• 12/10/2003

Apache module mod_rewrite

This module provides a rule-based rewriting engine to rewrite requested URLs on the fly.

Status: Extension
Source File: mod_rewrite.c
Module Identifier: rewrite_module
Compatibility: Available in Apache 1.2 and later.


“The great thing about mod_rewrite is it gives you all the configurability and flexibility of Sendmail. The downside to mod_rewrite is that it gives you all the configurability and flexibility of Sendmail.”

— Brian Behlendorf
Apache Group

“ Despite the tons of examples and docs, mod_rewrite is voodoo. Damned cool voodoo, but still voodoo. ”

— Brian Moore

Welcome to mod_rewrite, the Swiss Army Knife of URL manipulation!

This module uses a rule-based rewriting engine (based on a regular-expression parser) to rewrite requested URLs on the fly. It supports an unlimited number of rules and an unlimited number of attached rule conditions for each rule to provide a really flexible and powerful URL manipulation mechanism. The URL manipulations can depend on various tests, for instance server variables, environment variables, HTTP headers, time stamps and even external database lookups in various formats can be used to achieve a really granular URL matching.

This module operates on the full URLs (including the path-info part) both in per-server context (httpd.conf) and per-directory context (.htaccess) and can even generate query-string parts on result. The rewritten result can lead to internal sub-processing, external request redirection or even to an internal proxy throughput.

But all this functionality and flexibility has its drawback: complexity. So don’t expect to understand this entire module in just one day.

This module was invented and originally written in April 1996
and gifted exclusively to the The Apache Group in July 1997 by

Ralf S. Engelschall

Table Of Contents

Internal Processing

  • API Phases
  • Ruleset Processing
  • Regex Back-Reference Availability

Configuration Directives Miscellaneous

  • Environment Variables
  • Practical Solutions

The internal processing of this module is very complex but needs to be explained once even to the average user to avoid common mistakes and to let you exploit its full functionality.

API Phases

First you have to understand that when Apache processes a HTTP request it does this in phases. A hook for each of these phases is provided by the Apache API. Mod_rewrite uses two of these hooks: the URL-to-filename translation hook which is used after the HTTP request has been read but before any authorization starts and the Fixup hook which is triggered after the authorization phases and after the per-directory config files (.htaccess) have been read, but before the content handler is activated.

So, after a request comes in and Apache has determined the corresponding server (or virtual server) the rewriting engine starts processing of all mod_rewrite directives from the per-server configuration in the URL-to-filename phase. A few steps later when the final data directories are found, the per-directory configuration directives of mod_rewrite are triggered in the Fixup phase. In both situations mod_rewrite rewrites URLs either to new URLs or to filenames, although there is no obvious distinction between them. This is a usage of the API which was not intended to be this way when the API was designed, but as of Apache 1.x this is the only way mod_rewrite can operate. To make this point more clear remember the following two points:

  1. Although mod_rewrite rewrites URLs to URLs, URLs to filenames and even filenames to filenames, the API currently provides only a URL-to-filename hook. In Apache 2.0 the two missing hooks will be added to make the processing more clear. But this point has no drawbacks for the user, it is just a fact which should be remembered: Apache does more in the URL-to-filename hook than the API intends for it.
  2. Unbelievably mod_rewrite provides URL manipulations in per-directory context, i.e., within .htaccess files, although these are reached a very long time after the URLs have been translated to filenames. It has to be this way because .htaccess files live in the filesystem, so processing has already reached this stage. In other words: According to the API phases at this time it is too late for any URL manipulations. To overcome this chicken and egg problem mod_rewrite uses a trick: When you manipulate a URL/filename in per-directory context mod_rewrite first rewrites the filename back to its corresponding URL (which is usually impossible, but see the RewriteBase directive below for the trick to achieve this) and then initiates a new internal sub-request with the new URL. This restarts processing of the API phases.

    Again mod_rewrite tries hard to make this complicated step totally transparent to the user, but you should remember here: While URL manipulations in per-server context are really fast and efficient, per-directory rewrites are slow and inefficient due to this chicken and egg problem. But on the other hand this is the only way mod_rewrite can provide (locally restricted) URL manipulations to the average user.

Don’t forget these two points!

Ruleset Processing

Now when mod_rewrite is triggered in these two API phases, it reads the configured rulesets from its configuration structure (which itself was either created on startup for per-server context or during the directory walk of the Apache kernel for per-directory context). Then the URL rewriting engine is started with the contained ruleset (one or more rules together with their conditions). The operation of the URL rewriting engine itself is exactly the same for both configuration contexts. Only the final result processing is different.

The order of rules in the ruleset is important because the rewriting engine processes them in a special (and not very obvious) order. The rule is this: The rewriting engine loops through the ruleset rule by rule (RewriteRule directives) and when a particular rule matches it optionally loops through existing corresponding conditions (RewriteCond directives). For historical reasons the conditions are given first, and so the control flow is a little bit long-winded. See Figure 1 for more details.

Figure 1: The control flow through the rewriting ruleset

As you can see, first the URL is matched against the Pattern of each rule. When it fails mod_rewrite immediately stops processing this rule and continues with the next rule. If the Pattern matches, mod_rewrite looks for corresponding rule conditions. If none are present, it just substitutes the URL with a new value which is constructed from the string Substitution and goes on with its rule-looping. But if conditions exist, it starts an inner loop for processing them in the order that they are listed. For conditions the logic is different: we don’t match a pattern against the current URL. Instead we first create a string TestString by expanding variables, back-references, map lookups, etc. and then we try to match CondPattern against it. If the pattern doesn’t match, the complete set of conditions and the corresponding rule fails. If the pattern matches, then the next condition is processed until no more conditions are available. If all conditions match, processing is continued with the substitution of the URL with Substitution.

Regex Back-Reference Availability

One important thing here has to be remembered: Whenever you use parentheses in Pattern or in one of the CondPattern, back-references are internally created which can be used with the strings $N and %N (see below). These are available for creating the strings Substitution and TestString. Figure 2 shows to which locations the back-references are transfered for expansion.

Figure 2: The back-reference flow through a rule

We know this was a crash course on mod_rewrite’s internal processing. But you will benefit from this knowledge when reading the following documentation of the available directives.


Syntax: RewriteEngine on|off
Default: RewriteEngine off
Context: server config, virtual host, directory, .htaccess
Override: FileInfo
Status: Extension
Module: mod_rewrite.c
Compatibility: Apache 1.2

The RewriteEngine directive enables or disables the runtime rewriting engine. If it is set to off this module does no runtime processing at all. It does not even update the SCRIPT_URx environment variables.

Use this directive to disable the module instead of commenting out all the RewriteRule directives!

Note that, by default, rewrite configurations are not inherited. This means that you need to have a RewriteEngine on directive for each virtual host in which you wish to use it.


Syntax: RewriteOptions Option
Default: None
Context: server config, virtual host, directory, .htaccess
Override: FileInfo
Status: Extension
Module: mod_rewrite.c
Compatibility: Apache 1.2

The RewriteOptions directive sets some special options for the current per-server or per-directory configuration. The Option strings can be one of the following:

  • inherit
    This forces the current configuration to inherit the configuration of the parent. In per-virtual-server context this means that the maps, conditions and rules of the main server are inherited. In per-directory context this means that conditions and rules of the parent directory’s .htaccess configuration are inherited.


Syntax: RewriteLog Filename
Default: None
Context: server config, virtual host
Override: Not applicable
Status: Extension
Module: mod_rewrite.c
Compatibility: Apache 1.2

The RewriteLog directive sets the name of the file to which the server logs any rewriting actions it performs. If the name does not begin with a slash (‘/‘) then it is assumed to be relative to the Server Root. The directive should occur only once per server config.

Note: To disable the logging of rewriting actions it is not recommended to set Filename to /dev/null, because although the rewriting engine does not then output to a logfile it still creates the logfile output internally. This will slow down the server with no advantage to the administrator! To disable logging either remove or comment out the RewriteLog directive or use RewriteLogLevel 0!
Security: See the Apache Security Tips document for details on why your security could be compromised if the directory where logfiles are stored is writable by anyone other than the user that starts the server.


RewriteLog "/usr/local/var/apache/logs/rewrite.log"


Syntax: RewriteLogLevel Level
Default: RewriteLogLevel 0
Context: server config, virtual host
Override: Not applicable
Status: Extension
Module: mod_rewrite.c
Compatibility: Apache 1.2

The RewriteLogLevel directive sets the verbosity level of the rewriting logfile. The default level 0 means no logging, while 9 or more means that practically all actions are logged.

To disable the logging of rewriting actions simply set Level to 0. This disables all rewrite action logs.

Notice: Using a high value for Level will slow down your Apache server dramatically! Use the rewriting logfile at a Level greater than 2 only for debugging!


RewriteLogLevel 3


Syntax: RewriteLock Filename
Default: None
Context: server config
Override: Not applicable
Status: Extension
Module: mod_rewrite.c
Compatibility: Apache 1.3

This directive sets the filename for a synchronization lockfile which mod_rewrite needs to communicate with RewriteMap programs. Set this lockfile to a local path (not on a NFS-mounted device) when you want to use a rewriting map-program. It is not required for other types of rewriting maps.


Syntax: RewriteMap MapName MapType:MapSource
Default: not used per default
Context: server config, virtual host
Override: Not applicable
Status: Extension
Module: mod_rewrite.c
Compatibility: Apache 1.2 (partially), Apache 1.3

The RewriteMap directive defines a Rewriting Map which can be used inside rule substitution strings by the mapping-functions to insert/substitute fields through a key lookup. The source of this lookup can be of various types.

The MapName is the name of the map and will be used to specify a mapping-function for the substitution strings of a rewriting rule via one of the following constructs:

${ MapName : LookupKey }
${ MapName : LookupKey | DefaultValue }

When such a construct occurs the map MapName is consulted and the key LookupKey is looked-up. If the key is found, the map-function construct is substituted by SubstValue. If the key is not found then it is substituted by DefaultValue or by the empty string if no DefaultValue was specified.

The following combinations for MapType and MapSource can be used:

  • Standard Plain Text
    MapType: txt, MapSource: Unix filesystem path to valid regular file

    This is the standard rewriting map feature where the MapSource is a plain ASCII file containing either blank lines, comment lines (starting with a ‘#’ character) or pairs like the following – one per line.

    MatchingKey SubstValue


    ##  map.txt -- rewriting map
    Ralf.S.Engelschall    rse   # Bastard Operator From Hell
    Mr.Joe.Average        joe   # Mr. Average
    RewriteMap real-to-user txt:/path/to/file/map.txt
  • Randomized Plain Text
    MapType: rnd, MapSource: Unix filesystem path to valid regular file

    This is identical to the Standard Plain Text variant above but with a special post-processing feature: After looking up a value it is parsed according to contained “|” characters which have the meaning of “or”. In other words they indicate a set of alternatives from which the actual returned value is chosen randomly. Although this sounds crazy and useless, it was actually designed for load balancing in a reverse proxy situation where the looked up values are server names. Example:

    ##  map.txt -- rewriting map
    static   www1|www2|www3|www4
    dynamic  www5|www6
    RewriteMap servers rnd:/path/to/file/map.txt
  • Hash File
    MapType: dbm, MapSource: Unix filesystem path to valid regular file

    Here the source is a binary NDBM format file containing the same contents as a Plain Text format file, but in a special representation which is optimized for really fast lookups. You can create such a file with any NDBM tool or with the following Perl script:

    ##  txt2dbm -- convert txt map to dbm format
    ($txtmap, $dbmmap) = @ARGV;
    open(TXT, "
Close Bitnami banner