thttpd notes


Sample installations:

To help you set up your own thttpd site, let's look in detail at two sample setups. We'll use FreeBSD, since that's the best OS for serious web serving. The first sample will be for a plain old single-domain site. Most of these steps require you to be root.

And that's it. Reboot and you should be up and running.

Now, what if you want to serve multiple domains? With HTTP/1.1 you can do "name based" virtual domains, which are very easy to set up. As of version 2.05 thttpd supports them.

That ought to do it for name-based vhosting.

Setting up a chroot jail:

As mentioned in the sample installations article, running your web server in a chroot tree is very secure but inconvenient if you're using CGI. The only CGI programs you can run in such a setup are compiled statically-linked executables. If you want to write CGIs in, say, shell script, you will need a more complicated setup.

The basic idea of a chroot tree is you're reproducing a limited copy of the system-wide file tree. It includes only the files you need, nothing else. When the web server issues the chroot() system call, this sub-tree becomes the filesystem as far as that one process is concerned. It can't break out and get to the larger filesystem. Any child processes it spawns can't break out either. Obviously this adds a big layer of security. However, without access to things like shared libraries and interpreters, most programs can't run. So, to make a chroot tree in which you can run these programs, you have to put in some extra files.

Below is an "ls -lR" of the files needed for a FreeBSD-based chroot tree that allows shell script CGIs. This should be considered a starting point for your own chroot tree. If you're using another operating system, for instance Solaris, your tree will likely be very different. If you want to make one that allows perl, you'll have to add in all the perl files - the perl interpreter, libraries, perl files, include files, all sorts of stuff.

total 15
drwxr-xr-x  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 17:22 bin/
drwxr-xr-x  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 18:17 dev/
drwxr-xr-x  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 18:13 etc/
drwxrwxrwt  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 17:11 tmp/
drwxr-xr-x  7 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 18:06 usr/

total 1309
-r-xr-xr-x  2 root  wheel   46600 May 17  1999 [*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   55392 May 17  1999 cat*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   58280 May 17  1999 chmod*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   61184 May 17  1999 cp*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  145784 May 17  1999 date*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   41620 May 17  1999 echo*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   84728 May 17  1999 expr*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  155976 May 17  1999 mv*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  158792 May 17  1999 rm*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  321760 May 17  1999 sh*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   42732 May 17  1999 sleep*
-r-xr-xr-x  2 root  wheel   46600 May 17  1999 test*

total 0
crw-rw-rw-  1 root  wheel    2,   2 Nov 21 17:12 null
crw-rw-rw-  1 root  wheel   22,   2 Nov 21 18:17 stderr
crw-rw-rw-  1 root  wheel   22,   0 Nov 21 18:17 stdin
crw-rw-rw-  1 root  wheel   22,   1 Nov 21 18:17 stdout

total 2
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel  1000 Jul 21 15:50 localtime
-rw-r--r--  1 root  wheel    38 Nov 12 18:42 resolv.conf

total 5
drwxr-xr-x  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 18:21 bin/
drwxr-xr-x  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 18:53 lib/
drwxr-xr-x  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 18:06 libexec/
drwxrwxrwt  2 root  wheel  512 Nov 21 17:11 tmp/

total 747
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  119540 May 17  1999 awk*
-r-xr-xr-x  3 root  wheel   38572 May 17  1999 egrep*
-r-xr-xr-x  3 root  wheel   38572 May 17  1999 fgrep*
-r-xr-xr-x  3 root  wheel   38572 May 17  1999 grep*
-r-xr-xr-x  3 root  wheel   99448 May 17  1999 gunzip*
-r-xr-xr-x  3 root  wheel   99448 May 17  1999 gzcat*
-r-xr-xr-x  3 root  wheel   99448 May 17  1999 gzip*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    4540 May 17  1999 head*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    3356 May 17  1999 nice*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   19300 May 17  1999 sed*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel   23940 May 17  1999 sort*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    9976 May 17  1999 tail*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    6388 May 17  1999 touch*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    8636 May 17  1999 tr*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    2356 May 17  1999 true*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    5064 May 17  1999 uniq*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel    4384 May 17  1999 wc*

total 2507
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel  1043748 Nov 21 18:52 libc.a
lrwxrwxrwx  1 root  wheel        9 Nov 21 18:53 ->
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel   514015 May 17  1999
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel    27066 May 17  1999 libgnuregex.a
lrwxrwxrwx  1 root  wheel       16 Nov 21 18:53 ->
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel    27154 May 17  1999
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel   262966 May 17  1999 libm.a
lrwxrwxrwx  1 root  wheel        9 Nov 21 18:53 ->
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel   115780 May 17  1999
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel    57612 May 17  1999 libz.a
lrwxrwxrwx  1 root  wheel        9 Nov 21 18:53 ->
-r--r--r--  1 root  wheel    51010 May 17  1999

total 139
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  63652 May 17  1999*
-r-xr-xr-x  1 root  wheel  77824 May 18  1999*

A chroot setup like this is more secure than not doing chroot at all, but obviously less secure than the bare minimum static-binaries-only chroot jail. A poorly-written CGI shell script might allow an attacker to run arbitrary shell commands. Without chroot, this attacker would have access to the entire machine; with it, he or she is restricted to the chroot tree.

Also: it is actually possible to break out of chroot jail. A process running as root, either via a setuid program or some security hole, can change its own chroot tree to the next higher directory, repeating as necessary to get to the top of the filesystem. So, a chroot tree must be considered merely one aspect of a multi-layered defense-in-depth. If your chroot tree has enough tools in it for a cracker to gain root access, then it's no good; so you want to keep the contents to the minimum necessary. In particular, don't include any setuid-root executables!

One idea I haven't tried, which might give improved security while still allowing CGI access, is to use the "noexec" filesystem mount option. This is a flag you can set on a disk partition that tells the system to not allow any programs to be run from that area. The idea is, you would create two partitions for your chroot tree, one with the noexec option and one without it. The noexec partition becomes the main chroot tree; the execs-allowed one gets mounted inside the other one, and is the only place that CGI programs are allowed. Then, after you have yourself all set up, you make the execs-allowed partition read-only.

Throttling is good:

Web servers that throttle themselves keep everyone happy. In a perfect world web publishers could buy infinite bandwidth for pennies, and ISPs would still get rich. Unfortunately we don't live in that world; in this world, bandwidth is expensive, and if you want to run a popular web site there are only a few possibilities:

It's easy to see that from the web publisher's point of view, throttling is better than the alternatives. What often gets missed, though, is that it's also good for ISPs and for readers. ISPs prefer steady predictable bandwidth usage, and they don't like the hassle of trying to police or shut down sites that use too much bandwidth. They'd much rather you deal with it yourself. Readers don't like sites that go off the air, and they also don't like getting '503 connection refused' errors, or other hard failures due to overload on a non-throttling site. Getting the page at a slower rate is always preferable to not getting it at all.

Non-blocking I/O is good:

select() / poll() / kqueue() are Unix system calls used to multiplex between a bunch of file descriptors. To understand why this is important we have to go back through the history of web servers.

The basic operation of a web server is to accept a request and send back a response. The first web servers were probably written to do exactly that. Their users no doubt noticed very quickly that while the server was sending a response to someone else, they couldn't get their own requests serviced. There would have been long annoying pauses.

The second generation of web servers addressed this problem by forking off a child process for each request. This is very straightforward to do under Unix, only a few extra lines of code. CERN and NCSA 1.3 are examples of type of server. Unfortunately, forking a process is a fairly expensive operation, so performance of this type of server is still pretty poor. The long random pauses are gone, but instead every request has a short constant pause at startup. Because of this, the server can't handle a high rate of connections.

A slight variant of this type of server uses "lightweight processes" or "threads" instead of full-blown Unix processes. This is better, but there is no standard LWP/threads interface so this approach is inherently non-portable. Examples of these servers: MDMA and phttpd, both of which run only under Solaris 2.x.

The third generation of servers is called "pre-forking". Instead of starting a new subprocess for each request, they have a pool of subprocesses that they keep around and re-use. NCSA 1.4, Apache, and Netscape Netsite are examples of this type. Performance of these servers is excellent, they can handle from two to ten times as many connections per second as the forking servers. One problem, however, is that implementing this simple-to-state idea turns out to be fairly complicated and non-portable. The method used by NCSA involves transferring a file descriptor from the parent process to an already-existing child process; you can hardly use the same code on any two different OS's, and some OS's (e.g. Linux) don't support it at all. Apache uses a different method, with all the child processes doing their own round-robin work queue via lock files, which brings in issues of portability/speed/deadlock. Besides, you still have multiple processes hanging around using up memory and context-switch CPU cycles. Which brings us to...

The fourth generation. One process only. No non-portable threads/LWPs. Sends multiple files concurrently using non-blocking I/O, calling select()/poll()/kqueue() to tell which ones are ready for more data. Speed is excellent. Memory use is excellent. Portability is excellent. Examples of this generation: Spinner, Open Market, and thttpd. Perhaps Apache will switch to this method at some point. I really can't understand why they went with that complicated pre-forking stuff. Using non-blockijng I/O is just not that hard.

On the listen queue length:

Many web admins think there are two main types of performance bottlenecks for a web server, the raw data rate of the network connection, and the CPU usage on the server machine. In fact there is a third common bottleneck that's still fairly obscure. If you run into this limit you may find that your web server isn't using much CPU, your network link isn't particularly full, and yet there are consistent complaints of timeouts and "connection refused" errors. It can be a very frustrating situation.

Here's the deal: most versions of Unix have very short pending-connection queues. This queue is for connections waiting to be accept()ed, and typically it's of length 5. This puts a severe limit on how many connections/second the server can handle - if one comes in while the queue is full, it gets dropped on the floor and the client gets "connection refused". With only 5 slots in the queue, you'll start to see this behavior at around 3 connections/second. thttpd tries to minimize the effect of this limit by accepting new connections as fast as possible, and saving them in its own internal higher-capacity queue for later processing. Even so, for best performance you really want to make the system's queue longer, more like 32, which will handle maybe 10 to 20 connections/second.

On Solaris systems you can increase the queue length with this command:

/usr/sbin/ndd -set /dev/tcp tcp_conn_req_max 32
You have to run this as root, of course. This should go in the system startup script "/etc/rc2.d/S69inet". You can raise it higher than 32 if you like - if you're running Solaris 2.5 you can increase it to 1024, otherwise the limit is 512.

On BSD/OS you use:

/usr/bin/bpatch -l -r somaxconn 32
Not sure what the maximum is here.

HP-UX 10.0 sets the default limit to 20, which is not too bad.

Many other systems also have tiny queue limits - if I find out specifics on how to raise those limits, I'll put the info here.

On IP aliasing:

If you want to do multi-homing but your OS's ifconfig program doesn't have the alias command, you may still be able to get it to work.

If you're running Solaris 2.3 or later, it's just a matter of a different user-interface on the ifconfig program. The Solaris equivalent of the example in the thttpd man page would be:

ifconfig le0
ifconfig le0:0
ifconfig le0:1 up
ifconfig le0:2 up
Not so hard. Still, it would be nice if Sun got with the program and supported the alias command. Maybe some day.

If you're running IRIX, you can use the PPP driver to add IP aliases. This is complicated but does not require kernel hacking. First you start up PPP commands for the aliased addresses. Sticking once again with the example in the man page:

/usr/etc/ppp -r &
/usr/etc/ppp -r &
These commands will complain that they can't find the address - that's ok, you just need them to start. In fact if you like, you can kill them after they complain. Next you point the aliased addresses at the real one, using ifconfig:
ifconfig ppp0
ifconfig ppp0
Next you have to tell ARP that all the IP addresses go to the same ethernet address. You will need the ethernet address for you system, which you can get from the netstat -ia command - it's the bunch of hex digits separated by colons.
arp -s 08:00:20:09:0e:86 pub
arp -s 08:00:20:09:0e:86 pub
arp -s 08:00:20:09:0e:86 pub
Finally, you have to add routes from the new PPP interfaces to localhost:
route add localhost 1
route add localhost 1

If you're running SunOS 4.1.x, fetch this tar file: It contains some netnews articles with instructions and source code for adding a "virtual interface" device to the kernel. Installing this stuff is not trivial. There's also supposedly a way to use a PPP driver under SunOS, as with IRIX above, but I haven't found details on this yet.

If you're running Linux, here's a pointer to some kernel patches to add ip aliasing: I'm not sure what version of Linux this is for. Recent/future versions of Linux may come with aliasing already installed, so check your ifconfig man page before you start hacking.

For HTTP developers:

The package includes a simple library that you could use for embedding an HTTP server in your own application. The interface is somewhat more complicated than most applications would need, to enable the multi-connection stuff in the main program, but it should still be quite useful.

The package also contains a nice little timer library, that could be used for all sorts of stuff. If you borrow this you will probably want to make it do its own gettimeofday() calls - the only reason I'm passing the time as a parameter is as an optimization, since the main program already has the current time for other reasons.

Plus there's a cute little filename matcher routine, and a general symbolic-link-expander routine.

On syslog performance and security:

Syslog is the standard Unix logging mechanism. It's very flexible, and lets you do things like log different programs to different files and get real-time notification of critical events. However, many programmers avoid using it, possibly because they worry it adds too much overhead. Well, I did some simple benchmarks comparing syslog logging against the stdio logging that other web servers use. Under conditions approximating an extremely busy web server, I found that syslog was slower by only a few percent. Under less strenuous conditions there was no measurable difference.

Another concern about syslog is security against external attacks. It's written somewhat casually, using a fixed-size internal buffer without overflow checking. That makes it vulnerable to a buffer-overrun attack such as used by the Morris Worm against fingerd. However, it's easy to call syslog in such as way that this attack becomes impossible - just put a maximum size on all the string formatting codes you use. For instance, use %.80s instead of %s. Thttpd does this.

Back to the thttpd page.