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Apache Webserver Performance tuning

Apache server performance

Apache server performance can be improved by adding additional hardware resources such as RAM, faster CPU etc. But, most of the time, the same result can be achieved by custom configuration of the server. This article looks into getting maximum performance out of Apache with the existing hardware resources, specifically on the Linux systems. Of course, it is assumed that there is enough hardware resources, especially enough RAM that the server isn't swapping frequently. First two sections look into various Compile-Time and Run-Time configuration options. Run-Time section assumes that Apache is compiled with prefork MPM. HTTP compression and caching is discussed next. Finally, using separate servers for serving static and dynamic contents are being discussed. Basic knowledge of compiling and configuring Apache, and Linux are assumed.

Compile-Time Configuration Options

Load only the required modules

The Apache HTTP Server is a modular program where the administrator can choose the functionality to include in the server by selecting a set of modules. The modules can be either statically compiled to the httpd binary or else can be compiled as Dynamic Shared Objects (DSOs). DSO modules can be either compiled when the server is built or else can use the apxs utility to compile and add at a later date. The module mod_so must be statically compiled into the Apache core to enable DSO support.
Run apache with only the required modules. This reduces the memory footprint and hence the server performance. Statically compiling modules will save RAM that's used for supporting dynamically loaded modules, but one has to recompile Apache whenever a module is to be added or dropped. This is where the DSO mechanism comes handy. Once the mod_so module is statically compiled, any other module can be added or dropped using the LoadModule command in httpd.conf file - of course, you will have to compile the modules using apxs if it wasn't compiled when the server was built.

Choose appropriate MPM

Apache server ships with a selection of Multi-Processing Modules (MPMs) which are responsible for binding to network ports on the machine, accepting requests, and dispatching children to handle the requests. Only one MPM can be loaded into the server at any time.

Choosing an MPM depends on various factors such as whether the OS supports threads, how much memory is available, scalability versus stability, whether non-thread-safe third-party modules are used, etc.. Linux systems can choose to use a threaded MPM like worker or a non-threaded MPM like prefork:

Worker MPM uses multiple child processes. It's multi-threaded within each child and each thread handles a single connection. Worker is fast and highly scalable and the memory footprint is comparatively low. It's well suited for multiple processors. On the other hand, worker is less tolerant to faulty modules and faulty threads can affect all the threads in a child process.

Prefork MPM uses multiple child processes, each child handles one connection at a time. Prefork is well suited for single or double CPU systems, speed is comparable to that of worker and it's highly tolerant to faulty modules and crashing children. But the memory usage is high, more traffic leads to more memory usage.

Run-Time Configuration Options

DNS lookup

The HostnameLookups directive enables DNS lookup so that hostnames can be logged instead of the IP address. This adds latency to every request since the DNS lookup has to be completed before the request is finished. HostnameLookups is Off by default in Apache 1.3 and above. Leave it Off and use post-processing program such as logresolve to resolve IP addresses in Apache's access logfiles. Logresolve ships with Apache.

When using Allow from or Deny from directives, use IP address instead of a domain name or a hostname. Otherwise a double DNS lookup is performed to make sure that the domain name or the hostname is not being spoofed.

AllowOverride

If AllowOverride is not set to 'None', then Apache will attempt to open .htaccess file (as specified by AccessFileName directive) in each directory that it visits. For example: DocumentRoot /var/www/html <Directory /> AllowOverride all </Directory>If a request is made for URI /index.html, then Apache will attempt to open /.htaccess, /var/.htaccess, /var/www/.htaccess, and /var/www/html/.htaccess. These additional file system lookups add to the latency. If .htaccess is required for a particular directory, then enable it for that directory alone.

FollowSymLinks and SymLinksIfOwnerMatch

If FollowSymLinks option is set, then the server will follow symbolic links in this directory. If SymLinksIfOwnerMatch is set, then the server will follow symbolic links only if the target file or directory is owned by the same user as the link.
If SymLinksIfOwnerMatch is set, then Apache will have to issue additional system calls to verify whether the ownership of the link and the target file match. Additional system calls are also needed when FollowSymLinks is NOT set. For example:

DocumentRoot /vaw/www/html <Directory /> Options SymLinksIfOwnerMatch </Directory> For a request made for URI /index.html, Apache will perform lstat() on /var, /var/www, /var/www/html, and /var/www/html/index.html. These additional system calls will add to the latency. The lstat results are not cached, so they will occur on every request.
For maximum performance, set FollowSymLinks everywhere and never set SymLinksIfOwnerMatch. Or else, if SymLinksIfOwnerMatch is required for a directory, then set it for that directory alone.

Content Negotiation

Avoid content negotiation for fast response. If content negotiation is required for the site, use type-map files rather than Options MultiViews directive. With MultiViews, Apache has to scan the directory for files, which add to the latency.

MaxClients

The MaxClients sets the limit on maximum simultaneous requests that can be supported by the server. No more than this much number of child processes are spawned. It shouldn't be set too low such that new connections are put in queue, which eventually time-out and the server resources are left unused. Setting this too high will cause the server to start swapping and the response time will degrade drastically. Appropriate value for MaxClients can be calculated as: MaxClients = Total RAM dedicated to the web server / Max child process size Child process size for serving static file is about 2-3M. For dynamic content such as PHP, it may be around 15M. The RSS column in "ps -ylC httpd --sort:rss"shows non-swapped physical memory usage by Apache processes in kilo Bytes.

If there are more concurrent users than MaxClients, the requests will be queued up to a number based on ListenBacklog directive. Increase ServerLimit to set MaxClients above 256.

MinSpareServers, MaxSpareServers, and StartServers

MaxSpareServers and MinSpareServers determine how many child processes to keep while waiting for requests. If the MinSpareServers is too low and a bunch of requests come in, then Apache will have to spawn additional child processes to serve the requests. Creating child processes is relatively expensive. If the server is busy creating child processes, it won't be able to serve the client requests immediately. MaxSpareServers shouldn't be set too high, it can cause resource problems since the child processes consume resources.

Tune MinSpareServers and MaxSpareServers such that Apache need not frequently spwan more than 4 child processes per second (Apache can spwan a maximum of 32 child processes per second). When more than 4 children are spawned per second, a message will be logged in the ErrorLog.

The StartServers directive sets the number of child server processes created on startup. Apache will continue creating child process until the MinSpareServers setting is reached. Doesn't have much effect on performance if the server isn't restarted frequently. If there are lot of requests and Apache is restarted frequently, set this to a relatively high value.

MaxRequestsPerChild

The MaxRequestsPerChild directive sets the limit on the number of requests that an individual child server process will handle. After MaxRequestsPerChild requests, the child process will die. It's set to 0 by default, that means the child process will never expire. It is appropriate to set this to a value of few thousands. This can help prevent memory leakage since the process dies after serving a certain number of requests. Do not set this too low, since creating new processes does have overhead.

KeepAlive and KeepAliveTimeout

The KeepAlive directive allows multiple requests to be sent over the same TCP connection. This is particularly useful while serving HTML pages with lot of images. If KeepAlive is set to Off, then for each images, a separate TCP connection has to be made. Overhead due to establishing TCP connection can be eliminated by turning On KeepAlive.

KeepAliveTimeout determines how long to wait for the next request. Set this to a low value, perhaps between two to five seconds. If it is set too high, child processed are tied up waiting for the client when they could be used for serving new clients.

HTTP Compression & Caching

HTTP compression is completely specified in HTTP/1.1. The server uses gzip or deflate encoding method to the response payload before it is sent to the client. Client then decompresses the payload. There is no need to install any additional software at the client side since all major browsers support this. Using compression will save bandwidth and improve response time, studies have found a mean compression gain of 75.2 % . HTTP Compression can be enabled in Apache using mod_deflate module. Payload is compressed only if the browser requests compression, otherwise uncompressed content is served. A compression aware browser inform the server that it prefers compressed content through the HTTP request header - "Accept-Encoding: gzip,deflate". Then the server responds with compressed payload and the response header set to "Content-Encoding:gzip

Separate server for static and dynamic content

Apache processes serving dynamic content takes about 3M to 20M of RAM. It grows to accommodate the content it's serving and never decreases until the process dies. Say an Apache process grows to 20M to serve a dynamic content. After completing the request, it is free to serve any other request. If a request for an image comes in, then this 20M process is serving a static content which could as well be served by a 1M process. Memory is used inefficiently.

Use a tiny Apache (with minimum modules statically compiled) as the front-end server to serve static contents. Request for dynamic contents are forwarded to the heavy Apache (compiled with all required modules). Using a light front-end server has the advantage that the static contents are served fast without much memory usage and only the dynamic contents are passed over to the heavy server.

Request forwarding can be achieved by using mod_proxy and rewrite_module modules. Suppose there is a lightweight Apache server listening to port 80 and the heavyweight Apache listening on port 8088. Then the following configuration in the lightweight Apache can be used to forward all request except request for images to the heavyweight server.

ProxyPassReverse / http://%{HTTP_HOST}:8088/
RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} !.*\.(gif|png|jpg)$
RewriteRule ^/(.*) http://%{HTTP_HOST}:8088/$1 [P]

All requests, except for images, are proxied to the backend server. Response is received by the frontend server and then supplied to the client. As far as client is concerned, all the response seem to come from a single server.

Reducing network load

The following three modules can be used to reduce the network load generated by Apache. Of these, only mod_gzip will have any effect if the bandwidth bottleneck is outside of your control, like the user's modem connection.

mod_gzip

The mod_gzip module attempts to reduce bandwidth use by compressing data that is being sent out. If the browser claims to accept 'gzip' encoding, files can get compressed using the Lempel-Ziv coding (LZ77), the same algorithm used by the UNIX 'gzip' command. This compression comes at a cost of processing time on both the server and the client, however. The modules allows specifying which files are eligible for compression, so that files that are already (partially) compressed, and which would have little to gain by compression (like .gz files, .jpeg files, etc.) can be skipped.

The module is especially effective when using it to compress text-files (and thus HTML files) which are easily compressible. The mod_gzip module and the accompanying documentation can be found at http://www.remotecommunications.com/apache/mod_gzip/.

In Apache 2.0, mod_gzip's functionality is replaced by a new standard module, mod_deflate, which is documented in the standard documentation.

mod_bandwidth

Mod_bandwidth is a bandwidth throttling module, useful for keeping the traffic of a whole Apache installation or of specific VirtualHosts or directories in check. It allows for two rates, one for general data and one for files larger than a specified value, making it convenient for quenching file-downloads so the rest of the site is still responsive.

Throttling can also be done at the OS level, rather than the application level. For throttling entire Apache installations or IP-based virtualhosts this is often more efficient. However, throttling a name-based virtualhost or a directory within a virtualhost is not possible that way.

The throttling comes at a price of extra calculations on every packet send, and a local scratchboard to keep track of bandwidth usage. It is a good example of non-speed oriented optimizations. Mod_bandwidth can be found at http://www.cohprog.com/mod_bandwidth.html
. Documentation is included in the C source file.

mod_proxy

Another method to reduce traffic for a specific server and increase the speed with which pages are served is by using a front proxy. The standard Apache module mod_proxy can serve as a front proxy. A front proxy keeps a cache of recently requested pages and returns the page from that cache if at all possible. Front proxies are only useful if the real storage of the data is slower than the cache of the proxy. For example, frequently requested data that resides on a remote NFS server or on a slow disk or CD can be significantly sped up by a front proxy.

Another common use of mod_proxy (with the help of mod_rewrite) is to split up requests to several servers, based on the URL, so that static content is taken from one server while auto-generated and server-intensive pages are taken from another.

Mod_proxy is useful for more than just playing front proxy, but it is not suited for every task. Since it was designed to proxy for other servers, not the server it is loaded into, it can be tricky to incorporate into existing setups. And since mod_proxy is a cache, the logfiles of the actual server no longer contains information of hits that were satisfied in the proxy. Furthermore, since all requests have to pass through the proxy server, it is still a bandwidth and speed bottleneck. Both mod_proxy and the documentation for it (which includes examples of configuring it as a front proxy) are part of the standard Apache distribution, though the module is not compiled in by default.

Speeding up CGI scripts

CGI scripts are any program that gets executed on-demand by the webserver, and that uses the Common Gateway Interface to transfer information from and to the webserver and the browser that did the original request. Even though compiled C programs that use CGI are not technically scripts, they are often referred to as CGI scripts as well. A large portion of today's web programs are actually CGI scripts, though with the advent of PHP and other HTML-embedded server-side languages, those are getting more popular.

This section gives some hints on how to speed up the execution of CGI scripts. mod_fastcgi is a general FastCGI module, which uses FastCGI rather than normal CGI to connect to the CGI scripts. FastCGI uses some tricks to reduce the fork/exec overhead of a CGI script, but is not entirely backward compatible with normal CGI. mod_php and other such language-specific modules use language-specific information to speed up the execution process.

FastCGI

FastCGI is a slightly more complex alternative to normal CGI. With normal CGI, the webserver communicates with the CGI script through environment variables, and the client browser with the CGI script through its standard input. With FastCGI, each script acts as a daemon, being started once and handling multiple requests. Instead of environment variables, the server passes all information about the request through standard input, allowing FastCGI scripts to even be executed on different servers, over extra TCP connections.

The FastCGI interface allows for far more efficient use of resources, especially for oft-requested scripts, but might require a rewrite of the script in question to work properly. There are FastCGI API libraries for most popular languages, most of which allow a script to be used both though CGI and FastCGI without the need for modifications, but scripts that do not (yet) use these APIs do need to be modified, if not rewritten. FastCGI is best explained on its website, www.fastcgi.com, which also contains the Apache module and the API libraries for most languages.

mod_<language>

For several scripting languages (including Perl, Python, PHP, Tcl and Ruby) there are separate interpreter modules that give the language more control over Apache, as well as a performance boost. In general this is done by using specific knowledge about the language, and by keeping the language's Interpreter or Virtual Machine hanging around, passing it scripts as they get invoked. This avoids the execution overhead, and in some languages the compiling phase.

Each of these modules defines a Handler, to which specific file extensions and mime-types can be mapped, so that files of that type automatically get parsed by the right module. Because the interface to the scripts is far more like CGI than FastCGI, CGI scripts often need no or little modification to work properly.

The modules generally also allow embedding the language directly in HTML, using special tags to indicate the start and end of such embedded code. PHP started this trend by being specifically designed for the task. Though the resulting file looks like a HTML page, it should not be thought of as such: it is a script. The performance of the resulting script is often somewhat worse than a normal script that outputs HTML, because the HTML file has to undergo extra parsing to extract the HTML snippets.

The Perl module, mod_perl, can be found at: perl.apache.org.
For Python there are two competing modules, mod_snake and mod_python. mod_snake was originally written for Apache 2.0, has been ported to Apache 1.3 but is currently not being maintained. mod_python provides less functionality, but is also more lightweight because of it.

For Tcl there are actually several modules, each with their own special focus. They can all be found under tcl.apache.org.
PHP is a language that got popular mainly because it was easily embeddable in HTML. It is currently in its fourth incarnation and is still undergoing improvements and expansions. PHP can be found at www.php.net

Ruby is another OO scripting language that is growing in popularity, with its own language module. mod_ruby can be found at www.modruby.net.