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Getting Your Message Across with Apache

Carlos Ramirez

Have you ever posted an important message that went unnoticed on your Web site? Or put a critical shutdown announcement on your home page that was never visited? Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence that many Web administrators face. All too often admins post important system status information affecting the computing environment, yet Web users will still be oblivious to why the server is down. It turns out that the majority of users do not access Web sites through the main home page. Instead, they access sections of a Web site through their bookmarks, or other external links. Despite efforts to train Web users to frequently visit our home page for pertinent news items they forget to do so. In this article, I present an Apache module that I created to tackle this specific problem. It provides a way to push your important messages to your user community so that anyone accessing any Web page on your server will get the message.

The Solution

The module is called Apache::Motd. As the name implies, this module works on Apache Web servers and is based on the "Message Of The Day" (or motd) utility found on UNIX systems. This module equips a Web server with the same functionality provided by motd. Once the module is installed, the administrator can configure the Web server to display the message of the day to every user accessing any Web page on the server. It momentarily intercepts the initial request and displays the contents of the motd file, then the user is redirected to the originally requested document. The initial request also sets a cookie so that subsequent visits are not directed to the message of the day. Several parameters allow administrators to customize this process, such as the contents of the message of the day, the length of time the message is displayed before it redirects the user, and cookie expiration. Before describing these options in more detail, I will give a brief overview of mod_perl and how it can be used to customize the stages of individual HTTP transactions.

Understanding mod_perl and the Apache HTTP Phases

A mod_perl-enabled Apache Web server presents many new and interesting ways for an administrator to configure a Web server. It also allows customization for each individual HTTP request by providing a Perl interface to Apache's internal functions. This extraordinary feature enables you to alter or override how Apache handles a specific request even down to a specific HTTP phase within a request. There are of course many other remarkable features, like the powerful performance boost that CGI scripts gain through mod_perl or code caching available through the fully functional embedded Perl interpreter in the server. However, I will only focus on the features that relate to Apache::Motd, specifically customization of HTTP phase requests. If you want to learn more about mod_perl, there are two excellent resources available, the "eagle" book, Writing Apache Modules with Perl and C from O'Reilly & Associates and the online mod_perl guide available in the Apache/Perl Intergration Project Web site ("the official mod_perl site").

Although I will not go into detail or describe each individual phase, it is important to know which phases occur during an HTTP transaction. Every HTTP request goes through a series of eight phases -- all of which can be overridden or altered using a mod_perl handler (or module). The phases occur in the following order: post-read-request, URI translation, header parsing, access control, authentication, authorization, mime-type checking, and fixups. In addition, there is a logging phase that can take place within any of eight phases mentioned. As you can see, mod_perl offers many ways to extend the functionality of the Web server at various steps of each request. Now that I've given a general idea of how mod_perl and Apache are related and which phases are involved in an HTTP request, I will explain how and when Apache::Motd comes into play.

How Apache::Motd Works

This module is called during the "Header Parser" phase of an HTTP transaction. Although this implies that the module will be processing or manipulating incoming headers, this is not the case. I selected this phase simply because this is the earliest phase in which a mod_perl handler can occur within <Directory>, <Location>, or <Files> configuration directives or within .htaccess files. By allowing this module to work within these directives, you can implement different messages for individual sections of your Web site. See Figure 1.

All mod_perl handlers are invoked through the common subroutine called handler(). So in this case, when the Header Parser phase is activated, Apache looks for Apache::Motd::handler subroutine. The actual perl handler code is quite simple (see Listing 1). It follows the general outlined procedure:

1. Save the path of the original requested document (or URI) to the variable: $uri.

2. Verify that the motd file defined in the httpd.conf exists and continue processing, otherwise stop processing and begin next phase of the HTTP transaction.

3. Check if the motd cookie has already been set (i.e., has the user seen the motd?). If cookieName is set then continue processing, otherwise, send request to next phase.

4. Create cookie and set cookie value including the expiration date.

5. Open motd file, substitute $uri and $redirect_time and display the contents of the motd.

The process above is executed when SupportCookieLess is set to 0. When it is set to 1, an additional step is added to the process to check whether the client can accept cookies by performing an external redirect. But in either case, the execution time of this process is unnoticeable by the user, due to the embedded Perl interpreter and the code caching features offered by mod_perl.

Installing Apache::Motd

Before you can install Apache::Motd, you must have the following software on your system:

  • Apache Web Server v1.3.x (
  • mod_perl 1.2x (
  • Apache::Cookie (

Once you've satisfied the above requirements, you can download Apache::Motd from ( or from Sys Admin's Web site:
The installation process takes only a few simple steps:

 $ gzip -dc Apache-Motd-0.03.tar.gz | tar xvf -
 $ cd Apache-Motd-0.03
 $ perl Makefile.PL
 $ make
 $ make install
 Configuring Apache::Motd
The following is a list of Apache::Motd configuration parameters. All parameters are optional. However, please note that if the MessageFile is not found in the specified directory, requests will not be directed to the motd. This feature allows you to rename or delete this file from the specified location to disable the motd without having to edit the httpd.conf entry or restart the Web server.

MessageFile /path/to/motd_file -- The filesystem path to the motd file. (See Figure 3 for a sample motd file.)

RedirectInSecs N (default: 10 seconds) -- This sets the wait time (in seconds) before the visitor is redirected to the initially requested URI.

CookieName cookie_name (default: seenMOTD) -- Set the name of the cookie name.

ExpireCookie 1 day (default: 1 day) -- Set the expiration time for the cookie.

SupportCookieLess (1|0) (default: 1) -- This parameter is set by default to handle clients that do not support cookies or that have cookies turned off. This option performs an external redirect for the initial request to check whether cookies are turned on. If cookies are rejected, visitors are automatically redirected to their original request, bypassing the motd.

The Message File Format

The text file should at least include the following tag variables. These tags provide necessary information to allow redirection to the original request and the time (in seconds) before the redirection takes place. See Figure 3.

  • VAR_URI -- This tag will be replaced with the URL: http://$SERVER.$uri

Example: <a href="<VAR_URI>">click here to proceed</a>

The above example provides a link to the original requested document, so that a user can click and bypass the redirect time.

  • VAR_REDIRECT -- This tag will be replaced with the value set in RedirectInSecs, which can be used in the meta tag for redirection. See Figure 3 for a sample motd file.

Things to note about the sample message:

  • The meta tag entry must be included in the motd file to ensure that the user is redirected to the original requested document. Otherwise, redirection will not occur.
  • Providing a link where a user can click to bypass redirect time can be a useful and courteous gesture for fast readers.

Apache::Motd allows you to set up different motd messages for different sections of your Web site. Figure 1 demonstrates various configurations that may be included in your httpd.conf file.

In configuration Setup 1, there are two separate sections that will activate the "Message of the Day". Users accessing Web pages from /path/to/customers will be presented with their own message contained in /path/to/customers/motd. While Web pages accessed from /path/to/sales_department will be presented with their own message contained in /path/to/sales_department/motd. In both instances, users will be directed to the original requested documents after 10 seconds (default).

In configuration Setup 2 (Figure 2), any Web page accessed on the Web server will be presented with the motd located in $SERVER_ROOT/conf/motd. A cookie named sitewideMOTD will be sent to the browser, will redirect users to their originally requested document in 15 seconds, and will expire the cookie in a week. In this configuration, users are only presented with the specified motd once a week.

Beyond Motd

Although Apache::Motd was originally intended to propagate important messages to our Web community, I have found other interesting uses for it. For instance, you can add a "Terms of Usage" screen to an existing Web application, without having to modify any existing code. This can easily be implemented simply by adding the following to your httpd.conf file:

<Location /myguestbook>
 PerlHeaderParserHandler Apache::Motd
 PerlSetVar MessageFile /path/to/TermsOfUsage
 PerlSetVar CookieName guestbookTermsOfUsage
In this case, you would not include the meta tag entry in your "Terms Of Usage" page so that the user is required to click on the link to continue. All you would need to include would be your Terms of Usage statement and a link using the VAR_URI tag that reads: "I agree". For example:

<a href="<VAR_URI>">I Agree</a>

One known limitation is related to the use of cookies. The use of cookies provides a means of maintaining state, in our case, it provides a way to determine if a visitor has encountered the motd. Unfortunately, some users choose not to accept cookies by setting their browsers to reject cookies. For those cases, you just have to rely on other forms of communication to reach those users, since the current implementation of Apache::Motd cannot track whether these users have seen the motd. However, future enhancements are currently being developed so that cookie-less Web users will not escape the motd. So stay tuned.

Carlos Ramirez graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Physics. Since then he has worked as a UNIX systems administrator and Web developer. His primary interests are Web server management, Web application development, Internet/Intranet architecture and programming in Perl. He can be reached at: