Goodbye lighttpd; hello nginx

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It took me a while (collectively ~8 hours), but I’ve finally replaced lighttpd with nginx on this server!

nginx is already using vastly fewer resources than lighttpd ever did on its best day. I’m happy about that considering the limited resources this server has (MemTotal: 1008568 kB). I’m also pleased with the way nginx handles basic things in a zero downtime manner, e.g. reloading configuration files. I hated that I always had to completely kill lighttpd and restart it just to reload the configuration file for a minor change. nginx reloads the configuration file transactionally and will rollback if issues are found. That alone is worth switching for if you’re on the fence.

Getting nginx to match my existing lighttpd configuration was a bit of a challenge but I got it all sorted out in the end. Some issues I faced were in getting PHP requests through to php-fpm. Those issues were mostly due to nginx‘s quirky root and alias directive behavior, especially regarding the request handling cycle and nested location tags and all the internal redirections and regexes required. (I HATE regexes.)

I settled on a very simple albeit repetitive configuration. There’s no global root directive. All the main location directives are independent of one another, which works best for my setup since I have WordPress as the root / with other sites “grafted” on from there. The PHP-specific location directives are copy/pasted and nested into each main location directive as needed.

The trickiest part was getting PHP requests with PATH_INFO (e.g. /index.php/2013/05/article-name) to work. I found the default example in the nginx documentation for fastcgi_split_path_info and it works great.

For those who are curious and just want to see the nginx.conf details, here you are!

server {
    listen       64.85.164.128:80;
    server_name  bittwiddlers.org;

    location / {
        root   /var/www-bittwiddlers/wordpress;
        index  index.php;

        location ~ ^.+\.php {
            try_files $uri /index.php;

            fastcgi_split_path_info ^(.+\.php)(/?.+)$;
            fastcgi_pass   unix:/tmp/php5-fpm.sock;
            fastcgi_index  index.php;
            include        fastcgi_params;
            fastcgi_param  SCRIPT_FILENAME $document_root$fastcgi_script_name;
        }
    }
}

There are a few other main location directives, but they’re irrelevant to the WordPress setup so I’ve omitted them here.

My fastcgi_params file is almost exactly the default file that comes with nginx, except the SCRIPT_FILENAME line is commented out. I’ve found that the best way is to specify this param per each location directive. $document_root does not work when you only have an alias directive and no root directive. It will only have a value if a root directive exists.

For my configuration I’ve abandoned aliases entirely because of the PHP configuration issues they caused. This is most unfortunate because it should just be a simple thing to set up, but it is not.

Another minor issue that bit me was configuring HTTP Basic Authentication. lighttpd and nginx handle this differently regarding the passwd files that store the username/passwords. nginx is a little more obsecure* (conjunction of obscure and secure, implying security via obscurity) than lighttpd in that it requires that passwords in the htpasswd file are “encrypted” so you have to use the htpasswd tool to create those entries. lighttpd is a little more lax in that it doesn’t care at all.

What also irked me is that nginx has no equivalent to lighttpd‘s "require" => "user=username" feature. I was using that feature in lighttpd to “secure” some parts of the site down to specific users while using one common htpasswd file. For nginx I had to separate the htpasswd file into multiple files, one for each section. This was a little annoying but not really a big deal.

What am I doing “securing” things with HTTP Basic Auth, you ask? I’m taking the most primitive security measures to protect access to those things which deserve only such primitive security measures. In other words, the measure is consistent with the value I place on the secured data. :)