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Apache Tips in Light of Security Problems

I am far from an expert in Apache. But I have a good knowledge of general best practices which I apply when running Apache web server. None of my tips are particularly insightful – they all can be found elsewhere, but this will be a single place to help find them all together.

To Compile or Not
As of this writing the current version is 2.2.21. The version supplied with the current version of SLES, SLES 11, is 2.2.10. To find the version run httpd -v

I think that’s fairly typical for them to be so many version behind. I recommend compiling your own version. But pay attention to security advisories and check every quarter to see what the latest release is. You’ll have to keep up with it on your own or you’ll actually be in worse shape than if you used the vendor version and applied patches regularly.

What You’ll Need to Know for the Range DOS Vulnerability
When you get the source you might try a simple ./configure, followed by a make and finally make install. And it would all seem to work. You can fetch the home page with a curl localhost. Then you remember about that recent Range header denial of service vulnerability described here. If you test for whether you support the Range header you’ll see that you do. I like to test for this as follows:

$ curl -H "Range: bytes=1-2" localhost

If before you saw something like

<html><body><h1>It works!</h1>

now it becomes


i.e., it grabbed bytes one and two from <html>…

Now there are options and opinions about what to do about this. I think turning off Range header support is the best option. But if you try that you will fail. Why? Because you did not compile in the mod_headers module. To turn off Range headers add these lines to the global part of your configuration:

RequestHeader unset Range
RequestHeader unset Request-Range

To see what modules you have available in your apache binary you do

/usr/local/apache2/bin/httpd -l

which should look like the following if you have taken all the defaults:

Compiled in modules:

Notice there is no mod_headers.c which means there is no mod_headers module. And in fact when you restart your apache web server you are likely to see this error:

Syntax error on line 360 of /usr/local/apache2/conf/httpd.conf:
Invalid command 'RequestHeader', perhaps misspelled or defined by a module not included in the server configuration

So you need to compile in mod_headers. Begin by cleaning your slate by running make clean in your source directory; then run configure as follows:

./configure –enable-headers –enable-rewrite

I’ve thrown in the –enable-rewrite qualifier because I like to be able to use mod_rewrite. It is not actually used for the security problems being discussed in this article.

Side note for those using the system-provided apache2 package on SLES
As an alternative to compiling yourself, you may be using an apache package. I have only tested this for SLES (so it would probably be the same for openSUSE). There you can edit the /etc/sysconfig/apache2 file and add additional modules to load. In particular the line

APACHE_MODULES="actions alias auth_basic authn_file authz_host authz_groupfile authz_default authz_user authn_dbm autoindex
 cgi dir env expires include log_config mime negotiation setenvif ssl suexec userdir php5 reqtimeout"

can be changed to

APACHE_MODULES="actions alias auth_basic authn_file authz_host authz_groupfile authz_default authz_user authn_dbm autoindex
 cgi dir env expires include log_config mime negotiation setenvif ssl suexec userdir php5 reqtimeout headers"

Back to compiling. Note that ./configure -help gives you some idea of all the options available, but it doesn’t exactly link the options to the precise module names, though it gives you a good idea via the description.

Then run make followed by make install as before. You should be good to go!

A Built-in Contradiction
You may have successfully suppressed use of range-headers, but on my web server, I noticed a contradictory HTTP Response header was still being issued after all that:


I use a simple

curl -i localhost

to look at the HTTP Response headers. The contradiction is that your server is not accepting ranges while it’s sending out the message that it is!

So turn that off to be consistent. This is what I did.

# need the following line to not send Accept-Ranges header
Header unset Accept-Ranges

Don’t Give Away the Keys
Don’t reveal too much about your server version such as OS and patch level of your web server. I suppose it is OK to reveal your web server type and its major version. Here is what I did:

# don't reveal too much about the server version - just web server and major version
# see
ServerTokens Major

After all these changes curl -i localhost output looks as follows:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Fri, 04 Nov 2011 20:39:02 GMT
Server: Apache/2
Last-Modified: Fri, 14 Oct 2011 15:37:41 GMT
ETag: "12005-a-4af4409a09b40"
Content-Length: 10
Content-Type: text/html

See? I’ve gotten rid of the Accept-Ranges and provide only sketchy information about the server.

I put these security-related measures into a single file I include from the global configuration file httpd.conf into a file I call security.conf. To put it all toegther, at this point my security.conf looks like this:

# 11/2011
# prevent DOS attack.  
# See - JH 8/31/11
# a good explanation of how to test it: 
# looks like we do have this vulnerability, 
# trying curl -i -H 'Range:bytes=1-5'
# note that I had to compile with ./configure --enable-headers to be able to use these directives
RequestHeader unset Range
RequestHeader unset Request-Range
# need the following line to not send Accept-Ranges header
Header unset Accept-Ranges
# don't reveal too much about the server version - just web server and major version
# see
ServerTokens Major

SSL (added December, 2014)
Search engines are encouraging web site operators to switch to using SSL for the obvious added security. If you’re going to use SSL you’ll also need to do that responsibly or you could get a false sense of security. I document it in my post on working with cipher settings.

Disable folder browsing/directory listing
I recently got caught out on this rookie mistake: Web Directories listing vulnerability. The solution is simple. In side your main HTDOCS section of configuration you may have a line that looks like:

Options Indexes FollowSymLinks ExecCGI

Get rid of that Indexes – that’s what permits folder browsing, So this is better:

Options FollowSymLinks ExecCGI

Turn off php version listing, December 2016 update
Oops. I read about how the 47% of the top million web sites have security issues. One bases for the judgment is to see what version of PHP is running based on the headers. So i checked my https server, and, oops:

$ curl ‐s ‐i ‐k|head ‐22

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Fri, 16 Dec 2016 20:00:09 GMT
Server: Apache/2
Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=15811200; includeSubDomains; preload
Vary: Cookie,Accept-Encoding
X-Powered-By: PHP/5.4.43
Last-Modified: Fri, 16 Dec 2016 20:00:10 GMT
Transfer-Encoding: chunked
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en-US">

So there is was, hanging out for all to see, PHP version 5.4.43. I’d rather not publicly admit that. So I turned it off by adding the following to my php.ini file and re-starting apache:

expose_php = off

After this my HTTP response headers show only this:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Fri, 16 Dec 2016 20:00:55 GMT
Server: Apache/2
Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=15811200; includeSubDomains; preload
Vary: Cookie,Accept-Encoding
Last-Modified: Fri, 16 Dec 2016 20:00:57 GMT
Transfer-Encoding: chunked
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

I must have overlooked this when I compiled my own apache v 2.4 and used it to run my principal web server over https.

June 2017 update
PCI compliance will ding you for lack of an X-Frame-Options header. So for a simple web site like mine I can always safely send one out by adding this to my apache.conf file (or whichever apache conf file you deem most appropriate. I have a special security file in conf.d where I actually put it):

# don't permit framing from other sources, DrJ 6/16/17
Header always append X-Frame-Options SAMEORIGIN

PCI compliance will also ding you if TRACE method is enabled. In that security file of my configuration I disable it thusly:

TraceEnable Off

Test both those things in one fell swoop
$ curl ‐X TRACE ‐i ‐k

HTTP/1.1 405 Method Not Allowed
Date: Fri, 16 Jun 2017 18:20:24 GMT
Server: Apache/2
X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN
Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=15811200; includeSubDomains; preload
Content-Length: 295
Content-Type: text/html; charset=iso-8859-1
<title>405 Method Not Allowed</title>
<h1>Method Not Allowed</h1>
<p>The requested method TRACE is not allowed for the URL /.</p>
<address>Apache/2 Server at Port 443</address>

See? X-Frame-Options header now comes out with desired value. TRACE method was disallowed. All good.

Make sure you are taking some precautions against known security problems in Apache2. For information on running multiple web server instances under SLES see my next post Running Multiple Web Server Instances under SLES.

References and related
Remember, for handling the apache SSL hardening go here.
Compiling apache 2.4
drjohnstechtalk is now an HTTPS site!
TRACE method sounds useful for debugging, but I guess there are exploits so it needs to be disabled. Wikipedia documents it: Don’t forget that curl -v also shows you your request headers!

Admin IT Operational Excellence Web Site Technologies

Virtual Server not Working in F5 BigIP

OK. This posting is only directly applicable to the small number of people who run BigIP load balancers. And of that set, only a certaIn subset will likely ever have this situation. Nevertheless, it’s useful to document it. There are lessons in it for the rest of us, it shows the creative problem-solving process used in IT, or rather the creative process that should be used.

So I had a virtual server associated with a certain pool and it was operating fine for years. Then something changes. We want to associate a new name with this virtual server, but test it first, all while keeping the old name working. Well, this is a secured site by which I mean it is running https rather than http. There’s nothing intrinsic in the web site itself that ties it to a particular name. If this were a run-of-the-mill non-secure site you would solve this problem with DNS. Set up an alias and you’re good to go. But secured sites are a wee bit trickier. They present a certificate after all. And the certificate has just one name, at least ours does. Guess I can address multi-name certificates known as Subject Alternative Name CERTs in a separate post. And that name is the original DNS name. What to do? Simple. As any BigIP admin would tell you you create a new virtual server and associate it with a new IP and a new SSL profile containing the new certificate you just bought but the old pool. In DNS assign this new IP to your new DNS name. That’s all pretty straightforward

Having done all that, I blithely tested with lynx (iI’s an old curses-based browser which runs on old Unix systems. The main point is to not test with a complex browser where like Internet Explorer where you are never 100% sure if the problem lies with the browser. If I had it, I would test with curl, but it’s not on that system.). And…it hangs.

Now I’ll admit a lot of stupid things I did (which is typical of any good debugging session of an IT professional – some self-created red herrings accompany any decent sleuthing) and I ratchet up the debugging a notch. Check the web server logs. I see no log of my lynx accesses. Dig a little deeper still. Fire up a trace. Here’s a little time-saver. BigIP does have a tcpdump program, but it is a little stunted. Typically you have multiple interfaces on a BigIP. In this case I felt it pertinent to know if packets were getting to the BigIP from lynx, and then again, if those packets were leaving the BigIP and going to the web server. So the tip is that whereas a “normal” tcpdump might allow you to use the switch -i any to listen on all interfaces, that doesn’t work on BigIP. Use -i 0.0 instead. And of course restrict it somehow so that your own shell session’s packets won’t be picked up by the trace, or else you could be in for a nasty surprise of exponentially increasing traffic (a devastating situation perhaps worthy of its own blog entry!). In this case I added an expression port 443. So I have:

tcpdump -i 0.0 port 443

And, somewhat to my surprise (You should always have a hypothesis, even if it’s just a gut feeling: will this little test work, or not. Why?) not only were packets going from lynx to BigIp and then again to the web server, I could even see returned packets back from the web server to BigIp to lynx. But it was not a lot of packets. A SYN, SYN-ACK and maybe a single data packet and that’s about it. It should have been more chatty.

The more tests you can think of, the better, especially ones that emphasize the marginal differences between the thing that works and the one that doesn’t. One test along those lines: take this same virtual server and associate it with a different pool. I did that, and that test worked!

Next, I tried to access the web server using curl on the BigIP itself. I could, but not at first. First I used the local web server URL http://web_server_ip:443/. It hung my curl command, just like using lynx on the other server. Hmm. I then looked on the web server again. I notice that it has a certificate installed. Ah. So it’s actually running https. So try curl from BigIP again, but this time with the -k switch (insecure, meaning don’t verify the certificate issuer) and a url beginning with https rather than http. Bingo. It comes back with the home page. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Finally I look more closely at the virtual server setup for the old name, the one that works. I see that the server profile is SSL. It basically means that the traffic is encrypted when it hits the BigIP, and the server CERT is associated with the external name. The BigIP decrypts the traffic, then re-encrypts it before sending it along to the web server. The CERT for the second leg is a self-signed CERT and is never seen by users.

I had forgotten to set up my new test virtual server with the server SSL profile, so the second leg of traffic was not being re-encyrpted by the BigIP, even though the web server was only willing to engage in SSL communication with the BigIP. Once I updated the server profile, it all worked fine! Of course after getting the expected results from lynx I went to my desktop browser, just like a regular user, and successfully tested it there as well. You want to make sure your final tests are a realistic approximation of what the user will be doing. If that’s not all possible under your own control, bring in a user for testing.

Liked this article? Here’s another of my IT operational excellence articles that has a somewhat wider applicability.