An In-Depth Discussion of Virtual Host Matching
The virtual host code was completely rewritten in
Apache 1.3. This document attempts to explain
exactly what Apache does when deciding what virtual host to
serve a hit from. With the help of the new
directive virtual host configuration should be a lot easier and
safer than with versions prior to 1.3.
If you just want to make it work without
understanding how, here are some
There is a main_server which consists of all the
definitions appearing outside of
<VirtualHost> sections. There are virtual
servers, called vhosts, which are defined by
can appear anywhere within the definition of a server. However,
each appearance overrides the previous appearance (within that
The default value of the
Listen field for
main_server is 80. The main_server has no default
ServerName is deduced from the servers IP
The main_server Listen directive has two functions. One
function is to determine the default network port Apache will
bind to. The second function is to specify the port number
which is used in absolute URIs during redirects.
Unlike the main_server, vhost ports do not affect
what ports Apache listens for connections on.
Each address appearing in the
directive can have an optional port. If the port is unspecified
it defaults to the value of the main_server's most recent
Listen statement. The special port
indicates a wildcard that matches any port. Collectively the
entire set of addresses (including multiple
record results from DNS lookups) are called the vhost's
directive is used for a specific IP address the first vhost
with that address is treated as an IP-based vhost. The IP
address can also be the wildcard
If name-based vhosts should be used a
NameVirtualHost directive must appear
with the IP address set to be used for the name-based vhosts.
In other words, you must specify the IP address that holds the
hostname aliases (CNAMEs) for your name-based vhosts via a
NameVirtualHost directive in your configuration
NameVirtualHost directives can be used
each with a set of
VirtualHost directives but only
NameVirtualHost directive should be used for
each specific IP:port pair.
The ordering of
VirtualHost directives is not important which
makes the following two examples identical (only the order of
VirtualHost directives for one
address set is important, see below):
# server A
# server B
# server C
# server D
# server A
# server C
# server B
# server D
(To aid the readability of your configuration you should
prefer the left variant.)
After parsing the
VirtualHost directive, the
vhost server is given a default
Listen equal to the
port assigned to the first name in its
The complete list of names in the
directive are treated just like a
are not overridden by any
if all names resolve to the same address set. Note that
Listen statements for this vhost will not
affect the ports assigned in the address set.
During initialization a list for each IP address is
generated and inserted into an hash table. If the IP address is
used in a
NameVirtualHost directive the list
contains all name-based vhosts for the given IP address. If
there are no vhosts defined for that address the
NameVirtualHost directive is ignored and an error
is logged. For an IP-based vhost the list in the hash table is
Due to a fast hashing function the overhead of hashing an IP
address during a request is minimal and almost not existent.
Additionally the table is optimized for IP addresses which vary
in the last octet.
For every vhost various default values are set. In
- If a vhost has no
directive then the respective value is inherited from the
main_server. (That is, inherited from whatever the final
setting of that value is in the main_server.)
- The "lookup defaults" that define the default directory
permissions for a vhost are merged with those of the
main_server. This includes any per-directory configuration
information for any module.
- The per-server configs for each module from the
main_server are merged into the vhost server.
Essentially, the main_server is treated as "defaults" or a
"base" on which to build each vhost. But the positioning of
these main_server definitions in the config file is largely
irrelevant -- the entire config of the main_server has been
parsed when this final merging occurs. So even if a main_server
definition appears after a vhost definition it might affect the
If the main_server has no
ServerName at this
point, then the hostname of the machine that httpd is running
on is used instead. We will call the main_server address
set those IP addresses returned by a DNS lookup on the
ServerName of the main_server.
For any undefined
ServerName fields, a
name-based vhost defaults to the address given first in the
VirtualHost statement defining the vhost.
Any vhost that includes the magic
wildcard is given the same
ServerName as the
The server determines which vhost to use for a request as
When the connection is first made by a client, the IP
address to which the client connected is looked up in the
internal IP hash table.
If the lookup fails (the IP address wasn't found) the
request is served from the
_default_ vhost if
there is such a vhost for the port to which the client sent the
request. If there is no matching
the request is served from the main_server.
If the IP address is not found in the hash table then the
match against the port number may also result in an entry
corresponding to a
NameVirtualHost *, which is
subsequently handled like other name-based vhosts.
If the lookup succeeded (a corresponding list for the IP
address was found) the next step is to decide if we have to
deal with an IP-based or a name-base vhost.
If the entry we found has an empty name list then we have
found an IP-based vhost, no further actions are performed and
the request is served from that vhost.
If the entry corresponds to a name-based vhost the name list
contains one or more vhost structures. This list contains the
vhosts in the same order as the
directives appear in the config file.
The first vhost on this list (the first vhost in the config
file with the specified IP address) has the highest priority
and catches any request to an unknown server name or a request
Host: header field.
If the client provided a
Host: header field the
list is searched for a matching vhost and the first hit on a
ServerAlias is taken
and the request is served from that vhost. A
header field can contain a port number, but Apache always
matches against the real port to which the client sent the
If the client submitted a HTTP/1.0 request without
Host: header field we don't know to what server
the client tried to connect and any existing
ServerPath is matched against the URI from the
request. The first matching path on the list is used and the
request is served from that vhost.
If no matching vhost could be found the request is served
from the first vhost with a matching port number that is on the
list for the IP to which the client connected (as already
The IP lookup described above is only done once for a
particular TCP/IP session while the name lookup is done on
every request during a KeepAlive/persistent
connection. In other words a client may request pages from
different name-based vhosts during a single persistent
If the URI from the request is an absolute URI, and its
hostname and port match the main server or one of the
configured virtual hosts and match the address and
port to which the client sent the request, then the
scheme/hostname/port prefix is stripped off and the remaining
relative URI is served by the corresponding main server or
virtual host. If it does not match, then the URI remains
untouched and the request is taken to be a proxy request.
- A name-based vhost can never interfere with an IP-base
vhost and vice versa. IP-based vhosts can only be reached
through an IP address of its own address set and never
through any other address. The same applies to name-based
vhosts, they can only be reached through an IP address of the
corresponding address set which must be defined with a
checks are never performed for an IP-based vhost.
- The order of name-/IP-based, the
vhost and the
NameVirtualHost directive within
the config file is not important. Only the ordering of
name-based vhosts for a specific address set is significant.
The one name-based vhosts that comes first in the
configuration file has the highest priority for its
corresponding address set.
- For security reasons the port number given in a
Host: header field is never used during the
matching process. Apache always uses the real port to which
the client sent the request.
- If a
ServerPath directive exists which is a
prefix of another
ServerPath directive that
appears later in the configuration file, then the former will
always be matched and the latter will never be matched. (That
is assuming that no
Host: header field was
available to disambiguate the two.)
- If two IP-based vhosts have an address in common, the
vhost appearing first in the config file is always matched.
Such a thing might happen inadvertently. The server will give
a warning in the error logfile when it detects this.
_default_ vhost catches a request only if
there is no other vhost with a matching IP address
and a matching port number for the request. The
request is only caught if the port number to which the client
sent the request matches the port number of your
_default_ vhost which is your standard
Listen by default. A wildcard port can be
_default_:*) to catch
requests to any available port. This also applies to
NameVirtualHost * vhosts.
- The main_server is only used to serve a request if the IP
address and port number to which the client connected is
unspecified and does not match any other vhost (including a
_default_ vhost). In other words the main_server
only catches a request for an unspecified address/port
combination (unless there is a
which matches that port).
_default_ vhost or the main_server is
never matched for a request with an unknown or
Host: header field if the client
connected to an address (and port) which is used for
name-based vhosts, e.g., in a
- You should never specify DNS names in
VirtualHost directives because it will force
your server to rely on DNS to boot. Furthermore it poses a
security threat if you do not control the DNS for all the
domains listed. There's more
information available on this and the next two
ServerName should always be set for each
vhost. Otherwise A DNS lookup is required for each
In addition to the tips on the DNS Issues page, here are
some further tips:
- Place all main_server definitions before any
VirtualHost definitions. (This is to aid the
readability of the configuration -- the post-config merging
process makes it non-obvious that definitions mixed in around
virtual hosts might affect all virtual hosts.)
- Group corresponding
VirtualHost definitions in your configuration to
ensure better readability.
ServerPaths which are prefixes of
ServerPaths. If you cannot avoid this then
you have to ensure that the longer (more specific) prefix
vhost appears earlier in the configuration file than the
shorter (less specific) prefix (i.e., "ServerPath
/abc" should appear after "ServerPath /abc/def").