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The Althttpd Webserver

Althttpd is a simple webserver that has run the https://sqlite.org/ website since 2004. Althttpd strives for simplicity, security, and low resource usage.

As of 2018, the althttpd instance for sqlite.org answers about 500,000 HTTP requests per day (about 5 or 6 per second) delivering about 50GB of content per day (about 4.6 megabits/second) on a $40/month Linode. The load average on this machine normally stays around 0.1 or 0.2. About 19% of the HTTP requests are CGI to various Fossil source-code repositories.

Design Philosophy

Althttpd was originally designed to be launched from xinetd or stunnel4. A separate process is started for each incoming connection, and that process is wholly focused on serving that one connection. A single althttpd process will handle one or more HTTP requests over the same connection. When the connection closes, the althttpd process exits.

Newer versions of althttpd can operate stand-alone. Althttpd itself listens on port 80 for incoming HTTP requests, then forks a copy of itself to handle each inbound connection. Each connection is still handled using a separate process. The only difference is that the connection-handler process is now started by a master althttpd instance rather than by xinetd or stunnel4.

Althttpd has no configuration file. All configuration is handled using command-line arguments.

Althttpd does not itself handle TLS connection. For HTTPS, althttpd relies on stunnel4 to handle TLS protocol negotiation, decryption, and encryption.

Because each althttpd process only needs to service a single connection, althttpd is single threaded. Furthermore, each process only lives for the duration of a single connection, which means that althttpd does not need to worry too much about memory leaks.

Source Code

The complete source code for althttpd is contained within a single C-code file with no dependences outside of the standard C library. The source code file is named "althttpd.c". To build and install althttpd, run the following command:

 gcc -Os -o /usr/bin/althttpd althttpd.c

The althttpd source code is heavily commented and accessible. It should be relatively easy to customize for specialized needs.

Setup Using Xinetd

Shown below is the complete text of the /etc/xinetd.d/http file on sqlite.org that configures althttpd to server unencrypted HTTP requests on both IPv4 and IPv6. You can use this as a template to create your own installations.

service http
{
  port = 80
  flags = IPv4
  socket_type = stream
  wait = no
  user = root
  server = /usr/bin/althttpd
  server_args = -logfile /logs/http.log -root /home/www -user www-data
  bind = 45.33.6.223
}

service http
{
  port = 80
  flags = REUSE IPv6
  bind = 2600:3c00::f03c:91ff:fe96:b959
  socket_type = stream
  wait = no
  user = root
  server = /usr/bin/althttpd
  server_args = -logfile /logs/http.log -root /home/www -user www-data
}

The key observation here is that each incoming TCP/IP connection on port 80 launches a copy of /usr/bin/althttpd with some additional arguments that amount to the configuration for the webserver.

Notice that althttpd is run as the superuser. This is not required, but if it is done, then althttpd will move itself into a chroot jail at the root of of the web document hierarchy (/home/www in the example) and then drop all superuser privileges prior to reading any content off of the wire. The -user option tells althttpd to become user www-data after entering the chroot jail.

The -root option tells althttpd where to find the document hierarchy. In the case of sqlite.org, all content is served from /home/www. At the top level of this document hierarchy is a bunch of directories whose names end with ".website". Each such directory is a separate website. The directory is chosen based on the Host: parameter of the incoming HTTP request. A partial list of the directories on sqlite.org is this:

3dcanvas_tcl_lang_org.website
3dcanvas_tcl_tk.website
androwish_org.website
canvas3d_tcl_lang_org.website
canvas3d_tcl_tk.website
cvstrac_org.website
default.website
fossil_scm_com.website
fossil_scm_hwaci_com.website
fossil_scm_org.website
system_data_sqlite_org.website
wapp_tcl_lang_org.website
wapp_tcl_tk.website
www2_alt_mail_net.website
www_androwish_org.website
www_cvstrac_org.website
www_fossil_scm_com.website
www_fossil_scm_org.website
www_sqlite_org.website

For each incoming HTTP request, althttpd takes the text of the Host: parameter in the request header, converts it to lowercase, and changes all characters other than ASCII alphanumerics into "_". The result determines which subdirectory to use for content. If nothing matches, the "default.website" directory is used as a fallback.

For example, if the Host parameter is "www.SQLite.org" then the name is translated into "www_sqlite_org.website" and that is the directory used to serve content. If the Host parameter is "fossil-scm.org" then the "fossil_scm_org.website" directory is used. Oftentimes, two more more names refer to the same website. For example, fossil-scm.org, www.fossil-scm.org, fossil-scm.com, and www.fossil-scm.com are all the same website. In that case, typically only one of the directories is a real directory and the others are symbolic links.

On a minimal installation that only hosts a single website, it suffices to have a single subdirectory named "default.website".

Within the *.website directory, the file to be served is selected by the HTTP request URI. Files that are marked as executable are run as CGI. Non-executable files are delivered as-is.

If the request URI specifies the name of a directory within *.website, then althttpd appends "/index.html" and "/index.cgi", in that order, looking for a match.

If a prefix of a URI matches the name of an executable file then that file is run as CGI. For as-is content, the request URI must exactly match the name of the file.

For content delivered as-is, the MIME-type is deduced from the filename extension using a table that is compiled into althttpd.

Security Features

To defend against mischief, there are restrictions on names of files that althttpd will serve. Within the request URI, all characters other than alphanumerics and ",-./:~" are converted into a single "_". Furthermore, if any path element of the request URI begins with "." or "-" then althttpd always returns a 404 Not Found error. Thus is it safe to put auxiliary files (databases or other content used by CGI, for example) in the document hierarchy as long as the filenames being with "." or "-".

An exception: Though althttpd normally returns 404 Not Found for any request with a path element beginning with ".", it does allow requests where the URI begins with "/.well-known/". This exception is necessary to allow LetsEncrypt to validate ownership of the website.

Log File

If the -logfile option is given on the althttpd command-line, then a single line is appended to the named file for each HTTP request. The log file is in the Comma-Separated Value or CSV format specified by RFC4180. There is a comment in the source code that explains what each of the fields in this output line mean.

The fact that the log file is CSV makes it easy to import into SQLite for analysis, using a script like this:

CREATE TABLE log(
  date TEXT,             /* Timestamp */
  ip TEXT,               /* Source IP address */
  url TEXT,              /* Request URI */
  ref TEXT,              /* Referer */
  code INT,              /* Result code.  ex: 200, 404 */
  nIn INT,               /* Bytes in request */
  nOut INT,              /* Bytes in reply */
  t1 INT, t2 INT,        /* Process time (user, system) milliseconds */
  t3 INT, t4 INT,        /* CGI script time (user, system) milliseconds */
  t5 INT,                /* Wall-clock time, milliseconds */
  nreq INT,              /* Sequence number of this request */
  agent TEXT,            /* User agent */
  user TEXT,             /* Remote user */
  n INT,                 /* Bytes of url that are in SCRIPT_NAME */
  lineno INT             /* Source code line that generated log entry */
);
.mode csv
.import httplog.csv log

The filename on the -logfile option may contain time-based characters that are expanded by strftime(). Thus, to cause a new logfile to be used for each day, you might use something like:

 -logfile /var/logs/althttpd/httplog-%Y%m%d.csv

Setup For HTTPS Using Stunnel4

Althttpd itself does not do any encryption. To set up an encrypted website using althttpd, the recommended technique is to use stunnel4.

On the sqlite.org website, the relevant lines of the /etc/stunnel/stunnel.conf file are:

cert = /etc/letsencrypt/live/sqlite.org/fullchain.pem
key = /etc/letsencrypt/live/sqlite.org/privkey.pem
[https]
accept       = :::443
TIMEOUTclose = 0
exec         = /usr/bin/althttpd
execargs     = /usr/bin/althttpd -logfile /logs/http.log -root /home/www -user www-data -https 1

This setup is very similar to the xinetd setup. One key difference is the "-https 1" option is used to tell althttpd that the connection is encrypted. This is important so that althttpd will know to set the HTTPS environment variable for CGI programs.

It is ok to have both xinetd and stunnel4 both configured to run althttpd, at the same time. In fact, that is the way that the SQLite.org website works. Requests to http://sqlite.org/ go through xinetd and requests to https://sqlite.org/ go through stunnel4.

Stand-alone Operation

On the author's desktop workstation, in his home directory is a subdirectory named ~/www/default.website. That subdirectory contains a collection of files and CGI scripts. Althttpd can serve the content there by running the following command:

althttpd -root ~/www -port 8080

The "-port 8080" option is what tells althttpd to run in stand-alone mode, listening on port 8080.

The author of althttpd has only ever used stand-alone mode for testing. Since althttpd does not itself support TLS encryption, the stunnel4 setup is preferred for production websites.