21st, 2014 [ permalink ] With their epic stories and gorgeous graphics, | Read more »
Quest for Revenge (Games)
Quest for Revenge 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: The great Kingdom of the west has fallen. The gods ignore the prayers of the desperate. A dark warlord has extinguished... | Read more »
Threadz is a New Writing Adventure for Y...
Threadz is a New Writing Adventure for You and Your Friends Posted by Jessica Fisher on November 21st, 2014 [ permalink ] In the tradition of round-robin storytelling, | Read more »
SteelSeries Stratus XL Hardware Review
Made by: SteelSeries Price: $59.99 Hardware/iOS Integration Rating: 4 out of 5 stars Usability Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars Reuse Value Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars Build Quality Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars Overall Rating: 4.31 out of 5 stars | Read more »
ACDSee (Photography)
ACDSee 1.0.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Photography Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Capture, perfect, and share your photos with ACDSee. The ACDSee iPhone app combines an innovative camera, a powerful photo... | Read more »
ProTube for YouTube (Entertainment)
ProTube for YouTube 2.0.2 Device: iOS Universal Category: Entertainment Price: $1.99, Version: 2.0.2 (iTunes) Description: ProTube is the ultimate, fully featured YouTube app. With it's highly polished design, ProTube offers ad-free... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Save up to $400 with Apple refurbished 2014 1...
The Apple Store has restocked Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 15″ Retina MacBook Pros for up to $400 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping... Read more
New 13-inch 1.4GHz MacBook Air on sale for $8...
 Adorama has the 2014 13″ 1.4GHz/128GB MacBook Air on sale for $899.99 including free shipping plus NY & NJ tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. B&H Photo has the 13″ 1.4GHz/128GB MacBook... Read more
Apple Expected to Reverse Nine-Month Tablet S...
Apple and Samsung combined accounted for 62 percent of the nearly 36 million branded tablets shipped in 3Q 2014, according to early vendor shipment share estimates from market intelligence firm ABI... Read more
Stratos: 30 Percent of US Smartphone Owners t...
Stratos, Inc., creator of the Bluetooth Connected Card Platform, has announced results from its 2014 Holiday Mobile Payments Survey. The consumer survey found that nearly one out of three (30 percent... Read more
2014 1.4GHz Mac mini on sale for $449, save $...
 B&H Photo has lowered their price on the new 1.4GHz Mac mini to $449.99 including free shipping plus NY tax only. Their price is $50 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this new... Read more
Check Apple prices on any device with the iTr...
MacPrices is proud to offer readers a free iOS app (iPhones, iPads, & iPod touch) and Android app (Google Play and Amazon App Store) called iTracx, which allows you to glance at today’s lowest... Read more
64GB iPod touch on sale for $249, save $50
Best Buy has the 64GB iPod touch on sale for $249 on their online store for a limited time. Their price is $50 off MSRP. Choose free shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Sale price for... Read more
15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $17...
 B&H Photo has the 2014 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1799.99 for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. B&H will also include free copies of... Read more
New Logitech AnyAngle Case/Stand Brings Flexi...
Logitec has announced the newest addition to its suite of tablet products — the Logitech AnyAngle. A protective case with an any-angle stand for iPad Air 2 and all iPad mini models, AnyAngle is the... Read more
Notebook PC Shipments Rise Year-Over-Year as...
According to preliminary results from the upcoming DisplaySearch Quarterly Mobile PC Shipment and Forecast Report, the global notebook PC market grew 10 percent year-over-year in Q3’14 to 49.4... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC)- Retail S...
**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
Project Manager, *Apple* Financial Services...
**Job Summary** Apple Financial Services (AFS) offers consumers, businesses and educational institutions ways to finance Apple purchases. We work with national and Read more
*Apple* Store Leader Program - College Gradu...
Job Description: Job Summary As an Apple Store Leader Program agent, you can continue your education as you major in the art of leadership at the Apple Store. You'll 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.