One of the most common needs Webmasters have is to cause the Web server to handle all the documents in a particular directory, or tree of directories, in the same way--such as requiring a password before granting access to any file in the directory, or allowing (or disallowing) directory listings.
Copyright © 2000 by Ken Coar. All rights reserved. Limited
rights granted to Internet.Com.
One of the most common needs Webmasters have is to cause the
Web server to handle all the documents in a particular directory, or
tree of directories, in the same way -- such as requiring a password
before granting access to any file in the directory, or allowing (or
disallowing) directory listings. However, this need often extends
to more than just the Webmaster; consider students on a departmental
Web server at a university, or individual customers of an ISP, or
clients of a Web-hosting company. This article describes how
the Webmaster can extend permission to tailor Apache's behaviour to
users, allowing them to have some control over how it handles
their own sub-areas of its total Web-space.
This article shows how you can use per-directory configuration
.htaccess files, to customise
Apache behaviour -- or allow your users to do so for their own
Apache's configuration system addresses the need to group documents
by directory in a straightforward
manner. To apply controls to a particular directory tree, for
instance, you can use the
directive in the server's configuration files:
<Directory "C:/Program Files/Apache Group/Apache/htdocs">
This has the advantage of keeping control in the Webmaster's hands;
there's no need to worry about any of the server's users being able
to change the settings, since the server configuration files are
generally not modifiable by anyone except the admin. Unfortunately,
it has the disadvantages of
requiring a restart of Apache any time the config file is changed,
and that it can become truly burdensome to add all the
<Directory> containers that might be needed
for all the users that have special requirements.
An alternative method for supplying the desired granularity of
Apache configuration -- down to the directory level -- is to use
special partial config files in each directory with special
.htaccess file is simply a text file containing
Those directives apply to the documents in the directory where the
.htaccess file is located, and to all subdirectories
under it as well. Other
.htaccess files in subdirectories
may change or nullify the effects of those in parent directories; see
the section on merging for more information.
As text files, you can use whatever text editor you like to create or
make changes to
These files are called '
.htaccess files' because that's
what they're typically named. This naming scheme has its roots in
the NCSA Web server and the Unix file system; files whose names
begin with a dot are often considered to be 'hidden' and aren't
displayed in a normal directory listing. The NCSA developers
chose the name '
.htaccess' so that a control file
in a directory would have a fairly reasonable name ('ht' for
'hypertext') and not clutter up directory listings. Plus, there's
a long history of Unix utilities storing their preferences information
in such 'hidden' files.
The name '
' isn't universally acceptable, though.
Sometimes it can quite difficult to persuade a system to let you create
or edit a file with such a name. For this reason, you can change the
name that Apache will use when looking for these per-directory
config files by using the
directive in your
file. For instance,
will cause Apache to look for files named
.htaccess. They'll be treated the same way, though,
and they're still called '
.htaccess files' for
When Apache determines that a requested resource actually represents
a file on the disk, it starts a process called the 'directory walk.'
This involves checking through its internal list of
<Directory> containers to find those that apply,
and possibly searching the directories on the filesystem for
Each time the directory walk finds a new set of directives that apply
to the request, they are merged with the settings already
accumulated. The result is a collection of settings that apply to
the final document, culled from all of its ancestor directories and
the server's config files.
When searching for
.htaccess files, Apache starts at the
top of the filesystem. (On Windows, that usually means '
otherwise, the root directory '
/'.) It then walks down the
directories to the one containing the final document, processing and merging
.htaccess files it finds that the config files say should
be processed. (See the section on overrides
for more information on how the server determines whether an
.htaccess file should be processed or not.)
This can be an intensive process. Consider a request for
which resolves to the file
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache\htdocs\foo\bar\gritch\x.html
Unless instructed otherwise, Apache is going to look for each of the
.htaccess files, and process any it finds:
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\.htaccess
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache\.htaccess
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache\htdocs\.htaccess
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache\htdocs\foo\.htaccess
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache\htdocs\foo\bar\.htaccess
C:\Program Files\Apache Group\Apache\htdocs\foo\bar\gritch\.htaccess
That's a lot of work just to return a single file! And the server will
repeat this process each and every time the file is requested. See
the overrides section for a way to reduce
this overhead with the
files are evaluated for each request,
you don't need to reload the Apache server whenever you make a
change. This makes them particularly well suited for environments
with multiple groups or individuals sharing a single Web server
system; if the Webmaster allows, they can exercide control over
their own areas without nagging the Webmaster to reload Apache
with each change. Also, if there's a syntax error in an
file, it only affects a portion of
the server's Web space, rather than keeping the server from
running at all (which is what would happen if the error was
in the server-wide config files).
Not all directives will work in
.htaccess files; for example,
it makes no sense to allow a
ServerName directive to appear
in one, since the server is already running and knows its name -- and
cannot change it -- by the time a request would cause the
.htaccess file to be read. Other directives aren't
allowed because they deal with features that are server-wide, or perhaps
are too sensitive.
However, most directives are allowed in
files. If you're not sure, take a look at the directive's documentation.
Figure 1 is a sample extracted from the Apache documentation. You can
see where the text says 'Context' that .htaccess is
listed; that means this directive can be used in the per-directory
The SetEnvIf Directive
Syntax: SetEnvIf attribute regex envar[=value]
Context: server config, virtual host, directory,
Compatibility: Apache 1.3 and above; the
Request_Protocol keyword and environment-variable matching are only
available with 1.3.7 and later; use in .htaccess files only supported
with 1.3.13 and later
|Figure 1: Directive Documentation|
Note, however, that there's more information on the Compatibility
line; it says that this directive can only be used in
.htaccess files if you're running Apache version 1.3.13 or
If you try to include a directive in an
file that isn't permitted there, any requests for documents under
that directory will result in a '
500 Server Error'
error page and a message in the server's error log.
file contains directives that aren't
covered by the current set of override categories, they won't
cause an error -- the server will just ignore them. So your
file can contain directives in any -- or all -- of the categories,
and only those in the categories listed in the
list will be processed. All of the others will be checked for
syntax, but otherwise not interpreted.
Apache directives fall into seven different categories, and all can
appear in the server-wide config files. Only five of the categories
can be used in
.htaccess files, though, and in order for
Apache to accept a directive in a per-directory file,
the settings for the directory must permit the directive's
category to be overridden.
The five categories of directives are:
- This category is intended to be used to control
directives that have to do with Web page security, such as
directives. This is the most common category to allow to be
overridden, as it allows users to protect their own documents.
- Directives that control how files are processed are
- Directives that affect file listings should be in this
category. It includes
- This category is similar to the
in that the directives it covers are typically related to
security. However, they usually involve involuntary
controls, such as controlling access by IP address.
Directive in this category include
Options category is intended for directives
that support miscellaneous options, such as
A special directive, which is usable only in the server-wide
configuration files, dictates which categories may be overridden
in any particular directory tree.
AllowOverride directive accepts two special
keywords in addition to the category names listed above:
- This is a shorthand way of listing all of the
categories; the two statements below are equivalent:
AllowOverride AuthConfig FileInfo Indexes Limits Options
- This keyword totally disables the processing of
.htaccess files for the specified directory and
its descendants (unless another
directive for a subdirectory is defined in the server config files).
'Disabled' means that Apache won't even look for
.htaccess files, much less process them. This
can result in a performance savings, and is why the
httpd.conf file includes such a
directive for the top-level system directory.
.htaccess processing is disabled for all
directories by default by that directive, and is only
selectively enabled for those trees where it makes
As shown above, the
directive takes a
whitespace-separated list of category names as its argument.
By allowing the use of
.htaccess files in user (or
customer or client) directories, you're essentially extending a
bit of your Webmaster privileges to anyone who can edit those
files. So if you choose to do this, you should consider
occasionally performing an audit to make sure the files are
appropriately protected -- and, if you're really ambitious,
that they contain only settings of which you approve.
Because of the very coarse granularity of the possible override
categories, it's quite possible that by granting a user the
aility to override one set of directives you're inadvertently
delegating more power than you anticipate. For instance,
you might want to include a "
directive for user directories so that individuals can use the
AddType directive to label documents with MIME
types that aren't in the server-wide list -- but were you aware
when you did this that you were also giving them access to the
Rewrite* directives as well? Directives are
associated with override categories on a per-module
basis, so tracking down what's permitted by allowing a particular
category of override can be a tedious process.
The ultimate answer to what directives are in which categories is
the source code. If you really want to know, examine the
source for the following strings:
for a description of what the different override categories mean.)
As you can see, with the exception of the AuthConfig/AUTHCFG keywords,
the source keywords are identical to the directive keywords. This
.htaccess files, consider the
advantages and disadvanteges. On servers I run myself, with
no users, I tend to use
.htaccess files for
testing and debugging, and when I have a configuration I
like, I move the directives into a
container in the
httpd.conf file and delete the
.htaccess file. For this reason, I have
overrides enabled just about everywhere. This allows me to balance
the convenience of
.htaccess files against
their performance impact.
On some of my servers I have some user accounts for people
I know and trust, and in those environments I'm more
cautious and don't allow all overrides globally. I do
tend to allow whatever overrides my friends need for their
own directories, though.
And in some cases I have real 'user' accounts, for people I
do not know as well -- and on those servers
AllowOverride None is the rule. I
.htaccess files in their
private directories, but I carefully audit the possible
effects before granting an override category.
The two main disadvantages to using
are the performance impact and the extending of control
access to others. The first is somewhat manageable through
the judicious use of the
directive, and the latter is a matter of establishing trust --
and performing risk assessment. What mix works best in your
environment is something you'll need to determine for
Here are some of the most common problems I've seen people have
(or have had myself) with
.htaccess files. One thing I
should stress first, though: the server error log is your friend.
You should always consult the error log when things don't seem to
be functioning correctly. If it doesn't say anything about your
problem, try boosting the message detail by changing your
LogLevel directive to
LogLevel debug line of you don't have
- 'Internal Server Error' page is displayed when a document is
- This indicates a problem with your configuration. Check the
Apache error log file for a more detailed explanation of what
went wrong. You probably have used a directive that isn't allowed
.htaccess files, or have a directive with incorrect
.htaccess file doesn't seem to change anything
- It's possible that the directory is within the scope of an
AllowOverride None directive. Try putting a line
of gibberish in the
.htaccess file and force a reload
of the page. If you still get the same page instead of an
'Internal Server Error' display, then this is probably the
cause of the problem. Another slight possibility is that the document
you're requesting isn't actually controlled by the
file you're editing; this can sometimes happen if you're accessing
a document with a common name, such as
there's any chance of this, try changing the actual document and
requesting it again to make sure you can see the change.
this isn't happening.
- I've added some security directives to my
file, but I'm not getting challenged for a username and password
- The most common cause of this is having the
directives within the scope of a
directive. Explicitly disable this by adding a
Satisfy All to the
and try again.
Once you've got your Apache Web server up and running, the first
hurdle has been surmounted. Now you can move on to exploring its
capabilities and features. Here are some pointers to resources
for further investigation:
Apache provides two main ways of controlling its behaviour on a
in the server-wide configuration files, and
files in each directory where they're needed. Each method has its
advantages and its disadvantages; you, as the Webmaster, need to
balance these against each other to decide what mix of the
techniques is best for your environment.
If you do decide to permit the use of
files, be sure to limit them to appropriate areas and improve
your performance by using
elsewhere. This will save unnecessary disk activity.
Got a Topic You Want Covered?
If you have a particular Apache-related topic that you'd like covered
in a future article in this column, please let me know; drop me
an email at
I do read and answer my email, usually within a few hours
(although a few days may pass if I'm travelling or my mail volume is
'way up). If I don't respond within what seems to be a reasonable
amount of time, feel free to ping me again.
About the Author
is a member of the Apache Group and a director and vice
president of the
Apache Software Foundation.
He is also a core member of the
Jikes open-source Java compiler project, a contributor to the
PHP project, the author of
Apache Server for Dummies, a lead author of
Apache Server Unleashed,
and is currently working with Ryan Bloom on a book for Addison-Wesley
tentatively entitledApache Module Development in C.
He can be reached via email at
This article was originally published on Wednesday Jul 19th 2000