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Environment Variables in Apache

The Apache HTTP Server provides a mechanism for storing information in named variables that are called environment variables. This information can be used to control various operations such as logging or access control. The variables are also used as a mechanism to communicate with external programs such as CGI scripts. This document discusses different ways to manipulate and use these variables.

Although these variables are referred to as environment variables, they are not the same as the environment variables controlled by the underlying operating system. Instead, these variables are stored and manipulated in an internal Apache structure. They only become actual operating system environment variables when they are provided to CGI scripts and Server Side Include scripts. If you wish to manipulate the operating system environment under which the server itself runs, you must use the standard environment manipulation mechanisms provided by your operating system shell.


Setting Environment Variables

Basic Environment Manipulation

The most basic way to set an environment variable in Apache is using the unconditional SetEnv directive. Variables may also be passed from the environment of the shell which started the server using the PassEnv directive.

Conditional Per-Request Settings

For additional flexibility, the directives provided by mod_setenvif allow environment variables to be set on a per-request basis, conditional on characteristics of particular requests. For example, a variable could be set only when a specific browser (User-Agent) is making a request, or only when a specific Referer [sic] header is found. Even more flexibility is available through the mod_rewrite's RewriteRule which uses the [E=...] option to set environment variables.

Unique Identifiers

Finally, mod_unique_id sets the environment variable UNIQUE_ID for each request to a value which is guaranteed to be unique across "all" requests under very specific conditions.

Standard CGI Variables

In addition to all environment variables set within the Apache configuration and passed from the shell, CGI scripts and SSI pages are provided with a set of environment variables containing meta-information about the request as required by the CGI specification.

Some Caveats


Using Environment Variables

CGI Scripts

One of the primary uses of environment variables is to communicate information to CGI scripts. As discussed above, the environment passed to CGI scripts includes standard meta-information about the request in addition to any variables set within the Apache configuration. For more details, see the CGI tutorial.

SSI Pages

Server-parsed (SSI) documents processed by mod_include's INCLUDES filter can print environment variables using the echo element, and can use environment variables in flow control elements to makes parts of a page conditional on characteristics of a request. Apache also provides SSI pages with the standard CGI environment variables as discussed above. For more details, see the SSI tutorial.

Access Control

Access to the server can be controlled based on the value of environment variables using the allow from env= and deny from env= directives. In combination with SetEnvIf, this allows for flexible control of access to the server based on characteristics of the client. For example, you can use these directives to deny access to a particular browser (User-Agent).

Conditional Logging

Environment variables can be logged in the access log using the LogFormat option %e. In addition, the decision on whether or not to log requests can be made based on the status of environment variables using the conditional form of the CustomLog directive. In combination with SetEnvIf this allows for flexible control of which requests are logged. For example, you can choose not to log requests for filenames ending in gif, or you can choose to only log requests from clients which are outside your subnet.

Conditional Response Headers

The Header directive can use the presence or absence of an environment variable to determine whether or not a certain HTTP header will be placed in the response to the client. This allows, for example, a certain response header to be sent only if a corresponding header is received in the request from the client.

External Filter Activation

External filters configured by mod_ext_filter using the ExtFilterDefine directive can by activated conditional on an environment variable using the disableenv= and enableenv= options.

URL Rewriting

The %{ENV:...} form of TestString in the RewriteCond allows mod_rewrite's rewrite engine to make decisions conditional on environment variables. Note that the variables accessible in mod_rewrite without the ENV: prefix are not actually environment variables. Rather, they are variables special to mod_rewrite which cannot be accessed from other modules.


Special Purpose Environment Variables

Interoperability problems have led to the introduction of mechanisms to modify the way Apache behaves when talking to particular clients. To make these mechanisms as flexible as possible, they are invoked by defining environment variables, typically with BrowserMatch, though SetEnv and PassEnv could also be used, for example.


This forces the request to be treated as a HTTP/1.0 request even if it was in a later dialect.


This causes any Vary fields to be removed from the response header before it is sent back to the client. Some clients don't interpret this field correctly (see the known client problems page); setting this variable can work around this problem. Setting this variable also implies force-response-1.0.


This forces an HTTP/1.0 response to clients making an HTTP/1.0 request. It was originally implemented as a result of a problem with AOL's proxies. Some HTTP/1.0 clients may not behave correctly when given an HTTP/1.1 response, and this can be used to interoperate with them.


When set to a value of "1", this variable disables the DEFLATE output filter provided by mod_deflate for content-types other than text/html.


When set, the DEFLATE filter of mod_deflate will be turned off.


This disables KeepAlive when set.


This forces the server to be more careful when sending a redirect to the client. This is typically used when a client has a known problem handling redirects. This was originally implemented as a result of a problem with Microsoft's WebFolders software which has a problem handling redirects on directory resources via DAV methods.


Available in versions after 2.0.40

When Apache issues a redirect in response to a client request, the response includes some actual text to be displayed in case the client can't (or doesn't) automatically follow the redirection. Apache ordinarily labels this text according to the character set which it uses, which is ISO-8859-1.

However, if the redirection is to a page that uses a different character set, some broken browser versions will try to use the character set from the redirection text rather than the actual page. This can result in Greek, for instance, being incorrectly rendered.

Setting this environment variable causes Apache to omit the character set for the redirection text, and these broken browsers will then correctly use that of the destination page.



Changing protocol behavior with misbehaving clients

We recommend that the following lines be included in httpd.conf to deal with known client problems.

# The following directives modify normal HTTP response behavior.
# The first directive disables keepalive for Netscape 2.x and browsers that
# spoof it. There are known problems with these browser implementations.
# The second directive is for Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0b2
# which has a broken HTTP/1.1 implementation and does not properly
# support keepalive when it is used on 301 or 302 (redirect) responses.
BrowserMatch "Mozilla/2" nokeepalive
BrowserMatch "MSIE 4\.0b2;" nokeepalive downgrade-1.0 force-response-1.0

# The following directive disables HTTP/1.1 responses to browsers which
# are in violation of the HTTP/1.0 spec by not being able to grok a
# basic 1.1 response.
BrowserMatch "RealPlayer 4\.0" force-response-1.0
BrowserMatch "Java/1\.0" force-response-1.0
BrowserMatch "JDK/1\.0" force-response-1.0

Do not log requests for images in the access log

This example keeps requests for images from appearing in the access log. It can be easily modified to prevent logging of particular directories, or to prevent logging of requests coming from particular hosts.

SetEnvIf Request_URI \.gif image-request
SetEnvIf Request_URI \.jpg image-request
SetEnvIf Request_URI \.png image-request
CustomLog logs/access_log common env=!image-request

Prevent "Image Theft"

This example shows how to keep people not on your server from using images on your server as inline-images on their pages. This is not a recommended configuration, but it can work in limited circumstances. We assume that all your images are in a directory called /web/images.

SetEnvIf Referer "^http://www.example.com/" local_referal
# Allow browsers that do not send Referer info
SetEnvIf Referer "^$" local_referal
<Directory /web/images>
   Order Deny,Allow
   Deny from all
   Allow from env=local_referal

For more information about this technique, see the ApacheToday tutorial " Keeping Your Images from Adorning Other Sites".