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.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

NTFS 14.3.318 - $19.95
This latest version supports the new macOS 10.12 Sierra! NTFS breaks down the barriers between Windows and OS X. Paragon NTFS effectively solves the communication problems between the Mac system and... Read more
iFFmpeg 6.2.2 - Convert multimedia files...
iFFmpeg is a comprehensive media tool to convert movie, audio and media files between formats. The FFmpeg command line instructions can be very hard to master/understand, so iFFmpeg does all the hard... Read more
ForeverSave 2.1.6 - Universal auto-save...
ForeverSave auto-saves all documents you're working on while simultaneously doing backup versioning in the background. Lost data can be quickly restored at any time. Define your preferred time... Read more
BetterTouchTool 1.961 - Customize Multi-...
BetterTouchTool adds many new, fully customizable gestures to the Magic Mouse, Multi-Touch MacBook trackpad, and Magic Trackpad. These gestures are customizable: Magic Mouse: Pinch in / out (zoom... Read more
EtreCheck 3.1.4 - For troubleshooting yo...
EtreCheck is an app that displays the important details of your system configuration and allow you to copy that information to the Clipboard. It is meant to be used with Apple Support Communities to... Read more
Together 3.7 - Store and organize all of...
Together helps you organize your Mac, giving you the ability to store, edit and preview your files in a single clean, uncluttered interface. Features Smart storage. With simple drag-and-drop... Read more
Together 3.7 - Store and organize all of...
Together helps you organize your Mac, giving you the ability to store, edit and preview your files in a single clean, uncluttered interface. Features Smart storage. With simple drag-and-drop... Read more
EtreCheck 3.1.4 - For troubleshooting yo...
EtreCheck is an app that displays the important details of your system configuration and allow you to copy that information to the Clipboard. It is meant to be used with Apple Support Communities to... Read more
Postbox 5.0.9 - Powerful and flexible em...
Postbox is a new email application that helps you organize your work life and get stuff done. It has all the elegance and simplicity of Apple Mail, but with more power and flexibility to manage even... Read more
DiskCatalogMaker 6.5.16 - Catalog your d...
DiskCatalogMaker is a simple disk management tool which catalogs disks. Simple, light-weight, and fast. Finder-like intuitive look and feel. Super-fast search algorithm. Can compress catalog data... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Enneas Saga lets you lead your own demon...
Defend the land of Enneas Continent from the forces of evil in the new fantasy MMORPG from Lyto Mobi: Enneas Saga. Can’t wait? No problem. It’s available to download now on Android devices. | Read more »
Great zombie games in the spirit of Dead...
Dead Rising 4 arrives tomorrow, giving enthusiasts a fresh chance to take selfies with zombies and get up to other ridiculous end-of-the-world shenanigans. To really get into the spirit of things, we've gone and gathered the best zombie games that... | Read more »
Amateur Surgeon 4 Guide: Advanced tips a...
Amateur Surgeon 4 is still tackling the competition at the top of the App Store charts, so if you haven't tried it out yet, you should probably do that right away. If you've been at it for a while, though, perhaps you're ready to start expanding... | Read more »
Amateur Surgeon 4 Guide: Become the worl...
It's time to wield your trusty pizza cutter again, as Amateur Surgeon has returned with a whole fresh set of challenges (and some old, familiar ones, too). Starting anew isn't easy, especially when all you have at your disposal is a lighter, the... | Read more »
Le Parker: Sous Chef Extraordinaire (Ga...
Le Parker: Sous Chef Extraordinaire 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
Telltale Games really is working on a Gu...
Telltale Games' next episodic adventure is indeed Guardians of the Galaxy. A document tied to the voice actors strike suggested that the project was in the work, but now we have direct confirmation following an announcement at the Game Awards that... | Read more »
Amateur Surgeon returns to iOS and Andro...
Amateur Surgeon and its two sequels disappeared from the App Store some time and it was sad days for all. But now, just in time for the holidays, the Adult Swim favorite makes its joyous return in the shape of Amateur Surgeon 4, a remake with... | Read more »
The best board games on mobile
Sometimes you need to ditch all of the high speed, high action games in favor of something a little more traditional. If you don't feel like parting ways from your mobile device, though, there are still plenty of ways to get that old-school fix.... | Read more »
The best Facebook Messenger Instant Game...
Facebook's new Instant Games is now here, meaning you can play games with your friends directly via Facebook. It's a fun new way to connect with friends, of course, but it's also proving to be a solid gaming experience in its own right, with a... | Read more »
You can now play game's on Facebook...
Facebook launched its new Instant Games platform in an exciting new attempt to engage its user base. As a result, you can now play a number of different games directly through Facebook Messenger. All of these games run with HTML5, meaning you play... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

New 2016 13-inch 2.0GHz MacBook Pros in stock...
Overstock.com has the non-Touch Bar 13″ MacBook Pros in stock today for $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free: - 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pro Space Gray (MLL42LL/A): $1349.99 $150 off MSRP - 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook... Read more
15-inch 2.6GHz Silver Touch Bar MacBook Pro o...
Adorama has the new 2016 15″ 2.6GHz Silver Touch Bar MacBook Pro (MLW72LL/A) in stock and available for $2349 including free shipping. Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ only. Their price is $... Read more
13-inch MacBook Airs on sale for up to $180 o...
Overstock.com has 13″ MacBook Airs on sale for up to $180 off MSRP including free shipping: - 13″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air (MMGF2LL/A): $869.99 $130 off MSRP - 13″ 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air (sku... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (Apple refurbished...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros (MD101LL/A) available for $829, or $270 off original MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook... Read more
Monday roundup of Holiday Mac sales: Up to $3...
Take up to $300 off MSRP on the price of a new Apple Mac at B&H Photo today as part of their Holiday sale. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. Touch Bar MacBook Pros are in... Read more
12-inch WiFi Apple iPad Pros on sale for up t...
B&H Photo has 12″ WiFi Apple iPad Pros on sale for up to $50 off MSRP, each including free shipping. B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 12″ Space Gray 32GB WiFi iPad Pro: $749 $50 off MSRP... Read more
9-inch Apple WiFi iPad Pros on sale for $20-$...
B&H Photo has 9.7″ Apple WiFi iPad Pros on sale for $20-$50 off MSRP, each including free shipping. B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 9″ Space Gray 256GB WiFi iPad Pro: $779.95 $20 off MSRP... Read more
Holiday sale: Apple MacBook Airs available fo...
B&H Photo has 13″ MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 13″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air (MMGF2LL/A): $899 $100 off MSRP - 13″ 1.6GHz/... Read more
13-inch Silver Touch Bar MacBook Pro in stock...
Amazon has the new 2016 13″ 2.9GHz/256GB Silver Touch Bar MacBook Pro (MLVP2LL/A) in stock today and on sale for $1749 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price... Read more
Parallels Toolbox 1.3 for Mac Offers 25 Singl...
Parallels has launched Parallels Toolbox 1.3 for Mac, an upgrade that adds five new utilities to the stand-alone application which was released in August and is available exclusively online at http... Read more

Jobs Board

Lead *Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple (...
# Lead Apple Solutions Consultant Job Number: 53586123 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States Posted: Nov. 28, 2016 Weekly Hours: 40.00 **Job Summary** The Lead ASC Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Plano,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Kansas...
Job Description:SalesSpecialist - Retail Customer Service and SalesTransform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Chicago...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Hardware Design Validation Engineer - *Apple...
The Apple Watch team is looking for a Hardware Design Validation Engineer. This person will be part of the Apple Watch hardware team with responsibilities for Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.