Combining Apache and Perl

This month Mr. Lerner gives us a look at mod-perl, a module for the Apache web server.
CGI Programs with mod_perl

Now that we have gone through a basic introduction to mod_perl and writing CGI-style programs with Apache::Registry, let's look at an example of CGI programs under mod_perl—a simple guest book program that takes form parameters and appends their contents to a file on the system. The form is shown in Listing 1. Note that the form looks just like the forms we have seen in the past. The sole difference is our form's action, which sits in perl-bin rather than the usual cgi-bin.

The program is shown in Listing 2. If we were to add a “hash-bang” first line to this program, it would operate equally well under CGI or mod_perl environments. We use CGI.pm to retrieve information about the submitted form. While this works just fine for recent versions of CGI.pm, earlier versions are not completely compatible with Apache::Registry.

The main difference between the program in Listing 2 and its CGI counterpart is speed. While I cannot give exact numbers, my subjective tests showed the response from mod_perl to be almost instantaneous, with the CGI version taking noticeably longer—perhaps up to one second. This might not seem like much, but the combination of a cached CGI program with an already-running version of Perl is impressive, even with a short program that compiles quickly. As you can see, it does not require many changes to your original program.

A non-CGI use of mod_perl

So far, I have mentioned mod_perl only as a replacement for CGI. However, mod_perl is much more than that; it gives you a Perl interface to the guts of Apache. If you have configured your server correctly, you can modify every aspect of Apache using a Perl program. Better yet, some enterprising souls have already spent time writing modules which do just that. For example, the Apache::Status module allows you to take a look at the current state of mod_perl running on your server. Apache::Status comes with mod_perl and is a good example of what can be done with this package.

As was the case with Apache::Registry, we are going to have to set the handlers for a particular directory. In this case, the directory does not have to physically exist on the disk, since the URL is interpreted before a file is ever opened. You must add these lines to your srm.conf file in order to get the Perl status:

<Location /perl-status>
SetHandler perl-script
PerlHandler Apache::Status
</Location>

As was the case with Apache::Registry, we set the Apache handler to be perl-script. Since we want Apache::Status to be handling the perl-status directory, we point to it as our PerlHandler.

If you put the above lines in your server's srm.conf file and restart the server, anyone requesting /perl-status from your server is going to have access to information about your server. If you would prefer to keep such information private, you must use access controls, as shown in the following example:

<Location /perl-status>
SetHandler perl-script
PerlHandler Apache::Status
order deny,allow
deny from all
allow from 127.
</Location>

This allows you to retrieve status information from the server computer itself; attempts to retrieve /perl-status from another computer will be greeted with an “unauthorized access” message.

What Next?

I have been surprised and impressed by mod_perl's speed and flexibility, and I expect to use it more and more as time goes on. The fact that it can run most existing CGI programs without modification is a great boon to those of us who already have a stockpile of such programs.

mod_perl is not a panacea, of course. Its speed comes at a price; namely, greater demands for system memory. The inclusion of Perl (a known memory hog) inside of Apache means that the httpd processes on your server will start off larger than otherwise. Over time, each server process will grow, as compiled Perl programs are cached in memory. Before you use mod_perl on your system, you should make some calculations regarding the amount of memory that Apache is using; this may affect the number of server processes you want to run on your system.

Nevertheless, mod_perl is a tremendous advance for both Apache and Perl and promises to get much better with time. Next month, we will look at some of the ways in which mod_perl can speed up our database connections, making Apache an even better server for dynamic sites dependent on relational databases.

Resources

Reuven M. Lerner is an Internet and Web consultant living in Haifa, Israel, who has been using the Web since early 1993. In his spare time, he cooks, reads and volunteers with educational projects in his community. You can reach him at reuven@netvision.net.il.

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