Internet Engineering
Spring 2024


  • HTML/XHTML content is static
    • JavaScript makes pages more dynamic, but the content is almost static
  • Dynamic content
    • Pages that look differently depending on the user who visits, status, processing requests, etc.
    • E.g. Search engines, web mails, etc.
  • Web applications (hotel booking, web search applications, …) is not possible using only HTML/XHTML, CSS and JS; why?

Typical Web based Application

We need server side active code to perform actions & generate (dynamic) content


Common Gateway Interface

  • We need code beside web servers
    • Web server by itself is not designed for data processing
  • Initial idea
    • An external program can perform the processing
  • Questions
    • How can client ask server to run an external program?!
      • New HTTP Method to run (e.g. HTTP RUN)?!! 🤔
    • How does web server exchange information with the external program?
      • Sending input data & Getting the output
      • The mechanism should be standard

Common Gateway Interface (Cont.)

  • The Standard protocol for interfacing external application software with the web server
    • CGI 1.1 specified in RFC 3875, 2004
  • The external program runs by the standard HTTP requests & proper server configuration
  • Information is passed from external software to the web server as the output on stdout
    • HTTP response is the output of the external program on the server machine
  • Information can passed from the web server to the executable program according to HTTP request method

CGI Example: Server Config

  ScriptAlias /cgi-bin/ /var/www/html/IE/cgi-enabled/
  <Directory "/var/www/html/IE/cgi-enabled/">
    AllowOverride None
    Options +ExecCGI -MultiViews 					  +SymLinksIfOwnerMatch
    Require all granted

CGI Example: Source Code

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void){
  // http header
  printf("Content-Type: text/html\r\n");
  printf("Connection: close\r\n");

  printf("\r\n \r\n");

  // http body
  printf("Hello world.\r\n");
  printf("<br />\r\n");
  printf("Bye Bye\r\n");
  return 0;

CGI Example: Compile

> ~# cd /var/www/html/IE/cgi-enabled
> /var/www/html/IE/cgi-enabled# gcc -o hello_c.cgi hello_c.c
> /var/www/html/IE/cgi-enabled# ./hello_c.cgi
Content-Type: text/html
Connection: close

Hello world.
<br />
Bye Bye

CGI Example: Test


The “Hello World” CGI in Bash Script


# http headers
echo "Content-Type: text/html"
echo ""

# http body
echo "<html><head></head>"
echo "<body>"
echo "Hello world."
echo "<br />"
echo "Bye Bye"
echo "</body></html>"

Getting parameters from the client

  • Parameters can be passed from the user to the CGI script through an html <form> or fetch or ...

<form action="script.cgi" method="GET">
  <input type="…" name="input1" />
  <input type="…" name="input2" />
  <input type="…" name="inputN" />
  • The script.cgi will get the parameters as:
    input1=val1&input2=val2& ... &inputN=valN
  • The mechanism depends on the HTTP Method

Getting parameters from the client

  • Parameters can be sent through the GET method
    • CGI script will receive the parameters from the web server in an environment variable $QUERY_STRING
    • In C: You can access it by getenv("QUERY_STRING")
  • Parameters can be passed through the POST method (in the body of the HTTP Request)
    • The CGI script will receive the parameters from the web server in the standard input (stdin)

CGI Environment Variables

CONTENT_TYPEThe data type of the content. Used when the client is sending attached content to the server. For example, file upload.
CONTENT_LENGTHThe length of the query information. It is available only for POST requests.
HTTP_COOKIEReturns the set cookies in the form of key & value pair.
HTTP_USER_AGENTThe User-Agent request-header field contains information about the user agent originating the request. It is name of the web browser.
PATH_INFOThe path for the CGI script.
QUERY_STRINGThe URL-encoded information that is sent with GET method request.
REMOTE_ADDRThe IP address of the remote host making the request. This is useful logging or for authentication.
REMOTE_HOSTThe fully qualified name of the host making the request. If this information is not available, then REMOTE_ADDR can be used to get IR address.
REQUEST_METHODThe method used to make the request. The most common methods are GET and POST.
SCRIPT_FILENAMEThe full path to the CGI script.
SCRIPT_NAMEThe name of the CGI script.

CGI Pros & Cons

  • What is the main advantage(s) of CGI?
    • Any programming language can be used
  • What the main drawback(s) of CGI?
    • We should generate whole HTML document in CGI
    • For each request, a new process is created
      • Process creation & termination & Inter-process communication overhead
    • Security is another major issue
  • Any other way to run code in server side?

Solving CGI Problems

  • Empower the server to run code
    • But, Which programming language? HTML?!!!
      • Should we compile & debug web-pages?
    • Should web server interpret/compile the code?
      • Web servers are not build to be compiler!!
    • How to mix code & HTML?
  • Answer: Interpreter as a web server plugin is responsible
    • Use any scripting language that its interpreter is available for web server, e.g., PHP runtime environment
    • Configure web server to use interpreter for a specific file types that contain mixed code & HTML, e.g., .php files
    • Web server run the interpreter for codes and uses the output

Overview of Server-Side Scripting

  1. Web client sends a HTTP request to server
  2. Web server determines how to retrieve the requested resource according configuration
    • .html, .jpg, ... To be retrieve directly
    • .php To be handled by the PHP module
  3. Runtime environment does for example
    • Parses incoming request, generate outgoing response
    • Interpreting/executing the server-side scripts
    • Maintaining sessions
  1. Runtime environment runs the requested script
    • Identifies the code sections inside HTML
    • Runs the code and grabs the output
    • Provides session & other status information
    • Generated output and HTML are assembled together which is the response to client
  2. The HTTP response is sent to the web client by web server

Embed vs. External Server Side Code

  • External code
    • A separated program: C, C++, …
    • Server runs it and sends its output back to client
  • Embed code
    • Scripting inside the HTML
      • Embed programming interface within server
        • Which is called when server see the scripting directions
    • Examples
      • Perl: Apache mod_perl module to embed
      • Java Server Pages (JSP): Compiled and served by a JSP server
      • Python
      • PHP (the most common language)

Server Side Scripting Benefits

  • How does server side scripting solve CGI problems?
    • We don’t need to generate whole HTML by code
      • Only dynamic parts are coded
    • A process is not created per request
      • All requests are processed by the interpreter
        • Which is implemented as a library for web server process
      • Each request = A thread
        • Low creation & termination & inter-communication overhead
    • The run-time environment control the code
      • More secure execution

Major differences w.r.t client side programming

  • Concurrency
    • Each server side program (cgi, php, …) can (and usually) runs multiple times concurrently
      • A process/thread per request
    • Be very very careful about shared resources (files)
  • Security
    • Each server side program allows client (including the hackers) to run code on your server
      • Vulnerable code = Hacker access
    • Be very very careful about input from the client

References 📚

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