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URL Rewriting Guide

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Originally written by
Ralf S. Engelschall <rse@apache.org>
December 1997

This document supplements the mod_rewrite reference documentation. It describes how one can use Apache's mod_rewrite to solve typical URL-based problems webmasters are usually confronted with in practice. I give detailed descriptions on how to solve each problem by configuring URL rewriting rulesets.


Introduction to mod_rewrite

The Apache module mod_rewrite is a killer one, i.e. it is a really sophisticated module which provides a powerful way to do URL manipulations. With it you can nearly do all types of URL manipulations you ever dreamed about. The price you have to pay is to accept complexity, because mod_rewrite's major drawback is that it is not easy to understand and use for the beginner. And even Apache experts sometimes discover new aspects where mod_rewrite can help.

In other words: With mod_rewrite you either shoot yourself in the foot the first time and never use it again or love it for the rest of your life because of its power. This paper tries to give you a few initial success events to avoid the first case by presenting already invented solutions to you.


Practical Solutions

Here come a lot of practical solutions I've either invented myself or collected from other peoples solutions in the past. Feel free to learn the black magic of URL rewriting from these examples.

ATTENTION: Depending on your server-configuration it can be necessary to slightly change the examples for your situation, e.g. adding the [PT] flag when additionally using mod_alias and mod_userdir, etc. Or rewriting a ruleset to fit in .htaccess context instead of per-server context. Always try to understand what a particular ruleset really does before you use it. It avoid problems.

URL Layout

Canonical URLs


On some webservers there are more than one URL for a resource. Usually there are canonical URLs (which should be actually used and distributed) and those which are just shortcuts, internal ones, etc. Independent of which URL the user supplied with the request he should finally see the canonical one only.


We do an external HTTP redirect for all non-canonical URLs to fix them in the location view of the Browser and for all subsequent requests. In the example ruleset below we replace /~user by the canonical /u/user and fix a missing trailing slash for /u/user.

RewriteRule   ^/~([^/]+)/?(.*)    /u/$1/$2  [R]
RewriteRule   ^/([uge])/([^/]+)$  /$1/$2/   [R]

Canonical Hostnames

RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST}   !^fully\.qualified\.domain\.name [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST}   !^$
RewriteCond %{SERVER_PORT} !^80$
RewriteRule ^/(.*)         http://fully.qualified.domain.name:%{SERVER_PORT}/$1 [L,R]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST}   !^fully\.qualified\.domain\.name [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST}   !^$
RewriteRule ^/(.*)         http://fully.qualified.domain.name/$1 [L,R]

Moved DocumentRoot


Usually the DocumentRoot of the webserver directly relates to the URL "/". But often this data is not really of top-level priority, it is perhaps just one entity of a lot of data pools. For instance at our Intranet sites there are /e/www/ (the homepage for WWW), /e/sww/ (the homepage for the Intranet) etc. Now because the data of the DocumentRoot stays at /e/www/ we had to make sure that all inlined images and other stuff inside this data pool work for subsequent requests.


We just redirect the URL / to /e/www/. While is seems trivial it is actually trivial with mod_rewrite, only. Because the typical old mechanisms of URL Aliases (as provides by mod_alias and friends) only used prefix matching. With this you cannot do such a redirection because the DocumentRoot is a prefix of all URLs. With mod_rewrite it is really trivial:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule   ^/$  /e/www/  [R]

Trailing Slash Problem


Every webmaster can sing a song about the problem of the trailing slash on URLs referencing directories. If they are missing, the server dumps an error, because if you say /~quux/foo instead of /~quux/foo/ then the server searches for a file named foo. And because this file is a directory it complains. Actually it tries to fix it itself in most of the cases, but sometimes this mechanism need to be emulated by you. For instance after you have done a lot of complicated URL rewritings to CGI scripts etc.


The solution to this subtle problem is to let the server add the trailing slash automatically. To do this correctly we have to use an external redirect, so the browser correctly requests subsequent images etc. If we only did a internal rewrite, this would only work for the directory page, but would go wrong when any images are included into this page with relative URLs, because the browser would request an in-lined object. For instance, a request for image.gif in /~quux/foo/index.html would become /~quux/image.gif without the external redirect!

So, to do this trick we write:

RewriteEngine  on
RewriteBase    /~quux/
RewriteRule    ^foo$  foo/  [R]

The crazy and lazy can even do the following in the top-level .htaccess file of their homedir. But notice that this creates some processing overhead.

RewriteEngine  on
RewriteBase    /~quux/
RewriteCond    %{REQUEST_FILENAME}  -d
RewriteRule    ^(.+[^/])$           $1/  [R]

Webcluster through Homogeneous URL Layout


We want to create a homogeneous and consistent URL layout over all WWW servers on a Intranet webcluster, i.e. all URLs (per definition server local and thus server dependent!) become actually server independent! What we want is to give the WWW namespace a consistent server-independent layout: no URL should have to include any physically correct target server. The cluster itself should drive us automatically to the physical target host.


First, the knowledge of the target servers come from (distributed) external maps which contain information where our users, groups and entities stay. The have the form

user1  server_of_user1
user2  server_of_user2
:      :

We put them into files map.xxx-to-host. Second we need to instruct all servers to redirect URLs of the forms




when the URL is not locally valid to a server. The following ruleset does this for us by the help of the map files (assuming that server0 is a default server which will be used if a user has no entry in the map):

RewriteEngine on

RewriteMap      user-to-host   txt:/path/to/map.user-to-host
RewriteMap     group-to-host   txt:/path/to/map.group-to-host
RewriteMap    entity-to-host   txt:/path/to/map.entity-to-host

RewriteRule   ^/u/([^/]+)/?(.*)   http://${user-to-host:$1|server0}/u/$1/$2
RewriteRule   ^/g/([^/]+)/?(.*)  http://${group-to-host:$1|server0}/g/$1/$2
RewriteRule   ^/e/([^/]+)/?(.*) http://${entity-to-host:$1|server0}/e/$1/$2

RewriteRule   ^/([uge])/([^/]+)/?$          /$1/$2/.www/
RewriteRule   ^/([uge])/([^/]+)/([^.]+.+)   /$1/$2/.www/$3\

Move Homedirs to Different Webserver


Many webmasters have asked for a solution to the following situation: They wanted to redirect just all homedirs on a webserver to another webserver. They usually need such things when establishing a newer webserver which will replace the old one over time.


The solution is trivial with mod_rewrite. On the old webserver we just redirect all /~user/anypath URLs to http://newserver/~user/anypath.

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule   ^/~(.+)  http://newserver/~$1  [R,L]

Structured Homedirs


Some sites with thousands of users usually use a structured homedir layout, i.e. each homedir is in a subdirectory which begins for instance with the first character of the username. So, /~foo/anypath is /home/f/foo/.www/anypath while /~bar/anypath is /home/b/bar/.www/anypath.


We use the following ruleset to expand the tilde URLs into exactly the above layout.

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule   ^/~(([a-z])[a-z0-9]+)(.*)  /home/$2/$1/.www$3

Filesystem Reorganization


This really is a hardcore example: a killer application which heavily uses per-directory RewriteRules to get a smooth look and feel on the Web while its data structure is never touched or adjusted. Background: net.sw is my archive of freely available Unix software packages, which I started to collect in 1992. It is both my hobby and job to to this, because while I'm studying computer science I have also worked for many years as a system and network administrator in my spare time. Every week I need some sort of software so I created a deep hierarchy of directories where I stored the packages:

drwxrwxr-x   2 netsw  users    512 Aug  3 18:39 Audio/
drwxrwxr-x   2 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 14:37 Benchmark/
drwxrwxr-x  12 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 00:34 Crypto/
drwxrwxr-x   5 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 00:41 Database/
drwxrwxr-x   4 netsw  users    512 Jul 30 19:25 Dicts/
drwxrwxr-x  10 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 01:54 Graphic/
drwxrwxr-x   5 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 01:58 Hackers/
drwxrwxr-x   8 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 03:19 InfoSys/
drwxrwxr-x   3 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 03:21 Math/
drwxrwxr-x   3 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 03:24 Misc/
drwxrwxr-x   9 netsw  users    512 Aug  1 16:33 Network/
drwxrwxr-x   2 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 05:53 Office/
drwxrwxr-x   7 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 09:24 SoftEng/
drwxrwxr-x   7 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 12:17 System/
drwxrwxr-x  12 netsw  users    512 Aug  3 20:15 Typesetting/
drwxrwxr-x  10 netsw  users    512 Jul  9 14:08 X11/

In July 1996 I decided to make this archive public to the world via a nice Web interface. "Nice" means that I wanted to offer an interface where you can browse directly through the archive hierarchy. And "nice" means that I didn't wanted to change anything inside this hierarchy - not even by putting some CGI scripts at the top of it. Why? Because the above structure should be later accessible via FTP as well, and I didn't want any Web or CGI stuff to be there.


The solution has two parts: The first is a set of CGI scripts which create all the pages at all directory levels on-the-fly. I put them under /e/netsw/.www/ as follows:

-rw-r--r--   1 netsw  users    1318 Aug  1 18:10 .wwwacl
drwxr-xr-x  18 netsw  users     512 Aug  5 15:51 DATA/
-rw-rw-rw-   1 netsw  users  372982 Aug  5 16:35 LOGFILE
-rw-r--r--   1 netsw  users     659 Aug  4 09:27 TODO
-rw-r--r--   1 netsw  users    5697 Aug  1 18:01 netsw-about.html
-rwxr-xr-x   1 netsw  users     579 Aug  2 10:33 netsw-access.pl
-rwxr-xr-x   1 netsw  users    1532 Aug  1 17:35 netsw-changes.cgi
-rwxr-xr-x   1 netsw  users    2866 Aug  5 14:49 netsw-home.cgi
drwxr-xr-x   2 netsw  users     512 Jul  8 23:47 netsw-img/
-rwxr-xr-x   1 netsw  users   24050 Aug  5 15:49 netsw-lsdir.cgi
-rwxr-xr-x   1 netsw  users    1589 Aug  3 18:43 netsw-search.cgi
-rwxr-xr-x   1 netsw  users    1885 Aug  1 17:41 netsw-tree.cgi
-rw-r--r--   1 netsw  users     234 Jul 30 16:35 netsw-unlimit.lst

The DATA/ subdirectory holds the above directory structure, i.e. the real net.sw stuff and gets automatically updated via rdist from time to time. The second part of the problem remains: how to link these two structures together into one smooth-looking URL tree? We want to hide the DATA/ directory from the user while running the appropriate CGI scripts for the various URLs. Here is the solution: first I put the following into the per-directory configuration file in the DocumentRoot of the server to rewrite the announced URL /net.sw/ to the internal path /e/netsw:

RewriteRule  ^net.sw$       net.sw/        [R]
RewriteRule  ^net.sw/(.*)$  e/netsw/$1

The first rule is for requests which miss the trailing slash! The second rule does the real thing. And then comes the killer configuration which stays in the per-directory config file /e/netsw/.www/.wwwacl:

Options       ExecCGI FollowSymLinks Includes MultiViews

RewriteEngine on

#  we are reached via /net.sw/ prefix
RewriteBase   /net.sw/

#  first we rewrite the root dir to
#  the handling cgi script
RewriteRule   ^$                       netsw-home.cgi     [L]
RewriteRule   ^index\.html$            netsw-home.cgi     [L]

#  strip out the subdirs when
#  the browser requests us from perdir pages
RewriteRule   ^.+/(netsw-[^/]+/.+)$    $1                 [L]

#  and now break the rewriting for local files
RewriteRule   ^netsw-home\.cgi.*       -                  [L]
RewriteRule   ^netsw-changes\.cgi.*    -                  [L]
RewriteRule   ^netsw-search\.cgi.*     -                  [L]
RewriteRule   ^netsw-tree\.cgi$        -                  [L]
RewriteRule   ^netsw-about\.html$      -                  [L]
RewriteRule   ^netsw-img/.*$           -                  [L]

#  anything else is a subdir which gets handled
#  by another cgi script
RewriteRule   !^netsw-lsdir\.cgi.*     -                  [C]
RewriteRule   (.*)                     netsw-lsdir.cgi/$1

Some hints for interpretation:

  1. Notice the L (last) flag and no substitution field ('-') in the forth part
  2. Notice the ! (not) character and the C (chain) flag at the first rule in the last part
  3. Notice the catch-all pattern in the last rule

NCSA imagemap to Apache mod_imap


When switching from the NCSA webserver to the more modern Apache webserver a lot of people want a smooth transition. So they want pages which use their old NCSA imagemap program to work under Apache with the modern mod_imap. The problem is that there are a lot of hyperlinks around which reference the imagemap program via /cgi-bin/imagemap/path/to/page.map. Under Apache this has to read just /path/to/page.map.


We use a global rule to remove the prefix on-the-fly for all requests:

RewriteEngine  on
RewriteRule    ^/cgi-bin/imagemap(.*)  $1  [PT]

Search pages in more than one directory


Sometimes it is necessary to let the webserver search for pages in more than one directory. Here MultiViews or other techniques cannot help.


We program a explicit ruleset which searches for the files in the directories.

RewriteEngine on

#   first try to find it in custom/...
#   ...and if found stop and be happy:
RewriteCond         /your/docroot/dir1/%{REQUEST_FILENAME}  -f
RewriteRule  ^(.+)  /your/docroot/dir1/$1  [L]

#   second try to find it in pub/...
#   ...and if found stop and be happy:
RewriteCond         /your/docroot/dir2/%{REQUEST_FILENAME}  -f
RewriteRule  ^(.+)  /your/docroot/dir2/$1  [L]

#   else go on for other Alias or ScriptAlias directives,
#   etc.
RewriteRule   ^(.+)  -  [PT]

Set Environment Variables According To URL Parts


Perhaps you want to keep status information between requests and use the URL to encode it. But you don't want to use a CGI wrapper for all pages just to strip out this information.


We use a rewrite rule to strip out the status information and remember it via an environment variable which can be later dereferenced from within XSSI or CGI. This way a URL /foo/S=java/bar/ gets translated to /foo/bar/ and the environment variable named STATUS is set to the value "java".

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule   ^(.*)/S=([^/]+)/(.*)    $1/$3 [E=STATUS:$2]

Virtual User Hosts


Assume that you want to provide www.username.host.domain.com for the homepage of username via just DNS A records to the same machine and without any virtualhosts on this machine.


For HTTP/1.0 requests there is no solution, but for HTTP/1.1 requests which contain a Host: HTTP header we can use the following ruleset to rewrite http://www.username.host.com/anypath internally to /home/username/anypath:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond   %{HTTP_HOST}                 ^www\.[^.]+\.host\.com$
RewriteRule   ^(.+)                        %{HTTP_HOST}$1          [C]
RewriteRule   ^www\.([^.]+)\.host\.com(.*) /home/$1$2

Redirect Homedirs For Foreigners


We want to redirect homedir URLs to another webserver www.somewhere.com when the requesting user does not stay in the local domain ourdomain.com. This is sometimes used in virtual host contexts.


Just a rewrite condition:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond   %{REMOTE_HOST}  !^.+\.ourdomain\.com$
RewriteRule   ^(/~.+)         http://www.somewhere.com/$1 [R,L]

Redirect Failing URLs To Other Webserver


A typical FAQ about URL rewriting is how to redirect failing requests on webserver A to webserver B. Usually this is done via ErrorDocument CGI-scripts in Perl, but there is also a mod_rewrite solution. But notice that this performs more poorly than using an ErrorDocument CGI-script!


The first solution has the best performance but less flexibility, and is less error safe:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond   /your/docroot/%{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteRule   ^(.+)                             http://webserverB.dom/$1

The problem here is that this will only work for pages inside the DocumentRoot. While you can add more Conditions (for instance to also handle homedirs, etc.) there is better variant:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond   %{REQUEST_URI} !-U
RewriteRule   ^(.+)          http://webserverB.dom/$1

This uses the URL look-ahead feature of mod_rewrite. The result is that this will work for all types of URLs and is a safe way. But it does a performance impact on the webserver, because for every request there is one more internal subrequest. So, if your webserver runs on a powerful CPU, use this one. If it is a slow machine, use the first approach or better a ErrorDocument CGI-script.

Extended Redirection


Sometimes we need more control (concerning the character escaping mechanism) of URLs on redirects. Usually the Apache kernels URL escape function also escapes anchors, i.e. URLs like "url#anchor". You cannot use this directly on redirects with mod_rewrite because the uri_escape() function of Apache would also escape the hash character. How can we redirect to such a URL?


We have to use a kludge by the use of a NPH-CGI script which does the redirect itself. Because here no escaping is done (NPH=non-parseable headers). First we introduce a new URL scheme xredirect: by the following per-server config-line (should be one of the last rewrite rules):

RewriteRule ^xredirect:(.+) /path/to/nph-xredirect.cgi/$1 \

This forces all URLs prefixed with xredirect: to be piped through the nph-xredirect.cgi program. And this program just looks like:

##  nph-xredirect.cgi -- NPH/CGI script for extended redirects
##  Copyright (c) 1997 Ralf S. Engelschall, All Rights Reserved.

$| = 1;
$url = $ENV{'PATH_INFO'};

print "HTTP/1.0 302 Moved Temporarily\n";
print "Server: $ENV{'SERVER_SOFTWARE'}\n";
print "Location: $url\n";
print "Content-type: text/html\n";
print "\n";
print "<html>\n";
print "<head>\n";
print "<title>302 Moved Temporarily (EXTENDED)</title>\n";
print "</head>\n";
print "<body>\n";
print "<h1>Moved Temporarily (EXTENDED)</h1>\n";
print "The document has moved <a HREF=\"$url\">here</a>.<p>\n";
print "</body>\n";
print "</html>\n";


This provides you with the functionality to do redirects to all URL schemes, i.e. including the one which are not directly accepted by mod_rewrite. For instance you can now also redirect to news:newsgroup via

RewriteRule ^anyurl  xredirect:news:newsgroup
Notice: You have not to put [R] or [R,L] to the above rule because the xredirect: need to be expanded later by our special "pipe through" rule above.

Archive Access Multiplexer


Do you know the great CPAN (Comprehensive Perl Archive Network) under http://www.perl.com/CPAN? This does a redirect to one of several FTP servers around the world which carry a CPAN mirror and is approximately near the location of the requesting client. Actually this can be called an FTP access multiplexing service. While CPAN runs via CGI scripts, how can a similar approach implemented via mod_rewrite?


First we notice that from version 3.0.0 mod_rewrite can also use the "ftp:" scheme on redirects. And second, the location approximation can be done by a RewriteMap over the top-level domain of the client. With a tricky chained ruleset we can use this top-level domain as a key to our multiplexing map.

RewriteEngine on
RewriteMap    multiplex                txt:/path/to/map.cxan
RewriteRule   ^/CxAN/(.*)              %{REMOTE_HOST}::$1                 [C]
RewriteRule   ^.+\.([a-zA-Z]+)::(.*)$  ${multiplex:$1|ftp.default.dom}$2  [R,L]
##  map.cxan -- Multiplexing Map for CxAN

de        ftp://ftp.cxan.de/CxAN/
uk        ftp://ftp.cxan.uk/CxAN/
com       ftp://ftp.cxan.com/CxAN/

Time-Dependent Rewriting


When tricks like time-dependent content should happen a lot of webmasters still use CGI scripts which do for instance redirects to specialized pages. How can it be done via mod_rewrite?


There are a lot of variables named TIME_xxx for rewrite conditions. In conjunction with the special lexicographic comparison patterns <STRING, >STRING and =STRING we can do time-dependent redirects:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond   %{TIME_HOUR}%{TIME_MIN} >0700
RewriteCond   %{TIME_HOUR}%{TIME_MIN} <1900
RewriteRule   ^foo\.html$             foo.day.html
RewriteRule   ^foo\.html$             foo.night.html

This provides the content of foo.day.html under the URL foo.html from 07:00-19:00 and at the remaining time the contents of foo.night.html. Just a nice feature for a homepage...

Backward Compatibility for YYYY to XXXX migration


How can we make URLs backward compatible (still existing virtually) after migrating document.YYYY to document.XXXX, e.g. after translating a bunch of .html files to .phtml?


We just rewrite the name to its basename and test for existence of the new extension. If it exists, we take that name, else we rewrite the URL to its original state.

#   backward compatibility ruleset for
#   rewriting document.html to document.phtml
#   when and only when document.phtml exists
#   but no longer document.html
RewriteEngine on
RewriteBase   /~quux/
#   parse out basename, but remember the fact
RewriteRule   ^(.*)\.html$              $1      [C,E=WasHTML:yes]
#   rewrite to document.phtml if exists
RewriteCond   %{REQUEST_FILENAME}.phtml -f
RewriteRule   ^(.*)$ $1.phtml                   [S=1]
#   else reverse the previous basename cutout
RewriteCond   %{ENV:WasHTML}            ^yes$
RewriteRule   ^(.*)$ $1.html

Content Handling

From Old to New (intern)


Assume we have recently renamed the page foo.html to bar.html and now want to provide the old URL for backward compatibility. Actually we want that users of the old URL even not recognize that the pages was renamed.


We rewrite the old URL to the new one internally via the following rule:

RewriteEngine  on
RewriteBase    /~quux/
RewriteRule    ^foo\.html$  bar.html

From Old to New (extern)


Assume again that we have recently renamed the page foo.html to bar.html and now want to provide the old URL for backward compatibility. But this time we want that the users of the old URL get hinted to the new one, i.e. their browsers Location field should change, too.


We force a HTTP redirect to the new URL which leads to a change of the browsers and thus the users view:

RewriteEngine  on
RewriteBase    /~quux/
RewriteRule    ^foo\.html$  bar.html  [R]

Browser Dependent Content


At least for important top-level pages it is sometimes necessary to provide the optimum of browser dependent content, i.e. one has to provide a maximum version for the latest Netscape variants, a minimum version for the Lynx browsers and a average feature version for all others.


We cannot use content negotiation because the browsers do not provide their type in that form. Instead we have to act on the HTTP header "User-Agent". The following condig does the following: If the HTTP header "User-Agent" begins with "Mozilla/3", the page foo.html is rewritten to foo.NS.html and and the rewriting stops. If the browser is "Lynx" or "Mozilla" of version 1 or 2 the URL becomes foo.20.html. All other browsers receive page foo.32.html. This is done by the following ruleset:

RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT}  ^Mozilla/3.*
RewriteRule ^foo\.html$         foo.NS.html          [L]

RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT}  ^Lynx/.*         [OR]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT}  ^Mozilla/[12].*
RewriteRule ^foo\.html$         foo.20.html          [L]

RewriteRule ^foo\.html$         foo.32.html          [L]

Dynamic Mirror


Assume there are nice webpages on remote hosts we want to bring into our namespace. For FTP servers we would use the mirror program which actually maintains an explicit up-to-date copy of the remote data on the local machine. For a webserver we could use the program webcopy which acts similar via HTTP. But both techniques have one major drawback: The local copy is always just as up-to-date as often we run the program. It would be much better if the mirror is not a static one we have to establish explicitly. Instead