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6.2. Distributing Configuration Data

Apache configuration data is typically located in one or more files in the conf/ folder of the distribution, where only the root user has access. Sometimes, it is necessary or convenient to distribute configuration data, and there are two reasons to do so:

  • Distributed configuration files can be edited by users other than the root user.

  • Configuration directives in distributed configuration files are resolved on every request, which means that any changes take effect immediately without having to have Apache restarted.

If you trust your developers and want to give them more control over Apache or if you do not trust a junior system administrator enough to give her control over the whole machine, you can choose to give such users full control only over Apache configuration and operation. Use Sudo ( to configure your system to allow non-root users to run some commands as root.

Apache distributes configuration data by allowing specially-named files, .htaccess by default, to be placed together with the content. The name of the file can be changed using the AccessFileName directive, but I do not recommend this. While serving a request for a file somewhere, Apache also looks to see if there are .htaccess files anywhere on the path. For example, if the full path to the file is /var/www/htdocs/index.html, Apache will look for the following (in order):


For each .htaccess file found, Apache merges it with the existing configuration data. All .htaccess files found are processed, and it continues to process the request. There is a performance penalty associated with Apache looking for access files everywhere. Therefore, it is a good practice to tell Apache you make no use of this feature in most directories (see below) and to enable it only where necessary.

The syntax of access file content is the same as that in httpd.conf. However, Apache understands the difference between the two, and understands that some access files will be maintained by people who are not to be fully trusted. This is why administrators are given a choice as to whether to enable access files and, if such files are enabled, which of the Apache features to allow in them.

Another way to distribute Apache configuration is to include other files from the main httpd.conf file using the Include directive. This is terribly insecure! You have no control over what is written in the included file, so whoever holds write access to that file holds control over Apache.

Access file usage is controlled with the AllowOverride directive. I discussed this directive in Chapter 2, where I recommended a None setting by default:

<Directory />
    AllowOverride None

This setting tells Apache not to look for .htaccess files and gives maximum performance and maximum security. To give someone maximum control over a configuration in a particular folder, you can use:

<Directory /home/ivanr/public_html/>
    AllowOverride All

Configuration errors in access files will not be detected when Apache starts. Instead, they will result in the server responding with status code 500 (Internal Server Error) and placing a log message in the error log.

Situations when you will give maximum control over a configuration are rare. More often than not you will want to give users limited privileges. In the following example, user ivanr is only allowed to use access control configuration directives:

<Directory /home/ivanr/public_html/>
    AllowOverride AuthConfig Limit

You must understand what you are giving your users. In addition to None and All, there are five groups of AllowOverride options (AuthConfig, FileInfo, Indexes, Limit, and Options). Giving away control for each of these five groups gives away some of the overall Apache security. Usage of AllowOverride Options is an obvious danger, giving users the power to enable Apache to follow symbolic links (potentially exposing any file on the server) and to place executable content wherever they please. Some AllowOverride and Options directive options (also discussed in Chapter 2), used with other Apache modules, can also lead to unforeseen possibilities:

  • If FollowSymLinks (an Options directive option) is allowed, a user can create a symbolic link to any other file on the server (e.g., /etc/passwd). Using SymLinksIfOwnerMatch is better.

  • The mod_rewrite module can be used to achieve the same effect as a symbolic link. Interestingly, that is why mod_rewrite requires FollowSymLinks to work in the .htaccess context.

  • If PHP is running as a web server user, the PHP auto_prepend option can be used to make it fetch any file on the server.

  • If AllowOverride FileInfo is specified, users can execute a file through any module (and filter in Apache 2) available. For example, if you have the server configured to execute PHP through suEXEC, users can reroute requests through a running PHP module instead.

  • More dangerously, AllowOverride FileInfo allows the use of the SetHandler directive, and that can be exploited to map the output of special-purpose modules (such as mod_status or mod_info) into users' web spaces.

It is possible to use mod_security (described in Chapter 12) to prevent users who can assign handlers from using certain sensitive handlers. The following two rules will detect an attempt to use the special handlers and will only allow the request if it is sent to a particular domain name:

SecFilterSelective HANDLER ^(server-status|server-info)$ chain
SecFilterSelective SERVER_NAME !^www\.apachesecurity\.net$ deny,log,status:404

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