Thinking Considered Harmful

The Technical Musings of Aaron Meriwether

Forcing HTTPS via mod_rewrite


Friday, February 17, 2012

A fairly typical question for Apache administration is how to force access to a certain set of resources to occur exclusively via HTTPS. This can be accomplished via browser-side JavaScript in a pinch, but the more canonical (and MitM-resistant) approach is to enforce this from the server side. Fortunately, this is fairly simple to accomplish using mod_rewrite rules in httpd.conf or an .htaccess file. For example, the below .htaccess file can be dropped into a directory, and assuming mod_ssl, mod_rewrite, and .htaccess files are all properly enabled, all requests for resources in this directory or its subdirectories will be forcibly redirected to the HTTPS version of the URL.

RewriteEngine On

# redirect HTTP connections to HTTPS based on internal mod_ssl state
RewriteCond %{HTTPS} !=on
RewriteRule .? https://%{HTTP_HOST}%{REQUEST_URI} [R=301,L]

This doesn’t quite work in some more complex situations though. For example, in a configuration where the SSL layer is handled by a reverse-proxy/load-balancer like an F5 Big-IP, the built-in Apache HTTPS mechanism is useless because all connections arrive at the Apache box as HTTP. In this case, the HTTPS forcing could be accomplished with a rule on the proxy itself, but this can be complex to maintain since it places the configuration further from the data in question. Alternately, if the proxy has an option to enable the X-Forwarded-Proto header, you can still do the redirect at the Apache layer using an .htaccess file like this:

RewriteEngine On

# redirect HTTP connections to HTTPS based on external proxy headers
RewriteCond %{HTTP:X-Forwarded-Proto} =http
RewriteRule .? https://%{HTTP_HOST}%{REQUEST_URI} [R=301,L]

Keep in mind that this configuration assumes the X-Forwarded-Proto header is trustworthy. This can be true if the proxy in question is the only means to access the Apache server from the Internet and if it overwrites any Internet-supplied content in this header, but if other direct access is possible or if the proxy passes existing values through, the header may be untrustworthy and susceptible to MitM attacks.

Also of note is the fact that the above examples do not rely on the assumption that all accesses to the same resource will occur via the same domain name. In other words, because of the use of the HTTP_HOST and REQUEST_URI variable, the redirect will mirror whatever domain name was used in the initial request rather than imposing a hard-coded domain name as seen in some other examples.

Further, in some configurations, various other rewrite rules may have been applied to the request before the HTTPS-forcing rule is encountered. In such cases, the gory details of the rewritten URL may not be something you want sent back to the user’s browser. So the thing to do would be to issue the redirect based on the original requested URL + query string, not the already-rewritten URL + query string. Since the REQUEST_URI variable available within Apache contains the rewritten URI minus the query string, we need to choose a different variable. Confusingly, an environment variable of the same name is provided to CGI scripts containing the value we are actually looking for (the original pre-rewrite request including original query string), but that value is not available to mod_rewrite rules.

In researching how this variable is set by Apache for CGIs, I found this piece of code in the Apache source:

AP_DECLARE(void) ap_add_cgi_vars(request_rec *r)
    apr_table_t *e = r->subprocess_env;

    apr_table_setn(e, "GATEWAY_INTERFACE", "CGI/1.1");
    apr_table_setn(e, "SERVER_PROTOCOL", r->protocol);
    apr_table_setn(e, "REQUEST_METHOD", r->method);
    apr_table_setn(e, "QUERY_STRING", r->args ? r->args : "");
    apr_table_setn(e, "REQUEST_URI", original_uri(r));

So the CGI environment variable called REQUEST_URI is set by a function called original_uri. Well, that sounded like what I wanted, so I located that function:

/* Obtain the Request-URI from the original request-line, returning
 * a new string from the request pool containing the URI or "".
static char *original_uri(request_rec *r)
    char *first, *last;

    if (r->the_request == NULL) {
        return (char *) apr_pcalloc(r->pool, 1);

    first = r->the_request;     /* use the request-line */

    while (*first && !apr_isspace(*first)) {
        ++first;                /* skip over the method */
    while (apr_isspace(*first)) {
        ++first;                /*   and the space(s)   */

    last = first;
    while (*last && !apr_isspace(*last)) {
        ++last;                 /* end at next whitespace */

    return apr_pstrmemdup(r->pool, first, last - first);

From this I discovered that even the Apache source itself does not have a useful pre-computed value for what I was looking for. Instead, the value is derived programmatically from the the_request value (e.g. GET /cgi-bin/ HTTP/1.1), which it just so happens is available to mod_rewrite as %{THE_REQUEST}. And the parsing logic is fairly simple - simple enough that the regex engine in mod_rewrite can be employed to perform the same steps.

Finally, we need to consider two possible cases: the original request may have a query string included, or it may have no query string. If a query string is present and we place this original request value into a RewriteRule as-is, it will override any other previously rewritten query string (remember, we are trying to get back to the original as-requested URL to change just the protocol portion of it), but if a query string is absent from the original request, the RewriteRule will try to carry over the existing rewritten query string. To suppress this, we need to include the ? in the RewriteRule in all cases, so we need to parse the original request into its two possible halves - the base request, and the query string, if any - and then re-assemble them in the RewriteRule while including a ? in all cases so as to force overwriting of any previous query string.

And here is the final masterpiece:

RewriteEngine On

RewriteCond %{HTTP:X-Forwarded-Proto} =http
RewriteCond %{THE_REQUEST} ^\S*\s*(.*?)(\?(.*?))?(\s|$)
RewriteRule .? https://%{HTTP_HOST}%1?%3 [R=301,L]