Dancer deployment: Apache's mod_proxy and Nginx


I'm not a networking guru. What follows is what I think I've learn asking in #plack and #dancer (irc://, thanks people, you really rock) and reading the documentation on the net. I apologize in advance if something is not 100% correct.


So, you used the Dancer framework to build your new shiny web application. Now it's time to deploy it. You have a server with a very common setup: Apache2 with mod_php, which serves other sites. You read Dancer::Deployment and think: OK, no problem, just use Apache's mod_proxy and Starman and you will be fine.

Wrong! You're not fine. You're indeed in big troubles.

The problems (first part)

First, mod_proxy and Starman seem not to play well together: from the starman's documentation:


Disable Keep-alive persistent connections. It is an useful workaround if you run Starman behind a broken frontend proxy that tries to pool connections more than a number of backend workers (i.e. Apache mpm_prefork + mod_proxy).

From Apache's documentation:

For circumstances where mod_proxy is sending requests to an origin server that doesn't properly implement keepalives or HTTP/1.1, there are two environment variables that can force the request to use HTTP/1.0 with no keepalive.

Ok, no problem, there are the workarounds, but it doesn't look like a promising setup.

The problems (second part)

The prefork servers (like Starman and Apache mpm-prefork) work in a straightforward way: they accept a connection, serve the file or the output, when the transmission is over they pick up another one. To avoid the creation of bottlenecks they spawn more processes.

As you may see, there is a big problem. If you have pages or files which are long, say 500kb, or a few Mb, which is not really uncommon, and it's very common in my case, if the clients have slow connections, the processes will not pick up another connection until the page is served. The slowloris) issue is known (well, you'll know it when you encounter the problem) and there are this kind of malicious attacks. There are some workarounds (again), but you're forgetting something: the 56k people. Maybe they are not so common, but why they should block your server? Are you going to ban them? No way!

But, you think, you put a proxy in front of Starman exactly for this reason: to avoid binding Starman for too long. It's the whole point of the proxy: the backend works fast, transmits the data, and next! It's a proxy's matter to work with the crowd out there.

There are 2, big problems with mod_proxy + mpm-prefork:

  • It's a prefork

    So if the connections are slow, the bottleneck is there. You can create a Denial of Service with a one-liner from the shell over a 56k. You could increase the number of workers, but it's always a finite number.

  • Its buffering does not work as expected

    It doesn't buffer at all and Starman's workers (which are always less than the Apache's workers because they are more memory-hungry) are tied until the request is served. This defeats the whole point of having a proxy.

The workarounds just scale the problem: increase the workers until the machine have enough memory for them. Believe me, it's easy to eat all the memory with a couple of applications, down this road.

Or, let Starman to serve only little dynamic pages, let Apache do the rest (if possible) and hope for the best. The problem is still there, anyway.

To test this problem is trivial:

for i in `seq 0 100` ; do wget -q --limit-rate 1 -O /dev/null \
  http://target.tld & 2> /dev/null ; done

Open a browser, and I bet you can't open the page.

This is a malicious attack, but the same problem happens with the 56k users or requests for big files. It's all working as expected, but the prefork problem and the lack (or just ridiculously low level) of buffering are just blocking the web-server.

You think: yes, OK, nothing new, my php applications already have this problem, and I can survive. Wrong! Because you usually have a Starman server for each application, and a machine without huge memory have limited resources. So, count, how many children Starman can spawn? They are usually less then the Apache's workers. When Apache is proxying, it binds them until the request is served.

Well, I hope you get the point. You can continue with workarounds or do the right thing: drop Apache as proxy, and use a real one: Nginx

Nginx as proxy

Why Nginx?

Because Nginix doesn't suffer the slowloris problem and does a proper buffering, so the 2 problems are gone now. Plack and Nginx play very well together, and it's the commonly recommended setup.

The setup is explained in detail in Dancer::Deployment, so I won't repeat it here.

Legacy php sites

But now you have to manage the old php sites, which can't run on nginx. There are various setups, but the quickest is something like this:

  • Make Apache to listen to

  • For each server add this Nginx configuration:

    server {
        listen 80;
        server_name your.hostname.tld
        root /your/root/
        location / {
                proxy_set_header Host $http_host;
                proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-Host $http_host;
                proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;
                proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;

    Which basically pass everything to Apache. You can optimize it by letting nginx to serve the static files, like the images, of course. Read the doc, if you're interested. I found this interesting:


This article has been written by Marco Pessotto (a.k.a. melmothX) in 2012 as a personal note and reviewed for the Perl Dancer Advent Calendar 2012. The original is located at LAltroMondo Wiki

No copyright, public domain.