How To Set Up Apache Virtual Hosts on Ubuntu 18.04

Introduction

The Apache web server is a popular method for serving websites on the internet. As of 2019, it is estimated to serve 29% of all active websites and it offers robustness and flexibility for developers. Using Apache, an administrator can set up one server to host multiple domains or sites off of a single interface or IP by using a matching system.

Each domain or individual site — known as a “virtual host” — that is configured using Apache will direct the visitor to a specific directory holding that site’s information. This is done without indicating that the same server is also responsible for other sites. This scheme is expandable without any software limit as long as your server can handle the load. The basic unit that describes an individual site or domain is called a virtual host.

In this guide, we will walk you through how to set up Apache virtual hosts on an Ubuntu 18.04 server. During this process, you’ll learn how to serve different content to different visitors depending on which domains they are requesting.

Prerequisites

Before you begin this tutorial, you should create a non-root user.

You will also need to have Apache installed in order to work through these steps. If you haven’t already done so, you can get Apache installed on your server through the apt package manner:

  • sudo apt update
  • sudo apt install apache2

If you would like more detailed instructions as well as firewall setup, please refer to our guide How To Install the Apache Web Server on Ubuntu 18.04.

For the purposes of this guide, our configuration will make a virtual host for example.com and another for test.com. These will be referenced throughout the guide, but you should substitute your own domains or values while following along.

If you are using DigitalOcean, you can learn how to set up domains by following the product documentation, How to Add Domains. For other providers, refer to their relevant product documentation If you do not have domains available at this time, you can use test values.

We will show how to edit your local hosts file later on to test the configuration if you are using test values. This will allow you to validate your configuration from your home computer, even though your content won’t be available through the domain name to other visitors.

Step One — Create the Directory Structure

The first step that we are going to take is to make a directory structure that will hold the site data that we will be serving to visitors.

Our document root (the top-level directory that Apache looks at to find content to serve) will be set to individual directories under the /var/www directory. We will create a directory here for both of the virtual hosts we plan on making.

Within each of these directories, we will create a public_html folder that will hold our actual files. This gives us some flexibility in our hosting.

For instance, for our sites, we’re going to make our directories as follows. If you are using actual domains or alternate values, swap out the highlighted text for these.

  • sudo mkdir -p /var/www/example.com/public_html
  • sudo mkdir -p /var/www/test.com/public_html

The portions in red represent the domain names that we want to serve from our VPS.

Step Two — Grant Permissions

Now we have the directory structure for our files, but they are owned by our root user. If we want our regular user to be able to modify files in our web directories, we can change the ownership by doing this:

  • sudo chown -R $USER:$USER /var/www/example.com/public_html
  • sudo chown -R $USER:$USER /var/www/test.com/public_html

The $USER variable will take the value of the user you are currently logged in as when you press ENTER. By doing this, our regular user now owns the public_html subdirectories where we will be storing our content.

We should also modify our permissions to ensure that read access is permitted to the general web directory and all of the files and folders it contains so that pages can be served correctly:

  • sudo chmod -R 755 /var/www

Your web server should now have the permissions it needs to serve content, and your user should be able to create content within the necessary folders.

Step Three — Create Demo Pages for Each Virtual Host

We now have our directory structure in place. Let’s create some content to serve.

For demonstration purposes, we’ll make an index.html page for each site.

Let’s begin with example.com. We can open up an index.html file in a text editor, in this case we’ll use nano:

  • nano /var/www/example.com/public_html/index.html

Within this file, create an HTML document that indicates the site it is connected to, like the following:

/var/www/example.com/public_html/index.html
<html>
  <head>
    <title>Welcome to Example.com!</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <h1>Success! The example.com virtual host is working!</h1>
  </body>
</html>

Save and close the file (in nano, press CTRL + X then Y then ENTER) when you are finished.

We can copy this file to use as the basis for our second site by typing:

  • cp /var/www/example.com/public_html/index.html /var/www/test.com/public_html/index.html

We can then open the file and modify the relevant pieces of information:

  • nano /var/www/test.com/public_html/index.html
/var/www/test.com/public_html/index.html
<html>
  <head>
    <title>Welcome to Test.com!</title>
  </head>
  <body> <h1>Success! The test.com virtual host is working!</h1>
  </body>
</html>

Save and close this file as well. You now have the pages necessary to test the virtual host configuration.

Step Four — Create New Virtual Host Files

Virtual host files are the files that specify the actual configuration of our virtual hosts and dictate how the Apache web server will respond to various domain requests.

Apache comes with a default virtual host file called 000-default.conf that we can use as a jumping off point. We are going to copy it over to create a virtual host file for each of our domains.

We will start with one domain, configure it, copy it for our second domain, and then make the few further adjustments needed. The default Ubuntu configuration requires that each virtual host file end in .conf.

Create the First Virtual Host File

Start by copying the file for the first domain:

  • sudo cp /etc/apache2/sites-available/000-default.conf /etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf

Open the new file in your editor with root privileges:

  • sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf

With comments removed, the file will look similar to this:

/etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf
<VirtualHost *:80>
    ServerAdmin webmaster@localhost
    DocumentRoot /var/www/html
    ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/error.log
    CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/access.log combined
</VirtualHost>

Within this file, we will customize the items for our first domain and add some additional directives. This virtual host section matches any requests that are made on port 80, the default HTTP port.

First, we need to change the ServerAdmin directive to an email that the site administrator can receive emails through.

ServerAdmin admin@example.com

After this, we need to add two directives. The first, called ServerName, establishes the base domain that should match for this virtual host definition. This will most likely be your domain. The second, called ServerAlias, defines further names that should match as if they were the base name. This is useful for matching hosts you defined, like www:

ServerName example.com
ServerAlias www.example.com

The only other thing we need to change for our virtual host file is the location of the document root for this domain. We already created the directory we need, so we just need to alter the DocumentRoot directive to reflect the directory we created:

DocumentRoot /var/www/example.com/public_html

When complete, our virtual host file should look like this:

/etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf
<VirtualHost *:80>
    ServerAdmin admin@example.com
    ServerName example.com
    ServerAlias www.example.com
    DocumentRoot /var/www/example.com/public_html
    ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/error.log
    CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/access.log combined
</VirtualHost>

At this point, save and close the file.

Copy First Virtual Host and Customize for Second Domain

Now that we have our first virtual host file established, we can create our second one by copying that file and adjusting it as needed.

Start by copying it:

  • sudo cp /etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf /etc/apache2/sites-available/test.com.conf

Open the new file with root privileges in your editor:

  • sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-available/test.com.conf

You now need to modify all of the pieces of information to reference your second domain. When you are finished, it should look like this:

/etc/apache2/sites-available/test.com.conf
<VirtualHost *:80>
    ServerAdmin admin@test.com
    ServerName test.com
    ServerAlias www.test.com
    DocumentRoot /var/www/test.com/public_html
    ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/error.log
    CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/access.log combined
</VirtualHost>

Save and close the file when you are finished.

Step Five — Enable the New Virtual Host Files

Now that we have created our virtual host files, we must enable them. Apache includes some tools that allow us to do this.

We’ll be using the a2ensite tool to enable each of our sites. If you would like to read more about this script, you can refer to the a2ensite documentation.

  • sudo a2ensite example.com.conf
  • sudo a2ensite test.com.conf

Next, disable the default site defined in 000-default.conf:

  • sudo a2dissite 000-default.conf

When you are finished, you need to restart Apache to make these changes take effect and use systemctl status to verify the success of the restart.

  • sudo systemctl restart apache2
  • sudo systemctl status apache2

Your server should now be set up to serve two websites.

Step Six — Set Up Local Hosts File (Optional)

If you haven’t been using actual domain names that you own to test this procedure and have been using some example domains instead, you can at least test the functionality of this process by temporarily modifying the hosts file on your local computer.

This will intercept any requests for the domains that you configured and point them to your VPS server, just as the DNS system would do if you were using registered domains. This will only work from your local computer though, and only for testing purposes.

Make sure you are operating on your local computer for these steps and not your VPS server. You will need to know the computer’s administrative password or otherwise be a member of the administrative group.

If you are on a Mac or Linux computer, edit your local file with administrative privileges by typing:

  • sudo nano /etc/hosts

If you are on a Windows machine, you can find instructions on altering your hosts file here.

The details that you need to add are the public IP address of your server followed by the domain you want to use to reach that server.

Using the domains used in this guide, and replacing your server IP for the your_server_IP text, your file should look like this:

/etc/hosts
127.0.0.1   localhost
127.0.1.1   guest-desktop
your_server_IP example.com
your_server_IP test.com

Save and close the file.

This will direct any requests for example.com and test.com on our computer and send them to our server. This is what we want if we are not actually the owners of these domains in order to test our virtual hosts.

Step Seven — Test your Results

Now that you have your virtual hosts configured, you can test your setup by going to the domains that you configured in your web browser:

http://example.com

You should see a page that looks like this:

Apache virtual host example

You can also visit your second page and see the file you created for your second site.

http://test.com

Apache virtual host test

If both of these sites work as expected, you’ve successfully configured two virtual hosts on the same server.

If you adjusted your home computer’s hosts file, you may want to delete the lines you added now that you verified that your configuration works. This will prevent your hosts file from being filled with entries that are no longer necessary.

If you need to access this long term, consider adding a domain name for each site you need and setting it up to point to your server.

Conclusion

If you followed along, you should now have a single server handling two separate domain names. You can expand this process by following the steps we outlined above to make additional virtual hosts.

There is no software limit on the number of domain names Apache can handle, so feel free to make as many as your server is capable of handling.

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