Apache httpd Reverse Proxy

Posted by Jim Jagielski on Tuesday, January 26. 2016 in ASF, Open Source, Programming

I've always considered the reverse proxy capability of Apache httpd as one of the real (hidden) gems of the web server. Of course, httpd has a lot of gems: multiple MPMs; a plethora of content creation and rewriting capabilities; dynamic loadable modules; performance and concurrency easily matching its peers; in-depth Lua, Perl and PHP support; and, of course, the vast number of external, 3rd party modules out there. But, for me, the reverse proxy has always been one of its crowning achievements.

So even though Apache httpd excels at delivering both static and dynamic content, an extremely common use-case is for httpd to be used as a "simple" reverse proxy (aka: "gateway"). In this scenario, httpd acts basically like a switch, accepting requests but handing those requests off to servers on the backend. Those backend servers ("origin servers") are where the content really lives, or is created, but the outside never sees them; never even knows they exists. As far as the Web is concerned, that front end gateway is sole server.

The advantages of this setup are numerous and obvious; The implementation provides for high-availability, load balancing, failover, reliability, etc... but only if the gateway web server, the reverse proxy itself, has that capability. Fortunately, Apache httpd does. It has all that and more.

Because it is such a common use-case, and because this capability to so vital to the design and architecture of enterprise web infrastructure, including Cloud setups, I've focused a lot of adding features and improvements to httpd's reverse proxy. Along with the other committers on the httpd project, not only has load balancing been added (and has been for quite awhile), but there are various load balancing methods included, with the ability to add your own implementation very easily. With the balancer-manager, the devops admin gets not only a view into the current state of the reverse proxy, but can also dynamically change various reverse proxy parameters on-the-fly, with these changes surviving a server restart. The reverse proxy supports not only HTTP, but also FastCGI, Websockets, AJP and others. And just recently, I finished work on something that has been on my TODO list for awhile, and something people have wanted for awhile as well: Dynamic Health Checking.

In the normal situations, before httpd sends a request to the backend origin server, it checks to see if it is still "alive" and able to handle the request. Now this is great but it would be even better if, in parallel, httpd was also checking if those backend servers were alive or not independent of requests being passed to them. In other words, not only static health checks but also dynamic checks as well.

Well, now Apache httpd can do exactly that.

Right now this capability exists just on the trunk branch of the server, but I anticipate it being fast-tracked backported to the 2.4.x branch. There are also some addition features I'd like to add in, such as better interaction with the balancer-manager before it is backported. But before too long, the Apache httpd reverse proxy will have this capability and be even better than it is now, and continuing to be even better than its peers, whether they are Open Core or commericial or truly Open Source.

Try it out! And if you are interested in helping develop Apache httpd, jump in and join the fun. Unlike other web server projects, contributor and commit privs can obtained by anyone, not just specially picked people, like "employees" or stuff.

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