We hope you find this tutorial helpful. In addition to guides like this one, we provide simple cloud infrastructure for developers. Learn more →

How To Use SuExec in Apache to run CGI Scripts on an Ubuntu VPS

PostedNovember 1, 2013 90.1k views Apache Perl Security Ubuntu

Status: Deprecated

This article covers a version of Ubuntu that is no longer supported. If you are currently operate a server running Ubuntu 12.04, we highly recommend upgrading or migrating to a supported version of Ubuntu:

Reason: Ubuntu 12.04 reached end of life (EOL) on April 28, 2017 and no longer receives security patches or updates. This guide is no longer maintained.

See Instead:
This guide might still be useful as a reference, but may not work on other Ubuntu releases. If available, we strongly recommend using a guide written for the version of Ubuntu you are using. You can use the search functionality at the top of the page to find a more recent version.

Introduction


The Apache web server is the most popular web server in the world. It can be used to deliver static and dynamic web content to visitors in a multitude of different contexts.

One of the most common ways of generating dynamic content is through the use of CGI, or the common gateway interface. This provides a standard way of executing scripts that generate web content that can written in a variety of programming languages.

Running any kind of executable code within a web-space comes with a certain amount of risk. In this guide, we will demonstrate how to implement CGI scripting with the suexec module, which allows you to run scripts in a way that doesn't elevate privileges unnecessarily.

Prerequisites


In this guide, we will be configuring an Ubuntu 12.04 VPS with a standard LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) installation. We assume that you have already installed these basic components and have them working in a basic configuration.

To learn how to install a LAMP stack on Ubuntu, click here.

We will be referencing the software as it is in its initial state following that tutorial.

How To Enable CGI Scripts


In Ubuntu's Apache configuration, CGI scripts are actually already configured within a specific CGI directory. This directory is empty by default.

CGI scripts can be any program that has the ability to output HTML or other objects or formats that a web browser can render.

If we go to the Apache configuration directory, and look at the modules that Apache has enabled in the mods-enabled directory, we will find a file that enables this functionality:

less /etc/apache2/mods-enabled/cgi.load

LoadModule cgi_module /usr/lib/apache2/modules/mod_cgi.so

This file contains the directive that enables the CGI module. This allows us to use this functionality in our configurations.

Although the module is loaded, it does not actually serve any script content on its own. It must be enabled within a specific web environment explicitly.

We will look at the default Apache virtual host file to see how it does this:

sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/000-default

While we are in here, let's set the server name to reference our domain name or IP address:

<VirutalHost *:80>
    ServerName your_domain_or_IP_address
    ServerAdmin your_email_address
. . .

We can see a bit down in the file the part that is applicable to CGI scripts:

ScriptAlias /cgi-bin/ /usr/lib/cgi-bin/
<Directory "/usr/lib/cgi-bin">
    AllowOverride None
    Options +ExecCGI -MultiViews +SymLinksIfOwnerMatch
    Order allow,deny
    Allow from all
</Directory>

Let's break down what this portion of the configuration is doing.

The ScriptAlias directive gives Apache permission to execute the scripts contained in a specific directory. In this case, the directory is /usr/lib/cgi-bin/. While the second argument gives the file path to the script directory, the first argument, /cgi-bin/, provides the URL path.

This means that a script called "script.pl" located in the /usr/lib/cgi-bin directory would be executed when you access:

your_domain.com/cgi-bin/script.pl

Its output would be returned to the web browser to render a page.

The Directory container contains rules that apply to the /usr/lib/cgi-bin directory. You will notice an option that mentions CGI:

Options +ExecCGI ...

This option is actually unnecessary since we are setting up options for a directory that has already been declared a CGI directory by ScriptAlias. It does not hurt though, so you can keep it as it is.

If you wished to put CGI files in a directory outside of the ScriptAlias, you will have to add these two options to the directory section:

Options +ExecCGI
AddHandler cgi-script .pl .rb [extensions to be treated as CGI scripts]

When you are done examining the file, save and close it. If you made any changes, restart the web server:

sudo service apache2 restart

Make a Test CGI Script


We will create a basic, trivial CGI script to show the steps necessary to get a script to execute correctly.

As we saw in the last section, the directory designated in our configuration for CGI scripts is /usr/lib/cgi-bin. This directory is not writeable by non-root users, so we will have to use sudo:

sudo nano /usr/lib/cgi-bin/test.pl

We gave the file a ".pl" extension because this will be a Perl script, but Apache will attempt to run any file within this directory and will pass it to the appropriate program based on its first line.

We will specify that the script should be interpreted by Perl by starting the script with:

#!/usr/bin/perl

Following this, the first thing that the script must output is the content-type that will be generated. This is necessary so that the web browser knows how to display the output it is given. We will print out the HTML content type, which is "text/html", using Perl's regular print function.

print "Content-type: text/html\n\n";

After this, we can do whatever functions or calculations are necessary to produce the text that we want on our website. In our example, we will not produce anything that wouldn't be easier as just plain HTML, but you can see that this allows for dynamic content if your script was more complex.

The previous two components and our actual HTML content combine to make the following script:

#!/usr/bin/perl
print "Content-type: text/html\n\n";

print "<html><head><title>Hello There...</title></head>";

print "<body>";

print "<h1>Hello, World.</h1><hr>";
print "<p>This is some regular text.</p>";
print "<p>The possibilities are great.</p>";

print "</body></html>";

Save and close the file.

Now, we have a file, but it isn't marked as executable. Let's change that:

sudo chmod 755 /usr/lib/cgi-bin/test.pl

Now, if we navigate to our domain name, followed by the CGI directory (/cgi-bin/), followed by our script name (test.pl), we should see the output of our script.

Point your browser to:

your_domain.com/cgi-bin/test.pl

You should see something that looks like this:

Sample CGI application

Not very exciting, but rendered correctly.

If we choose to view the source of the page, we will see only the arguments given to the print functions, minus the content-type header:

CGI page source

How To Enable SuExec


There are some security concerns implicit in setting a script as executable by anybody. Ideally, a script should only be able to be executed by a single, locked down user. We can set up this situation by using the suexec module.

We will actually install a modified suexec module that allows us to configure the directories in which it operates. Normally, this would not be configurable without recompiling from source.

Install the alternate module with this command:

sudo apt-get install apache2-suexec-custom

Now, we can enable the module by typing:

sudo a2enmod suexec

Next, we will create a new user that will own our script files. If we have multiple sites being served, each can have their own user and group:

sudo adduser script_user

Feel free to enter through all of the prompts (including the password prompt). This user does not need to be fleshed out.

Next, let's create a scripts directory within this new user's home directory:

sudo mkdir /home/script_user/scripts

Suexec requires very strict control over who can write to the directory. Let's transfer ownership to the script_user user and change the permissions so that no one else can write to the directory:

sudo chown script_user:script_user /home/script_user/scripts
sudo chmod 755 /home/script_user/scripts

Next, let's create a script file and copy and paste our script from above into it:

sudo -u script_user nano /home/script_user/scripts/attempt.pl

#!/usr/bin/perl
print "Content-type: text/html\n\n";

print "<html><head><title>Hello There...</title></head>";

print "<body>";

print "<h1>Hello, World.</h1><hr>";
print "<p>This is some regular text.</p>";
print "<p>The possibilities are great.</p>";

print "</body></html>";

Make it executable next. We will only let our script_user have any permissions on the file. This is what the suexec module allows us to do:

sudo chmod 700 /home/script_user/scripts/attempt.pl

Next, we will edit our Apache virtual host configuration to allow scripts to be executed by our new user.

Open the default virtual host file:

sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/000-default

First, let's make our CGI directory. Instead of using the ScriptAlias directive, as we did above, let's demonstrate how to use the regular Alias directory combined with the ExecCGI option and the SetHandler directive.

Add this section:

Alias /scripts/ /home/script_user/scripts/
<Directory "/home/script_user/scripts">
    Options +ExecCGI
    SetHandler cgi-script
</Directory>

This allows us to access our CGI scripts by going to the "/scripts" sub-directory. To enable the suexec capabilities, add this line outside of the "Directory" section, but within the "VirtualHost" section:

SuexecUserGroup script_user script_user

Save and close the file.

We also need to specify the places that suexec will consider a valid directory. This is what our customizable version of suexec allows us to do. Open the suexec configuration file:

sudo nano /etc/apache2/suexec/www-data

At the top of this file, we just need to add the path to our scripts directory.

/home/script_user/scripts/

Save and close the file.

Now, all that's left to do is restart the web server:

sudo service apache2 restart

If we open our browser and navigate here, we can see the results of our script:

your_domain.com/scripts/attempt.pl

Suexec example page

Please note that with suexec configured, your normal CGI directory will not work properly, because it does not pass the rigorous tests that suexec requires. This is intended behavior to control what permissions scripts have.

Conclusion


You can now create scripts and execute them in a relatively secure way. CGI scripts are very helpful for quickly including dynamic content on your site. Suexec allows you to lock down this ability for greater security.

Be careful when using suexec, because it can actually create more security vulnerabilities if it is configured incorrectly. To learn about the potential vulnerabilities of this set up, research setuid configuration.

By Justin Ellingwood
Creative Commons License