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2.3 Multi-Processing Modules

At the end of the start-up phase, after the configuration has been read, overall control of Apache passes to a Multi-Processing Module. The MPM provides the interface between the running Apache server and the underlying operating system. Its primary role is to optimize Apache for each platform, while ensuring the server runs efficiently and securely.

As indicated by the name, the MPM is itself a module. But the MPM is uniquely a systems-level module (so developing an MPM falls outside the scope of a book on applications development). Also uniquely, every Apache instance must contain exactly one MPM, which is selected at build-time.

2.3.1 Why MPMs?

The old NCSA server, and Apache 1, grew up in a UNIX environment. It was a multiprocess server, where each client would be serviced by one server instance. If there were more concurrent clients than server processes, Apache would fork additional server processes to deal with them. Under normal operation, Apache would maintain a pool of available server processes to deal with incoming requests.

Whereas this scheme works well on UNIX-family1 systems, it is an inefficient solution on platforms such as Windows, where forking a process is an expensive operation. So making Apache truly cross-platform required another solution. The approach adopted for Apache 2 is to turn the core processing into a pluggable module, the MPM, which can be optimized for different environments. The MPM architecture also allows different Apache models to coexist even within a single operating system, thus providing users with options for different usages.

In practice, only UNIX-family operating systems offer a useful2 choice: Other supported platforms (Windows, Netware, OS/2, BeOS) have a single MPM optimized for each platform. UNIX has two production-quality MPMs (Prefork and Worker) available as standard, a third (Event) that is thought to be stable for non-SSL uses in Apache 2.2, and several experimental options unsuitable for production use. Third-party MPMs are also available.

2.3.2 The UNIX-Family MPMs

  • The Prefork MPM is a nonthreaded model essentially similar to Apache 1.x. It is a safe option in all cases, and for servers running non-thread-safe software such as PHP, it is the only safe option. For some applications, including many of those popular with Apache 1.3 (e.g., simple static pages, CGI scripts), this MPM may be as good as anything.3
  • The Worker MPM is a threaded model, whose advantages include lower memory usage (important on busy servers) and much greater scalability than that provided by Prefork in certain types of applications. We will discuss some of these cases later when we introduce SQL database support and mod_dbd.
  • Both of the stable MPMs suffer from a limitation that affects very busy servers. Whereas HTTP Keepalive is necessary to reduce TCP connection and network overhead, it ties up a server process or thread while the keepalive is active. As a consequence, a very busy server may run out of available threads. The Event MPM is a new model that deals with this problem by decoupling the server thread from the connection. Cases where the Event MPM may prove most useful are servers with extremely high hit rates but for which the server processing is fast, so that the number of available threads is a critical resource limitation. A busy server with the Worker MPM may sustain tens of thousands of hits per second (as happens, for example, with popular news outlets at peak times), but the Event MPM might help to handle high loads more easily. Note that the Event MPM will not work with secure HTTP (HTTPS).
  • There are also several experimental MPMs for UNIX that are not, at the time of this book's writing, under active development; they may or may not ever be completed. The Perchild MPM promised a much-requested feature: It runs servers for different virtual hosts under different user IDs. Several alternatives offer similar features, including the third-party Metux4 and Peruser5 MPMs, and (for Linux only) mod_ruid.6 For running external programs, other options include fastcgi/mod_fcgid7 and suexec (CGI). The author does not have personal knowledge of these third-party solutions and so cannot make recommendations about them.

2.3.3 Working with MPMs and Operating Systems

The one-sentence summary: MPMs are invisible to applications and should be ignored!

Applications developed for Apache should normally be MPM-agnostic. Given that MPM internals are not part of the API, this is basically straightforward, provided programmers observe basic rules of good practice (namely, write thread-safe, cross-process-safe, reentrant code), as briefly discussed in Chapter 4. This issue is closely related to the broader question of developing platform-independent code. Indeed, it is sometimes useful to regard the MPM, rather than the operating system, as the applications platform.

Sometimes an application is naturally better suited to some MPMs than others. For example, database-driven or load-balancing applications benefit substantially from connection pooling (discussed later in this book) and therefore from a threaded MPM. In contrast, forking a child process (the original CGI implementation or mod_ext_filter) creates greater overhead in a threaded program and, therefore, works best with the Prefork MPM. Nevertheless, an application should work even when used with a suboptimal MPM, unless there are compelling reasons to limit it.

If you wish to run Apache on an operating system that is not yet supported, the main task is to add support for your target platform to the APR, which provides the operating system layer. A custom MPM may or may not be necessary, but is likely to deliver better performance than an existing one. From the point of view of Apache, this is a systems programming task, and hence it falls outside the scope of an applications development book.

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